Some came to Hickory Cluster for the grand experiment in home and community design. Some came because they liked the way this pocket of Reston reminded them of European neighborhoods. Others were attracted by the price tag.
But over the decades, what started as an idyllic architectural statement began to crumble. Neighbor disagreed with neighbor and housing values sank. In the past two years, residents have worked out a solution, albeit an expensive one. Now the community is being forged again, physically and emotionally.
Hickory Cluster, 90 town houses arranged in three pods, was built in 1964 and 1965 as one of Reston's three original neighborhoods. Its block-like brick, concrete and glass homes were designed by modernist architect Charles Goodman, a follower of the pragmatic International style. At that time, Reston still was an experiment and the point of Hickory Cluster was that the architecture would foster sharing and community.
Fifteen of the homes open onto a plaza that sits atop a parking garage. That's the problem. The garage has been deteriorating for years; it was condemned in 1998.
Despite their different motives for moving to the neighborhood and their different approaches to the problem, the residents of Hickory Cluster eventually banded together, voting to demolish the garage and plaza and replace it with a courtyard--even though most of them don't live right next to it. And then 54 owners raised $500,000 to make the $1.2 million plan possible; the rest will come from a bank loan and homeowners association reserves.
Problems with the 34-car parking garage and plaza have plagued the community nearly from the time the garage was cast in 1965. Lime was mixed in with the plaza's concrete to hasten completion.
Unfortunately, the budget-conscious move has had costly consequences. Repairs for leaks have been required every few years. Homeowners in the three-pod cluster have paid the highest association dues in Reston ($1,620 per homeowner in 1999, with 60 percent going toward revitalization efforts).
"The garage has been the focus of a lot of frustration and anxiety, but in a way, it has been a point of renewal," said Sibylle Schumann, a resident and association board member.
Eighty percent of the residents voted for the renovation; 54 of the 90 pledged a donation, mostly a full $11,200, or one-ninetieth of the cost. Many are taking out home equity loans to pay the bill, said Richard Speier, association secretary.
"The association board has been genuinely surprised at how positive people have been about this," said Schumann, 45, a German immigrant who insisted to her American fiance in 1992 that they live in Hickory Cluster, which she had seen when visiting his parents there.
Kevin Wolcott, 39, knew the garage was an issue from the time he moved to Hickory Cluster in 1990. Still, he fell in love with the neighborhood. He didn't think of it as a "grand community experiment," although he had researched Reston for his architectural thesis. He just thought it would be a great place to raise a family.
Resolving the plaza issue has made the differences in attitude toward Hickory Cluster more apparent, said Wolcott, who joined the association board so he could have a hand in resolving the garage problem.
Some people started out absolutely against taxing themselves to pay for the renovation, he said; others focused on community spirit and loved the architecture so much that they would go to any lengths to preserve it. It was hard for the former when they saw how much the fixes would cost; it was hard for the latter to accept that the plaza would have to go.
"It came down to economic sense," Wolcott said. "It was a type of architecture that a community this size couldn't have. Finally, the development worked together."
Some people chose to live in Hickory Cluster because the houses offered a lot of space for little money, Schumann said.
"Some people never appreciated what this cluster is about," she said. "Some have moved out. Now that the cluster has these financial obligations, people who move in will realize it's not a cheap option. I think that people who are attracted to the cluster now will be interested in the architecture and the historical setting."
Goodman, an acclaimed modernist architect who designed the original terminal at Reagan National Airport, believed that an urban residential community should have vitality at all hours of the day and night. In modernism, the use of a building is a guiding principle in determining its shape and material. Durability, functionality and quality are prized over appearance.
Resident Dirk Wright, on his World Wide Web site about Hickory Cluster (www.kreative.net/wright/hickoryclusterweb/hc2intro.html), characterizes modernism as believing people in a community must be cooperative, considerate and helpful for the community to succeed. "The cluster is an experiment in modified communal living," Wright writes.
