The tranquil Civil War frame home amid giant oaks buffered from the main highway by towering fir and spruce trees seems an unlikely candidate for a land-use debate.
The tree-lined narrow lane leading to Merryhill is reminiscent of old roads leading to southern plantation homes. The road leads to a house that almost allows its visitors to go back in time to the days when that main road -- Dolley Madison Boulevard -- was a path, not a commuter artery leading from the affluent Northern Virginia suburbs to Chain Bridge.
Merryhill is built on the foundations of an even older home in which Dolley Madison supposedly watched Washington burn during the revolution. That house was burned during the Civil War because its owners were sympathetic to the South, according to local folklore.
Merryhill is being sold to developers who want to surround it with town houses on its four-acre site. The McLean Citizens Association said the plan "saves the house in name only" and voted to oppose plans put forth by developers Skip Costan and Skip Galt. This week project attorney Frank McDermott, of Hazel, Beckhorn and Hanes, said the developers have decided to reduce the number of town houses from 30 to 20 to gain support for the town-house project.
Several local builders said they thought the house itself might sell for as much as the property might bring subdivided if the right buyer could be found. Another suggested keeping the house on two acres and building three new expensive homes like those being built on the former grounds of the Ballantrae estate on the opposite side of Dolley Madison north of Merryhill.
The Merryhill house is directly across from Salona, the historic home of Virginia State Sen. Clive Duval, and adjacent to the exclusive Madison of McLean town-house development that Galt's mother, Sally Feeley, helped design.
The McLean citizens group said it is worried that construction of town houses around Merryhill could set a precedent for the future of land at Salona. But proponents said Dolley Madison Boulevard is a sufficient buffer against similar development on that site, which currently is considered agricultural land by Fairfax County.
Merryhill has been home to Mary Leigh Robeson, who, with her late husband, Stuart, raised their family at the house surrounded by shrubs, boxwoods and giant old trees. The Robesons moved to Merryhill in 1948.
Although she says the time has come to sell, she's not going to let the house be torn down. Nor does she want the setting disturbed any more than necessary. She met with many agents and developers before agreeing to sell to Galt and Costan.
Covenants guaranteeing maintenance of the house as a residence will be part of the development package, Costan said.
"I can't take care of all this any more," Robeson said, leading the way up to the third floor of the house along an elegant old staircase with wood rails that shine as if they were polished just a few hours ago. The house is just too big for her and her grown sons.
Merryhill is a treasure for those who love old homes with features such as random-width pine floors, wood mantles, elegant staircases, antique fixtures and double parlor first-floor rooms. Brick walkways, reminiscent of Williamsburg, are surrounded by traditional boxwoods and dogwood trees under oaks that are at least two feet in diameter.
In summer, a side porch is filled with antique wicker furniture. On the walls of the laundry room hang old wooden kitchen tools. Antique glassware, original doors and original hardware are proudly displayed, and a second-story porch casts a certain grace over the entire house.
But Merryhill became too big for the Robeson family after Stuart, once a Washington lawyer, died last June. Over the years, Stuart and Mary Robeson watched McLean change from a country crossroads to a booming suburb between the Central Intelligence Agency and Tysons Corner.
They named their home Merryhill because of the "job and cheer" generated in the house by the children and their friends at Christmas time, Robeson recalled this week as she sat in what is now a den. The room most likely was a music room when the house was built at the end of the Civil War by the John Madison Shafer family, which moved to the McLean area from Loudoun County. That family rebuilt the burned house and called it Chestnut Hill.
Selling the house "is not a happy decision but a practical one," Robeson said. "My husband said it would be the hardest thing he would ever have had to do, to turn the key in the lock and drive down the driveway for the last time," she said.
Like many older Americans giving up their homes, Robeson is not sure where she will move. It is hard to find accommodations near home. She doesn't want a lot of space but wants a place big enough to take at least some of her treasures with her. There is little in the McLean area to meet her needs, and she wants to stay close to shopping, restaurants and public transportation.
Mary Leigh Robeson's maiden name, Leigh, is one that dominates Great Falls history. She is a descendant of Dr. Alfred Leigh, who built the old Leigh House, a crumbling Victorian gem in Great Falls that citizens are trying to save. She is the granddaughter of another Great Falls area doctor, William Benjamin Day.
She grew up on what is now Route 7 near Towlston Road. She remembers when Tysons Corner was the place "where the road got flat and you could really let your car go.