Hollin Hills, the remarkable post-World War II housing development south of Alexandria, has aged well, but it most definitely has aged. It is not simply the eerie absence of children in a community beautifully designed for them. It is also the very look and feel of the place. Hollin Hills is like a page from Look magazine, circa 1950.
Residents are used to it, of course, but an outsider making the turn from Fort Hunt Road crosses a time zone into the '50s: The architectural style--we called them "glass houses" back then--is as dated as a four-hole Buick Roadmaster. Hollin Hills is what we wanted to become but didn't, the future that is now the past.
"The people have matured, like the trees," says Robert Davenport, the builder who got it all started by buying the wooded 225-acre tract at an auction in the Fairfax County courthouse in 1946. Davenport hired architect Charles Goodman to devise a plan for the rugged terrain.
"It was the sort of land every builder would turn down," Goodman recalls, "but I felt it would make for ideal country living for urban people, and Bob Davenport did, too."
This was the dream, and for many of the intensely loyal original settlers, it has been the reality. "Some of us feel it has affected our lives," says Edward Risley, a retired State Department employe who with his wife, Cynthia, raised a family of three boys in a small, flat-roofed, glass-and-wood house on Beechwood Road--an airy, pristine modern cube in the middle of the woods.
Hollin Hills, which consists of about 450 homes, was built gradually. The houses along Beechwood Road went up in 1953, part of "Section Eight," as the residents still say. Several hundred Hollin Hills people will get together this evening at the Beechwood Road cul-de-sac to celebrate the 30th anniversary.
Davenport will be there. So will Robert Macauley, construction superintendent on the project for more than 20 years. Goodman's attendance is in doubt--he is not feeling well--but if he shows up the residents will present him with a certificate from the Virginia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects for his work on Hollin Hills. It is called the "Test of Time Award."
Longtime Hollin Hillers tend to be articulate retired or semiretired professionals. "We were young, we were veterans, we were liberal," Risley says. Community spirit, sky-high during the early years, has been an up and down thing, says Lars Janson, another original dweller. It has picked up in recent years, he notes, with an efficient Neighborhood Watch program because of a spate of burglaries. ("There is so much glass," Risley says, "it must have been very tempting to break it and grab the silver.")
The place is different, and even short visits with a few residents give one the feeling that pride in this difference is widely shared. If Hollin Hills attracted a particular kind of family--"Here was found the highest rate of college degrees above bachelor of arts in any United States community of equal size," bragged a Hollin Hills report in 1960--it was at least in part by intention. "We designed it to appeal to the kinds of activists who joined conservation associations and so on," Goodman says.
Goodman provided several basic designs that could be combined or altered, to a degree. The flat-roofed single-level house, with its ingenious floor plan (living, sleeping and eating spaces surrounding a central service core) and its stylistic relationship to Mies and Mondrian, was, he says, "as far as I thought I could go" in the direction of hard-edged Modernism. Perhaps it is just as well. The houses are really pretty but those flat roofs tend to rot out periodically.
The other models--single-levels, split-levels or two-story houses with low-pitched or tilted roofs--are more conventional but they, too, are classic '50s period pieces. This is ironic. Back then they were considered very daring. Construction crews didn't think they would stand up with all that glass. Banks hesitated to supply mortgage money. The FHA "sneered" at the land plan, Goodman recalls, "but Davenport didn't say, 'Oh, let's do what they want.' That was encouraging, and stimulating."
The houses share certain trademark features, such as massive brick chimneys, vertical wood siding, floor-to-eave windows, cantilevered floors wherever possible, and right-angled floor plans combining openness and privacy. In a Life magazine article on the houses in 1961, architect Paul Rudolph observed, "The contrast between the solidity of the brick and the openness of the glass makes an admirable compromise between the cave and the goldfish bowl."
The economy and craft of the houses stands out even today. Goodman devised ingenious on-site fabrication processes and Davenport worked with the same construction crews year after year.
"The whole method was to break everything down to a system that would simplify construction and still give you great freedom of design," Goodman says. The results were relatively inexpensive starter homes--the initial model sold for $12,500 in 1949. Families flocked to them.
"The buyers were young," Davenport recalls. "I always said it was good we didn't have too much birth control because people were getting pregnant and they wanted a house."
The most innovative aspect of Hollin Hills was the siting of the houses and the overall landscape plan. It was this, more than anything else, that disturbed the county regulators and the federal housing authorities. Trees were preserved, grading was kept to a minimum, and the houses were set into their one-third or one-half acre lots at angles for maximum privacy. All those rounded cul-de-sacs, Goodman explains, were "to slow down traffic and give the children places to play."
"At the same time," he continues, "I was thinking about what to do after you have designed the houses and built them and people have bought them, to make the units part of a whole." His farsighted solution, eagerly embraced by builder and buyers alike, was to hire a landscape architect (Bernard Voigt and, later, Eric Paepcke and the renowned Dan Kiley) and to sell a landscape plan--initially it cost $60 and was non-negotiable--with each plot.
"Most people used at least part of those plans," Ed Risley says, and as it turns out, this was enough. There are very few fences in Hollin Hills (and longtime residents complain about the ones that have been built) and a thick second-growth forest has arisen under the original canopy of trees. Though not as neat as originally intended--in places it looks like unplanned overgrowth--the total effect is one of pleasing integration.
Another notable facet of the Hollin Hills homes was their built-in capacity for expansion, something many residents took advantage of as their families grew--to greater, or lesser, architectural effect. Some residents complain about the ineffectiveness of the community's architectural review board. Goodman's attitude is "Anything they do can't hurt it. These houses were designed to be living things."
Hollin Hills had some impact upon suburban construction in Washington during the 1950s and 1960s. Goodman and a few other architectural firms designed developments in Virginia and Maryland that built upon the synergistic principles of Hollin Hills. By and large, though, these principles have been ignored. David Condon, who worked with Goodman in the late 1940s (and who is now a principal in Keyes Condon Florance) ruefully observes, "The whole momentum got lost. The builders' scene is no different today than before. They still like stock solutions and land they can grade."