"At first you see the striking rectilinear elements of it," said resident Chris Freeman, 36. "It reminds me of a collection of grade-school principals' offices, which I think is very cool. But, like a garden or a work of art, you have to live with it to see and then the softer aspects grow on you."
Before coming to Hickory Cluster in early 1966, Kate Anderson lived in Fairfax County's Hollin Hills, Goodman's other major local community. "We liked the architecture there, with floor-to-ceiling windows. It was a beautiful place, but I soon realized it was the suburbs."
She said, "I read in the paper that [Reston founder] Robert Simon was building a new town, and although it was farther out, it would represent an urban approach. It was to include the best of the country and the best of the city."
When Anderson drove out to Reston, the 15-story condominium on Lake Anne convinced her of the new town's urbanity. She liked that her family could walk to school, stores and services such as the doctor and lawyer. "I virtually gave up driving when we moved here," she said.
Anderson said that she and husband Bob find more privacy in Hickory Cluster, where the houses are connected, than she did in Hollin Hills. "Here, you can see [your neighbors] or not as you please. The homes certainly give you a feeling of great space. In fact, they're frequently advertised as treehouses."
Anderson expresses no regrets about the expensive renovation. Although the problem directly affected just one of the cluster's three blocks, she said, the whole neighborhood suffered a drop in housing values. "Everyone realized that everyone has to pay for solving the problem, whether we use the garage or not."
Hickory Cluster's home designs emphasize the beauty of concrete, brick and sand-colored block columns by exposing them, said Speier. Floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall glass facing each home's patio is intended to bring together the indoors and outdoors.
Speier, 59, and his wife, Mathilde, an art historian from the Netherlands, were attracted to Hickory Cluster in early 1998 by the beautiful surroundings and the closeness to the commercial area on Lake Anne. "It's a seven-minute walk through the woods," said Speier, a consultant on nuclear proliferation issues.
Before he selected a home, he had parked in the garage to visit a property. "I thought it was so grim and dark," he said. "I didn't like the walk from it into the house." He chose a house in one of Hickory Cluster's other blocks. Three weeks after Speier moved in, the parking plaza was condemned.
The problems with the garage precipitated the last two years of community struggle. But its demolition and replacement by a courtyard (estimated to cost about $900,000) is only part of the coming work.
In addition, asphalt will be reapplied throughout the cluster; concrete will be replaced on the walkways; stairs will be replaced; entrances will get new signs and landscaping; and damaged trees will be removed and new trees planted to screen visual and noise pollution along Baron Cameron Avenue.
The Hickory Cluster Association expects house prices to stabilize as a result of this work.
Speier said Hickory Cluster's troubles can serve as a cautionary tale to other aging communities.
"They all deal with infrastructure," he said. "While few will have a disaster of this magnitude, homeowner associations will have to raise funds if they haven't built up reserves."
BOUNDARIES: Three blocks, two on Maple Ridge Road and one on Hickory Cluster Drive.
NEIGHBORHOOD AND HOUSES: 90 town houses with 74 different floor plans, designed by noted modernist architect Charles Goodman. The homes are arranged in three clusters on nearly 18 acres of wooded, hilly land. Each block of homes frames a common area that provides parking, planting containers and concrete walkways. Units range from 1,200 to 2,500 square feet. Most have three bedrooms. There are no attics or basements.
SALES: Seven units sold in 1999, for a median price of $130,000.
SCHOOLS: Lake Anne Elementary, Langston Hughes Middle and South Lakes High.
WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE: Lake Anne, volleyball court, pool, tennis courts, golf course, parks and Lake Anne shopping center, which includes a grocery, restaurants, library and professional offices.
WITHIN 10 MINUTES BY CAR: Reston Town Center, Tall Oaks Shopping Mall, Reston Association Headquarters, parks.
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CAPTION: Resident Bob Anderson gazes out his picture window at left. The complex was designed around hubs, such as the one above, allowing for scenic views from the rear of the units.
CAPTION: Richard and Mathilde Speier cross a bridge in the heart of the Hickory Cluster development; its surroundings attracted the couple to the community.