For the past century, the yellow house with the white trim and the country-style porch has stood at the intersection of McKinley Road and 16th Street in North Arlington. Built along a trolley line, it was originally a general store. At one point, according to local lore, it became a gentleman's club.
Since its restoration in the mid-1980s, the house has served as a beloved anchor for the Westover neighborhood, a place that residents say reminds them of a time when Arlington wasn't quite the bustling bedroom community it is now.
"When you look at this house, you think of a slower Arlington, a gentler Arlington," said Rose Mary Garcia, vice president of the Westover Village Civic Association. "We see it as a link to the past, a glimpse of what life was like in the 1800s."
Now, a uniquely modern phenomenon -- the frantic pace of development in Arlington -- is clashing with the preservation instincts of the neighborhood. The yellow house was scheduled to be sold last week to a builder. His initial plan to tear it down and build two modern homes in its place has triggered an escalating campaign to save what is known simply as "the yellow house."
More than 200 residents have signed a petition urging the builder, John Karanik, president of Great Falls-based Suburban Builders, to call off the tear-down. A committee of residents is working furiously on the issue, and residents say the blizzard of e-mails and telephone calls has galvanized a broader concern over the pace of development.
"We've lost so many of our pre-1900 houses. This is a huge wake-up call," said Lewis Beardsley, a resident who is helping lead the effort to save the house. "This is the community versus somebody making a living, and he sees a tear-down as just another opportunity to build another brick-fronted vinyl house and we're not too thrilled about that."
Beardsley and other residents, however, give Karanik credit for meeting with them two weeks ago. And Karanik said in an interview that he will wait before proceeding with the tear-down until he considers several other options the neighbors plan to present to him in the next week.
Those options, residents said, could include physically moving the yellow house to another portion of the double lot it occupies so Karanik could at least build and sell one new house, sell the yellow house without demolishing it and save on the tear-down costs.
"We're saying it's still a very nice profit, and he could create a ton of goodwill in the neighborhood by saving the yellow house," Beardsley said.
Another option neighbors are exploring is a "lot swap" in which they match Karanik with another area resident who is willing to sell but whose property is considered less critical to the neighborhood.
Karanik, who briefly lived in the area until last year, said he sympathizes with his former neighbors but has concerns of his own.
"I'm not saying I'm just going to go in there and rip this house down without an open mind," Karanik said. "The concerns and desires of the neighborhood definitely have a value. I need to look at the options they present and weigh the financial value against the commitment value and see if there is an area where we can both be satisfied to some degree."
But Karanik added: "The community is asking me to do something that will take $100,000 out of my pocket in exchange for a pat on the back saying you did the right thing. Well, this is my livelihood and that's a lot of money."
According to Arlington County officials, Karanik is free to do what he wants with the property within its residential zoning. He does not need county approval to tear the yellow house down and build two new ones in its place.
Some neighbors said the house should have been designated as historic, which may have mandated its preservation. They said the house is especially unique because it has two front doors, which neighbors theorize might have been due to what is believed to be its original use as a general store.
Charles Taylor, a county spokesman, said the house was surveyed recently as part of a routine inspection by county preservation officials. He said the house probably would have been eligible to be part of a broader historic district in the neighborhood but would probably not have been designated on its own because so many improvements have been made.
"That is not to say the house is not an important part of the neighborhood's history and identity," Taylor said.
Westover residents recently presented their concerns about the yellow house to the Arlington County Board. At least one board member, Chris Zimmerman (D), said he plans to ask staff members to see if the county can help achieve a compromise that saves the house.
"The builder owns the property, and he can do whatever he wants within the zoning," Zimmerman said. "But it sounds like this house falls into that category of structures you'd like to preserve. So much of those houses have already been wiped out and the issue is, are we going to lose all of our heritage to a rampant real estate market?"
In some ways, the yellow house dispute echoes a broader debate over what is known as "mansionization," a trend seen in Arlington and other close-in suburbs where older homes are torn down and replaced by million-dollar edifices.
Karanik has torn down several other older Westover area homes in recent years, and some residents strongly object to the larger and more modern homes he has erected in their place.
"What he builds are 'McManisons' that do not fit into this neighborhood," said Willa Cleary, who lives a block away from the yellow house. "Everybody loves the yellow house, and it was just mind-boggling to people in the neighborhood that the people who owned the house and have taken such good care of it would sell out to this developer. That's hard for people to grasp."
Karanik said he is just reacting to the realities of the market. "That's what the demand is calling for right now," he said. "People buying homes today want more space, more amenities and they don't want to drive two hours to work every day. Mansionization is a catchy term that people like to throw around, but if you talk to people selling their homes to builders and getting all of this money, they're not complaining."
Sheldon Avenius, who along with his wife bought the house in 1985 for $151,850 and was scheduled to close on selling it to Karanik late last week, said the issue was indeed simple for him: It was a good deal.
"We decided to sell the property, and this deal is extremely propitious for us," he said. Asked about the broader concerns of his neighbors, Avenius declined to comment. "As far as I'm concerned, it's moot," he said.
County officials could not confirm that the sale was finalized, and Karanik did not return telephone calls on Monday.