The landmark blue farmhouse in the middle of downtown McLean soon may fall victim to bulldozers clearing the way for redevelopment of the community's central business district.
The two-story building, which has housed Laughlin Realty Co. for five decades, will be torn down if Fairfax County goes along with plans to build a new office building on the site, which is at the intersection of Old Dominion Drive and Chain Bridge Road.
Owner William (Kip) Laughlin won a bitter battle with the Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation about two years ago to preserve the house when it was threatened by the widening of Old Dominion Drive and Chain Bridge Road.
Now Laughlin said he wants to build a three-story office building on the site, which would necessitate razing the farmhouse unless somebody decides to move it. Laughlin said he would like to see the house moved to another site in the business district, but that no deals have been struck so far to save it.
"My preference is to move the house if the right investor comes along," he said. But county and community leaders said few sites in the area could accommodate the house.
Known by local residents as "the old blue house," it is seen by many as the last remaining symbol of the days when McLean was a rural community rather than a suburban haven for some of the Washington area's most influential and wealthiest residents.
Laughlin, who this week was installed as president of the Northern Virginia Board of Realtors, has asked Fairfax officials to approve plans for the office building. Neither the Fairfax County Planning Commission nor the Board of Supervisors has set a date for public hearings on the proposal.
Architect Paul Barkley of Barkley Pierce Associates of Falls Church designed the three-story office building at the highest density allowable on the site, which has an area of slightly more than half an acre. The plan also calls for construction of underground parking, a rare commodity in McLean.
Several years ago, after months of negotiations, Laughlin convinced Virginia highway officials not to knock the house down, but rather to take off a side porch when they needed to use the right of way for widening the main central business district intersection.
Laughlin said this week that his efforts to save the house from the highway department were essential because he would not have had enough land left to build a replacement real estate office or any office building had highway officials been successful in their efforts to take more land than Laughlin thought was necessary.
"It was also important to keep operating the real estate company on this site until other plans were made," Laughlin said. The real estate office will occupy the second floor of the new building and bank offices will occupy the first floor.
The project has won the endorsement of the McLean Planning Committee, a small but influential group of landowners, central business district leaders and residents of adjacent neighborhoods. However, most McLean residents are likely to be surprised by plans that threaten the "blue house," community leaders said.
Laughlin needs the approval of the county board of supervisors for several waivers of zoning regulations if the new building is to be built, according to project attorney William Hansbarger. For example, the board has been asked to approve a special exception to permit a drive-in-banking window and an increase in height for the proposed 50-foot-tall building.
The proposal calls for eliminating present connections between the site and nearby shopping areas. That idea has been criticized by some community leaders, who have said the key to the proper redevelopment of the McLean business district is to make sure pedestrians can walk any place they want to go.
Laughlin's plan comes in the midst of a study of the McLean central business districtby Fairfax County planners. That study was requested by Dranesville Supervisor Nancy Falck and McLean business leaders. Stephen Hubbard chairman of the McLean Citizens Association's planning and zoning committee , said a county staff member will start working with McLean leaders after the first of the year on the specifics of that study.
Gloria Adams, president of the McLean Citizens Association, said that, while the plan to replace the Laughlin house may surprise some McLean residents, preserving it may be more important to some than to others. "If there had been some plan to preserve other old houses, it would make more sense to save this one," Adams said.
Accoding to a history of McLean, the house dates back to the 1890s when it was built by the late Mathew Laughlin, who owned a large dairy farm that covered major portions of what today is the McLean business district. The house was once the home of Beckett's General Store, a family-owned insurance business and a law practice.
In 1933, the late Clifton Laughlin started McLean's first real estate office in the house. Later, William and Kitty Laughlin sold real estate from that house. After their deaths, the present owner, William Laughlin, took over his parents' real estate business.
Laughlin, who grew up in the house, said, "Nobody loves this house more than I do.