Oak Hill Rises From The Ashes of Foreclosure

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 24, 2008

Hidden behind an enclave of 1970s-era colonials, split-levels and ranches at the end of an oyster-shell driveway lined with ancient, 20-foot boxwoods, the Oak Hill manor house in Annandale has fallen into disrepair.

Vacant for four years, struck sporadically by vandals and finally sold in foreclosure last month on Fairfax County's courthouse steps, Oak Hill's fate has proved that not even a 220-year-old historic gem is immune from the real estate market's downturn.

But unlike many properties touched by the rash of foreclosures spread across the nation this year, Oak Hill's fortunes might be turning. New owners moved into the stately, columned home on Wakefield Chapel Road last month.

For the first time this season, portions of the 2.6-acre parcel have been mowed. Ivy is being pulled off chimneys. The dramatic circular drive's shells have crunched under a stream of repair crews' trucks. And the creepers are slowly being untangled from dozens of mature azaleas, boxwoods, chestnuts and other flora that flank Oak Hill's brick paths, whitewashed walls, green lawns and wood fences.

"When we heard the house had been sold, we were just thrilled," said Janyce Hedetniemi, president of the Oak Hill Citizens Association. "It's kind of like our signature for our community."

Oak Hill is the oldest manor home (and the only survivor) of three houses built in the late 1790s by the wealthy, tobacco-growing Fitzhugh family. The Fitzhughs' 25,000-acre holding was known as the Ravensworth tract, the northern end of which encompassed all of what is now Annandale.

With a red, metal roof, a white-painted exterior and a south portico reminiscent of Mount Vernon's, Oak Hill began as a classic four-room plantation house, with two rooms on the first level and two on the second. It was expanded in the 1930s and again in the '70s to a total of 5,000 square feet, including a third floor, kitchen, guest quarters and garage. Its dining room reveals bare plaster and wood beams in the walls, as well as an unusual floor-to-ceiling bay window. Its foyer is graced by a library's arched doorway that was taken from the Riggs mansion in the District. Its boxwoods are so ancient and massive that they seem to form tunnels along the paths and drives.

Those details, and a general love of history, drew David and Amanda Scheetz to Oak Hill. David Scheetz, a structural engineer, noticed the house about 18 months ago when he was driving their daughter to dance practice at nearby Northern Virginia Community College. The Scheetzes had lived for 16 years in a suburban home in Springfield.

"He said, 'I saw this great house for $2.3 million,' " Amanda Scheetz, a stringed instrument teacher in the Fairfax public schools, said with a laugh during a tour of her new home, where boxes and stacks of paintings showed how recently they had moved in. "And I said, 'Oh, that's nice.' "

But when the price dropped below $2 million, and the property entered foreclosure, the Scheetzes realized they might be able to pull off the purchase. Ultimately, they bought Oak Hill for $1.15 million, a relative bargain, compared with the $1.75 million paid by the previous owner in 2004.

"David said, 'I really want to live in a historic home,' " Amanda Scheetz said. "And two hours after we had signed the papers, he was over here putting his collection of history books in the bookshelves."

The Scheetzes knew they were embarking on a potentially lifelong renovation project. Mechanical systems needed attention. Exterior paint was peeling. A tarp-covered swimming pool hadn't been used or cleaned in years. Grass had grown so high that the Scheetzes haven't cut it all, having broken two mowers and realizing they must buy a riding mower to do the job.

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