A Piece of Annandale's Plotline

The Oak Hill mansion in Annandale was built around 1790 by Major Henry Fitzhugh, the son of William H. Fitzhugh, a British pioneer who owned one of the largest tobacco plantations in Virginia.
The Oak Hill mansion in Annandale was built around 1790 by Major Henry Fitzhugh, the son of William H. Fitzhugh, a British pioneer who owned one of the largest tobacco plantations in Virginia. (Courtesy Of Coldwell Banker)

By Sandra Fleishman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 1, 2006

Two houses now on the market in Annandale seem to share a storied past, with connections to George Washington; Robert E. Lee; and William H. Fitzhugh, an Englishman who turned 24,000 acres of wilderness into one of the largest tobacco plantations in Virginia.

The properties aren't officially linked by local or national historians. But the owner of the smaller house, Claudia Moose, a magazine writer, is convinced of the ties. She thinks the oldest portion of her red clapboard house, high on a hill at the corner of Old Well Road and Queen Elizabeth Boulevard, was home to slaves owned by the Fitzhugh family or to the slaves' overseers.

Moose, who has researched land records and spoken with former owners, said county records dating her house to 1925 probably reflect when it got public utilities and not its likely earlier use as an outbuilding for either the bigger house or a sister mansion, both built in the 1700s.

"Nobody really knows what this house was for," Moose said, but it still has an old well, later upgraded with an electric pump, in the basement. And she says a line of pine trees starting just outside her back door marks the old driveway that used to connect her home to the entrance of the mansion that's also for sale. (The well in her basement, she said, is not the well of Old Well Road. Developers in the 1960s named it after the Old Well at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

There is no doubt about the heritage of the bigger house, Oak Hill, built in about 1790 by the Fitzhugh family.

The history of Oak Hill, the late-Georgian-style house at 4716 Wakefield Chapel Rd., has been well documented. The house was one of three mansions built during the 18th century on Fitzhugh's enormous Ravensworth estate, named for a family estate in England. The tract was the largest single landholding in the history of what would become Fairfax County in 1792. It stretched from Fairfax City to Springfield and Falls Church, and south to Pohick Church, according to the Historical Society of Fairfax County.

In 1830, the area was named "Anandale" by a Scottish settler after a Scottish village at the mouth of the Anan River. (The additional "N" evolved later.)

Oak Hill is the only one of the three grand buildings from the Fitzhugh estate to have survived. Ravensworth mansion, located just southeast of what's now the intersection of Braddock Road and the Capital Beltway, was built in 1796 by Fitzhugh's oldest son, William Jr. It passed through marriage to the family of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and fell into disrepair after being vacated by the last owner, Col. Robert E. Lee III. It burned down in 1925, according to county research and a detailed account by local historian Audrey B. Capone.

The Ravensworth Shopping Center at Port Royal and Braddock roads now stands on that site.

Moose says her house could have been an outbuilding for Ravensworth or Oak Hill. It sits between the two "and has beautiful old boxwoods, like the ones at Oak Hill," she said.

Ossian Hall, the third mansion, was constructed around 1790 by a Fitzhugh grandson, but was burned to the ground in 1959 by the Annandale fire department "to make way for the Bristow subdivision," according to Capone's research. The stately Colonial house faced Braddock Road, but had a private tree-lined entrance on what is now Ravensworth Road.

Oak Hill was likely the oldest of the mansions, built by Major Henry Fitzhugh, another of William's sons, for Lund Washington, his land agent, according to records. Lund was a cousin of George Washington. Washington met the Fitzhugh family when, as a young surveyor, he made a map of the Ravensworth estate.

In 2004, Fairfax County supervisors agreed to pay a builder $730,000 not to tear down Oak Hill and develop its 2.6 acres. The agreement with Seville Homes LLC of Annandale, which protected the house and its centuries-old boxwoods, was the county's first easement to preserve property.

Oak Hill was added that year to the Virginia Landmark Registry and the National Register of Historic Places.

Seville Homes' owner Steve Korfonta is now trying to sell the 5,000-square-foot mansion for $2.375 million, after restoring the house "inside and out," he said. "We also spent a good amount of time, money and effort in maintaining and restoring the boxwoods and larger trees around it, because for years they were never correctly pruned or maintained," he said.

A county official says the resale is not controversial. "The whole idea was that it would be for sale and that it would quote unquote go back on the tax rolls," after the easement was put in place, said Linda Cornish Blank, county historic preservation planner.

Blank said she is not familiar with Moose's house. "It's not listed on our inventory of historic sites. . . . But as you can imagine, there are things that pop up that are not listed," she said.

Moose and her husband, James, a World Bank economist, say they believe the house they bought in 1986 is part of the Fitzhugh-Lee legacy. She has written a history of the house and the Ravensworth estate based on land records and communications with former owners and their relatives. The structure started out as two rooms upstairs and three small rooms downstairs, but a series of additions have been made over the years. It now has five bedrooms, 3 1/2 baths, a carriage house and a pool, and is listed at $859,000.

According to Moose, one of the key past owners was a relative of the Lees by marriage, a doctor named Richard deButts. He bought the property in 1940 "when it was a rural site of 22 acres," Moose writes in her house history. "He and his wife Helen raised cows, goats, horses, victory gardens and three boys here."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company