Complicated negotiations are under way which a group of Great Falls residents hope will help save a century-old Victorian house which is located off of Route 7 near Colvin's Mill.
Bulldozers recently mowed down the silo and outbuildings that once surrounded the now-dilapidated 6,000-square-foot house. Known as the Leigh House (pronounced lay), it is at the corner of Walker and Colvin Run roads.
"When we saw the bulldozers, we knew the house was in danger," said Susanne Riva, who lives nearby. Developer Harold Shotwell owns the house and the five acres around it. The land is divided into a commercial and a residential site. Shotwell has been trying for at least four years to build a small town-house office project adjacent to the house site.
"I think the people realized almost too late that we were going to build when we put the bulldozers out there," Shotwell said earlier this week. He described the house as solid, but in need of repair.
He said his original plan several years ago called for turning the house into a bed-and-breakfast inn. "We had a plan that included bedrooms and kitchens." It was rejected by Fairfax County, Shotwell said.
Suzanne Twyford is an art historian who has circulated petitions along with Riva to help save the house. She said she is interested "in preserving it as a piece of Victorian architecture." She said it is historically important for the Great Falls area.
"I have been emotionally involved with this house ever since we moved to Great Falls 12 years ago," Twyford said. The Leigh house can be seen from Twyford's.
Curt Bradley, former president of the Great Falls Civic Association, would like to see the house turned into an inn, especially since there are no hotels in the Great Falls area. Bradley, an attorney who works for a local developer, agreed that the Leigh House, "is structurally in good shape."
Two years ago, Shotwell, Bradley and county officials thought a plan had been worked out to save the house. The county's board of zoning appeals agreed to divide the original five-acre site into two parcels, one commercial and one residential, and made other concessions which would have allowed the house to be moved from the commercial site to the residential site.
Another developer, Robert Pannier, reportedly had a contract to buy the house and move it but nothing has happened. Shotwell said he will meet this week with the contract holder to see if the pact is still valid.
Meanwhile, Shotwell is anxious to start construction of the offices. He said he needs to use the site where the house sits for parking in order to meet county standards. But residents want him to use the residential land near the house for parking; this cannot be done without a special exception from the Board of Supervisors.
After receiving petitions bearing the names of several hundred Great Falls residents, Dranesville Supervisor Nancy Falck this week asked fellow board members for what is called an "out of turn" amendment to the county land-use plan for the site. She also asked for "expedited action" on a special exception Shotwell will need to get parking on the land that is not dubbed residential. Special exception requests can take as long as six months to be heard, but Falck's request is expected to reduce that time to approximately a month.
Shotwell said he needs quick action.
"There is strong sentiment about saving this house, said Philip Stone, president of Great Falls Heritage, a preservation group. Several years ago, however, the fight to limit commercial growth on the Leigh site was almost equal to sentiment for saving the house. Two years ago some residents said the developer seemed more interested in saving the house than some residents. Apparently things have changed.
"The crucial thing is whether the developer will take a chance on the proposals pending before the county," Stone said.
The house was built by Dr. Alfred Leigh, who practiced medicine along what is now the Georgetown Pike and the Leesburg Pike after graduating from the Medical College of Virginia in 1880.
The original part of the house was built in 1890; a north wing was added in 1910. Leigh died in a 1918 flu epidemic. For many years, the land around the house was a dairy farm operated by members of the Leigh family. During the last 15 years houses have been built on much of what used to be pasture land.