Bulldozers, earth movers and construction workers are slicing up some of the District of Columbia's last remaining grand estates, demolishing manicured grounds and massive shade trees of Washington's old landed gentry to make way for the luxury town houses and postage-stamp lawns of Washington's new elite.
New homes, occupied by successful lawyers, doctors and other professionals and ranging in price up to $622,000, already dot the estates once owned by former vice president Nelson Rockefeller, oil heiress Anne Archbold and Riggs National Bank founder Charles A. Glover Sr. These developments alone will contain about 760 new homes when they are completed.
Located in prestigious Northwest Washington neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park, the new subdivisions also promise to bring in much needed additional tax revenues to the cash-starved District of Columbia government. City tax officials say the new homes and smaller individual properties will generate far more revenues than the single mansions and rolling unoccupied lands they are replacing.
As for the remaining owners of the old estates, they now are caught between rising taxes and high maintenance costs on the one hand and increasingly attractive demands for their land as sites for new homes on the other.
Laughlin Phillips, director of the Phillips Collection, for example, has asked the city for permission to subdivide most of his family's 13-acre estate at 2101 Foxhall Rd. for new homes. The new owners of Tregaron, a well-known Cleveland Park estate, are trying to reach a compromise with surrounding neighbors on the size of a new housing development there.
"It's impossible these days for these huge estates to continue in the District," said Phillips.
"It's a painful thing for the family," he said. "My mother and father bought the land in 1929 when it was farmland and Foxhall Road was a paved narrow country lane."
The Phillips family has seen its property taxes jump more than 100 percent from $9,279 in 1968 to $22,637 this year. John Archbold cited high tax bills when he sold the family estate, Hillandale, just north of Reservoir Road across from Georgetown University Hospital, and moved to Upperville, Va.
The mansions themselves often are being sold separately from the surrounding developments. Former vice president candidate R. Sargen Shriver and his wife, Eunice Kennedy Sriver, bought the Rockefeller mansion for $750,000, while the Washington International School bought the Tregaron mansion. The Hillandale mansion, modeled after a 14th century Florentine villa, is perched on the second highest vantage point in Washington and surrounded by six acres of trees. It is available to a purchaser with $3 million.
Ironically, at a time when high interest rates have priced many city families out of the housing market and sent home sales tumbling, the market for high-priced town houses has suffered the least.
New developments on the old estates have boomed with the demand for small-size luxury housing by the city's growing population of youngish, wealthy professionals, many of them couples with few or no children and none of the trappings of the traditional estate families, such as live-in servants and riding horses.
The demand has driven the median price of a new house in Washington from $65,500 in 1979 to $130,750 last year, according to Lusks Reports, a real estate information publishing firm.
"You can't move a house for $75,000," says city planning director James O. Gibson, "but you can move a $300,000 house. It's a bullish market in that category."
By the same token, the median income for a family in the Washington metropolitan area had soared to $29,086 by 1979, the highest in the nation and $3,447 above its nearest rival, the Anaheim-Santa Ana-Grove, Calif., metropolitan area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The growing number of large out-of-town law firms, accounting agencies and national associations and corporations that are opening offices in Washington has led not only to an explosion of new office construction downtown but to a bumper crop of new rich prospective home buyers.
The number of lawyers in Washington has tripled from about 10,000 in 1977 to 29,994 today. National associations were arriving in the area at the rate of one a week until last year when the rate began to slow.
In addition to out-of-towners, many couples and families in the immediate area -- from residents tiring of the fashionable but cramped housing of Georgetown to older suburbanites whose children have grown up and left their spacious houses empty -- are looking to the new luxury housing of Washington's in-town estates.
"There is a mystique to Georgtown, but many of those houses are not very livable," says Michael Gulino, project director at the Hillandale development. "They are narrow with no parking. But when you recreate one of these, you make it more livable with larger modern kitchens, elevators and more closet space, plus jacuzzis and steam baths."
Barbara Nagi lives in Georgetown but is buying a home in Hillandale. She and her husband, an association vice president, are typical of the new buyers. They have bought in Hillandale, she said, because it offers parking, increased security and the promise of a lots of trees. The security will allow the couple to travel free of fears of break-ins while they are gone, she said. The security is achieved by enclosing the new developments behind high brick walls or wrought-iron fenses with one combined entrance and exit that is usually patrolled by a uniformed guard at all times.
But, Nagi said, they must sell their existing Georgetown home to afford the new one.
Other buyers are so-called "empty nesters," middled-aged suburban couples whose children are grown and who now want to trade in their sprawling houses in McLean or Potomac for smaller-scale in-town living.
While 75 percent of the Hillandale buyers are current city residents, a mile away at Foxhall Crescents, the former Rockefeller estate, suburbanites make up the bulk of the purchasers, according to sales agent Dagmar Burton of the Lewis & Silverman real estate company.
"Everybody thought it was going to be empty nesters but we have a lot of people in their 40s with children who want to move in because they are fed up with the commute," she says. "They are doctors and lawyers who work late into the night, and a home here allows them to see their families."
Only three large estates remain in the city that have not been subdivided, and, they are among the city's most highly valued properties.
They are Hillwood, the 25-acre estate of cereal fortune heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, valued by city assessors at $4.85 million; the 16-acre estate of Elinor Brady at 1801 Foxhall Rd. NW, assessed at $2.2 million, and the nine-acre estate of Gwendolyn Cafritz, 2301 Foxhall Rd. NW, valued at $1.4 million.