Where We Live

A Front Row Seat to History

"I knew we were in a different place," Ron Chong says, of when he saw Wessynton. The neighborhood's 156 homes, built in the late 1960s, have a contemporary feel, but history is never far away. Many of the street names are tied to local history. (By Ann Cameron Siegal For The Washington Post)

By Ann Cameron Siegal
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, November 11, 2006

Who would have expected contemporary glass-walled houses in a parklike setting just 800 yards from George Washington's Mount Vernon estate?

Six years ago, Ron Chong and his wife, both with fresh doctoral degrees in hand and a 3-year-old daughter in tow, made a turn off Mount Vernon Highway and into the Wessynton community. "The minute we turned onto Cunningham Drive, I knew we were in a different place," Chong said.

"The ambiance, the trees, being close to the [George Washington] Parkway, practically living on the Potomac, the astonishing amenities," he said, rattling off the things they still love about Wessynton, eight miles south of Old Town Alexandria.

Residents tend to commute to Alexandria or the District along the Parkway. Milt Kabler, retired from the Naval Research Lab, said the scenic drive home was always his "decompression time."

Within Wessynton, the decompression continues. In addition to the natural setting, with underground utilities and no street lights, there are a private community pool, two tennis courts, a basketball court and a private boat ramp. Small vessels can set out upstream to explore the meandering waters of Little Hunting Creek or head downstream a little more than 300 yards to the Potomac River.

Wood ducks, kingfishers, eagles and beavers are sighted frequently. A red-winged blackbird rookery hugs one of the community's two canals. When Karen Liesemer was recovering from surgery recently, her goal was to walk to the dock on crutches. "If you sit there long enough, you see all kinds of wildlife."

Of Wessynton's 156 homes, 23 back to water; those form the marine association, a subgroup within the neighborhood's broader homeowners association. These residents are charged with maintaining the navigability of the canals and recently divided up the cost to rebuild the bulkheads. "We don't get a lot of silt," said Jeff Smith, a retired general who is president of the marine association. The tidal waters wash the canals out. "It's a fortunate situation and does much of the work for us," he said.

The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, the group that owns Washington's home, had a say in the original layout of the community. Houses were sited at different angles and on different elevations to take advantage of existing trees, ravines and water views.

Street names have ties to local history. For example, Anne Tucker Lane was named for Anne Maria Washington Tucker, one of the last children born at Mount Vernon. Cunningham Drive is named for Ann Cunningham, the founder of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. Edward Gibbs Place is named for the Quaker who owned the original farmhouse on the property. Doeg Indian Court refers to the Native American tribe, once known as the Tauxenent, who settled in Virginia in the 1600s.

Wessynton is maintained by volunteers, with 20 percent of residents serving on various committees. There are seven or eight social events a year, including holiday parties for children, adult dinners at Mount Vernon, and an annual community open house and garden tour just for residents.

Chris Pryately, whose background is in environmental engineering, heads the grounds committee. She discovered Wessynton by accident 15 years ago when her daughter fell asleep in the car. "I wasn't going to wake a sleeping baby," she said, so she drove up and down local streets. Pryately and her husband love to kayak, so the community was a natural fit.

The community emphasizes designing with nature and protecting the waters, she said, noting that "the pathway to the water is very short." Mowing lawns high and minimizing the use of chemicals help with that.

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