Hollin Hills, Coming of Age

A Hollin Hills residence designed by architect Charles M. Goodman.
A Hollin Hills residence designed by architect Charles M. Goodman. (1994 Photo By Michael Robson)
By Jeff Turrentine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 12, 2005

Hollin Hills, the post-World War II housing development in Fairfax County that stands as one of the area's few enclaves of mid-century modern architecture, is formally applying for recognition by the National Register of Historic Places.

In doing so, it joins a handful of other mid-century developments across the country whose once-revolutionary designs are now at least 50 years old, a general condition for entry into the National Register.

Several scattered mid-century clusters in Montgomery County have already been added to the noted list of American cultural resources, which is administered by the National Park Service and seeks to protect historically significant buildings, neighborhoods and other sites deemed worthy of preservation.

What each of these area housing developments has in common is the imprint of a single, and singular, Washington architect. From the late 1940s until the early '70s, Charles M. Goodman did his best to bring domestic modernism to a region that preferred its contemporary architecture contained to downtown office buildings -- away from the center-hall Colonials, Tudors, Cape Cods and ramblers that have long defined the area's residential offerings.

Hollin Hills, which Goodman designed from 1949 to 1971 on 240 heavily wooded acres just four miles south of Old Town Alexandria, comprises more than 450 homes that are stylistically aligned with the ideas of such architects as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra, expatriated Europeans who were at the forefront of American modernism in the decades bracketing the Second World War. The homes they created -- typically low-slung affairs marked by stark lines, open plans and the liberal use of glass -- abandoned historical templates in favor of a sleek, streamlined, forward-looking architecture.

When first available in 1949, a Hollin Hills residence cost about $10,000. In the current housing market, the average sale price for one of Goodman's modestly-scaled designs is easily 50 times that amount.

Last week, a standing-room-only crowd filled the Georgetown branch of Design Within Reach, the modern furnishings retailer, to hear a panel of experts -- all of whom happen to live in Hollin Hills -- discuss Goodman's legacy, the neighborhood's architectural significance and the push for inclusion in the National Register. Attendees were also invited to make a contribution to help the Civic Association of Hollin Hills amass the approximately $35,000 it estimates it will need to complete its application.

Dennis Carmichael, a Hollin Hills resident since 1988, is a principal at the Alexandria office of EDAW, the landscape architecture firm, and in October will assume the presidency of the American Society of Landscape Architects. He says that Hollin Hills is the rare American subdivision, new or old, that has made a genuine attempt to integrate its houses into nature.

"It's a unique experiment in the fusion of architecture and landscape architecture," says Carmichael. "Quite often, landscape is very much a forgotten element, or at least a subsidiary element. In historic districts like Georgetown or Annapolis, yes, there's landscape, but you don't even think about it. In this case, landscape was very much a form-giver, an iconic part of the whole place."

At Design Within Reach, Carmichael illustrated his point with a photograph, projected onto the store's wall, that showed one of Goodman's designs -- a small-scale but striking residence, almost completely concealed by a dense thicket of trees and plantings -- next door to a sprawling neo-traditional home with McMansionesque ambitions, just over the Hollin Hills line.

"What you're seeing is a different response to nature," Carmichael told the audience. "The [Hollin Hills] house on the left is within the landscape; the house on the right is on the landscape. You see zero lawn on the left, you see ubiquitous lawn on the right. That's not to say that Hollin Hills houses don't have lawns. But the lawn is presented as a purposeful piece of the landscape, not just everything that's left over."

John A. Burns, an architect who moved to Hollin Hills with his wife in 1984, described how "simple geometric forms, planar surfaces, lack of ornament and those glorious, incredible windows" distinguish Hollin Hills from other postwar Washington-area subdivisions, and thus merit special recognition. He also echoed Carmichael's belief that Hollin Hills, its forceful modern architecture notwithstanding, was still ultimately a statement about the need for homes to blend in with their natural surroundings.

"Hollin Hills is a community of homes nestled into the landscape," he said.

The Hollin Hills Home and Garden Tour will take place this Saturday, May 14. Nine homes and five gardens will make up the tour, which will begin at 10 A.M. Tickets are $15, and proceeds will go toward the neighborhood's National Register of Historic Places nomination project. For ordering information, or to learn more about Hollin Hills, visit http://www.hollinhills.org .

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