A grand, century-old Victorian farmhouse in Great Falls is getting a new lease on life.
Known as the Leigh (pronounced "lay") House, the home at the intersection of Walker Road and Colvin Run Road is rich in local history. But it almost fell victim to commercial development, a confusing zoning designation and mixed community sentiment over how its five-acre parcel should be utilized.
Described by Great Falls residents as a "local treasure" and a "Victorian beauty," the 6,000-square-foot house now stands among weeds and overgrown bushes. Its porches sag but many of its rich architectural embellishments have endured years of neglect.
For many months, developers, local politicians and Great Falls residents have argued over the property's future. Often, it appeared that commercial developers were more dedicated to saving the old place than some area residents.
The Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals (the BZA), in a rather routine approval of an exception to minimum road frontage required for a residential lot in the Great Falls area, recently abolished the zoning obstacles that could have led to the bulldozing of the Leigh House.
The BZA created a commercial lot and a residential lot out of the total five acres. The residential lot will have an 82-foot road frontage rather than the 150-foot minimum normally required.
Originally, the square of land centered at the intersection of the two roads was dubbed "commercial." That line split the Leigh House land, leaving the house itself on the commercial portion. The BZA's recent action will allow the house to be moved to what has now been designated a residential lot.
For months, some residents had given up on preserving the old house. Developers of the project--Victor L. Bonat and Harold Shotwell, who formed Leigh Corners Ltd.--originally proposed construction of townhouse offices, along with the revitalization of the Leigh House for commercial use. However, that plan included use of a portion of the residential tract for parking, which drew complaints from nearby residents.
Though it was defeated, there was much support for the project, according to Curt Bradley, president-elect of the Great Falls Civic Association. The unusual zoning designation of the entire five acres further complicated the situation, he explained.
"I think the developers wanted to save the old house. He could have saved himself a lot of headaches if he had just torn it down," Bradley explained.
Since the house was on commercial land, developers would have had the right to tear it down.
Fairfax County Supervisor Nancy Falck, who represents the Drainesville District, was delighted with the BZA's decision to grant the variance.
"The land is now actually subdivided. Not one more inch of it is commercial than before. The change saves the house and clearly establishes that land as residential," she said.
Bob Pannier, a Great Falls resident, reportedly has a contract to buy the house, according to BZA records. Pannier could not be reached for comment, but Falck said Pannier "stated indeed during the BZA public hearing that they were going to renovate the house and live in it" after moving it to the new lot.
Millburn Sanders, 61, was the first head of the Great Falls Historical Society. Born in Great Falls "right behind the Grange Hall," heis familiar with the history of the Leigh House.
The house was built by Dr. Alfred Leigh, a general practioner, who practiced medicine along what are now Leesburg Pike (Route 7) and Georgetown Pike after graduating from the Medical College of Virginia in 1880.
"He drove a horse and rode in a buggy," Sanders chuckled.
The original part of the house was built in 1890. It included two rooms used
"The land is now actually subdivided. Not one more inch of it is commercial than before. The change saves the house and clearly establishes that land as residential," said Fairfax County Supervisor Nancy Falck. by Dr. Leigh for offices. A north wing was added in 1910 by a carpenter named Frank Kimsey, who lived in the attic while he built the addition. He was paid $2 a day, Sanders said.
Sanders describes the structure in great detail. "The Leigh House has dormers, gables with cut work, barge board, and fish-scale shingles, diamond windows, two bay windows, turned posts with brackets and unique trim work in quoins usually found in old brick or stucco houses."
"It was heated by three fireplaces, three coal stoves and a kitchen range," Sanders said, adding that records don't specify what fueled the range.
Sanders said Dr. Leigh got his first car in 1916 and obtained the medicines he prescribed from Hill & Poole, a pharmacy in Georgetown, or by express from Parke-Davis Inc.
Sanders said the doctor kept meticulous account and records books. One descendant of the family, Hassell Leigh, was a reliable source of birth and death records until his death not many years ago. Sanders thinks the Fairfax library system now has the account books. Dr. Leigh died in 1918 during a flu epidemic.
George Summers recalled that Hassell Leigh ran a dairy farm "up that way for years. I used to buy a trailer load of manure from him for $4. He had a flock of cows."
"Until two years ago, that land along Walker Road was a pasture," he said. Houses now populate the pasture.
Summers said Great Falls came close to losing the house. "We almost ended up with all the disabilities and not any of the gains. Developers had the right to tear it down, you know."
Civic association leader Bradley said he thinks the recent BZA action is "a good result of a lot of thoughtful planning. The financial benefit to Leigh Corners Ltd. is probably pretty nominal at this point."