Hollin Hills homes in Alexandria expose a different view

By Nancy McKeon
Special to the Washington Post
Saturday, April 17, 2010; E01

In a neighborhood of homes set at unusual angles to the road, the better to capture light and preserve privacy, the entrance to the mid-century modern home of Bruce Smith and Melinda Zeder is a bit off-kilter as well.

You enter the home sort of sideways, at one end of the living room, near the large, brick fireplace and chimney. You have to turn to see the entire room, so you might not be aware that there's no foyer to ease a visitor into the living space.

But as you stand there, you do notice a few things. The first is that you might as well still be outside: Walls of windows virtually bring the sun and trees into the room. Second is the large oil-on-linen painting by Ron Schwerin on the far wall of the living room. Called "The Fan," it features an apparently overheated young woman slouching languorously in front of a portable fan, stretching her bare legs toward a window. The hiked-up skirt of the woman in the painting is about the only hint of disorder in this serene and orderly setting.

What you might notice next is that the public rooms of the single-level residence pinwheel out from the compact but well-appointed kitchen in the center. Each room reveals a hint of itself but remains a distinct space.

"We like the house because there's no wasted space," says Smith, an archaeologist with the Smithsonian Institution who studies the domestication of plants across the Americas. Zeder, a Smithsonian archaeologist specializing in the domestication of animals in the Middle East, chimes in, "There are no unused rooms."

The home's compactness is obvious from the kitchen. Stand at the stainless-steel range, and you can see your guests in the living room to the right or in the dining room to the left. Immediately behind you is the hallway that leads to the home's bedrooms and baths. As befits those private spaces, a frosted-glass door can close them off from the entertaining area.

What you won't see from the kitchen or anywhere else in the house -- at least without trying -- are any of the other approximately 450 houses that make up the award-winning Hollin Hills community in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County. When developer Robert Davenport and architect Charles Goodman began to collaborate on Hollin Hills in the late 1940s (the first residents moved there in 1950), they positioned the buildings so that no house looked directly into the other -- a big consideration for houses with floor-to-ceiling glass walls. Also, houses don't front the road unless they are above or below street level.

Davenport and Goodman "read" the land they were developing, keeping natural swales, hills and trees and routing roads around them. At that time, housing developers would generally buy a parcel of land, and strip and level it to fit more houses per acre and make construction easier. Hollin Hills houses, by contrast, sit above and below the curving roads, often at an angle that seems to make no sense except, one learns upon study, that the angle provides maximum exposure to sun and minimum prying from neighbors' eyes. As a bonus, the layout makes modest-size lots seem larger by "borrowing" each neighbor's landscape vistas.

The Smith-Zeder house was built in 1952 as a three-bedroom, one-bath, 1,600-square-foot oblong box of glass and wood siding -- plus a massive brick chimney wall -- with a "butterfly" roof (creased in the center, flaring up and out to the sides) on a concrete slab that sits 32 steps above the parking space cut-out below. (Scorn for garages is another Hollin Hills idiosyncrasy, although carports are tolerated.)

The size was modest, but Hollin Hills was developed to attract young urban professionals who were living in apartments. One might even say that the cerebral style of architecture -- nothing curvy or quaint or harking back to a romantic place or period -- was designed to attract the brainy sort: A survey done in 1956 showed that 16.9 percent of the male residents were lawyers, 14.5 percent were economists and 8.1 percent were writers or journalists. (Women were not asked about their professions in the survey.)

Two of the houses in the Smith-Zeder corner of the development were recently sold to married architects, people presumably eager to join the "movement" preserve the modernity that stands in such contrast to the region's more popular center-hall colonials.

Changes made to Smith-Zeder's original "No. 2 (Butterfly)" house reflect trends in the American home. In the 1960s, the previous owners, Smith and Zeder explain, bumped out a wall to one side of the kitchen to create a real dining room and expand the master bedroom, adding a small master bath. In keeping with the spirit of the place -- and in concert with Hollin Hills's Architectural Review Board -- the dining room has a wall of south-facing windows and sliding doors and now houses Smith and Zeder's dinner table and chairs by German designer Peter Maly.

For their part, Smith and Zeder bumped out a wall on the north side of the house a few years ago (with used bricks to match the original chimney), adding a bath and extending two small bedrooms, which now serve as home office/guest rooms for the four grown children Smith and Zeder have between them from previous marriages.

An even more telling measure of Americans' continuing lust for space is this: The small master bath added by the previous owners is now a walk-in closet, and not a big one. The current master bath is much larger, boasting a Japanese-style soaking tub in addition to an open shower. Tiles for this and the added bathroom were purchased locally, but the couple shopped online for fittings and fixtures: the soaking tub is from New Zealand, shoji screens from British Columbia, faucets from Germany.

"This is the house that Google built," Zeder says with a smile.

Furnishings, Zeder points out, are a mix between designer and Ikea. Several rooms sport ranks of tall, free-standing wardrobes with frosted-glass doors from the Swedish furniture retailer.

If the house seems light on "stuff," it's partly because "we started with very little," Zeder says. But it's also true that all those glass walls and open space don't respond kindly to clutter. In fact, driving around Hollin Hills, one can see into houses where possessions have quite clearly taken over -- cords from electronics snaking their way across swaths of window are particularly unattractive. But there are many others where the homeowners seem to serve as curators to a spare, modernist vision, arranging tableaux of mid-century modern furniture for the admiration of passersby.

The clutter could be a byproduct of another fact of Hollin Hills life: a lack of storage space in the original houses. The previous owners of the Smith-Zeder house added a basement under the bumped-out dining room and attempted to add storage in the dining room itself. But the current owners turned the holes in the wall into striking display niches. They then commissioned sculptor Carol Gellner Levin, an artist-in-residence at Alexandria's Torpedo Factory studios, to create three mythical terra cotta animals, inspired by Zeder's area of study, one for each niche. A fourth wall indentation holds six small animal masks.

The dining room niches, and angled cutouts in a wall between the kitchen and the living room, add a contemporary touch to the home's mid-century plan without harming its essence. Such stylish touches were not found in the Davenport-Goodman playbook -- but they work.

Even with both additions, the Smith-Zeder house is still on the small side, statistically speaking. It's about 2,200 square feet, compared with the 2,343 square feet of the average American home under construction in 2008.

Zeder is a first-time Hollin Hills resident, but Smith is a longtime enthusiast. This is his third Hollin Hills house. In 1979, he bought a standard shallow-peak house for $90,000 and later owned one of the rare two-level flat-roof atrium-style places, before buying the current house in 2001.

In 1951, Life magazine cited Hollin Hills for having some of the best houses in the country under $15,000 -- mass-produced and low in price. The low price meant single-pane windows in metal frames, a common renovation target for comfort as well as energy efficiency, plus asphalt-tile floors. (The Smith-Zeder house now has clear maple flooring.)

A lot of those things have changed as homeowners have upgraded their properties. And certainly the prices have changed. A home relatively untouched by its 94-year-old original owner was sold recently for $440,000, Smith says, but renovated places can fetch several hundred thousand more.

What hasn't changed are the trees, the relative privacy of the houses and the fact that, from above, one doesn't see a Levittown-style lineup of little houses but a winding, climbing treescape that happens to shelter an entire living, breathing, modernism-obsessed community.

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