It's hard to miss the entrance to Dominion Valley Country Club.
Twin octagonal gatehouses topped by large cupolas and eagle weathervanes flank the boulevard leading from Route 15 in Prince William County into the 2,300-acre development centered on a golf course. "People ask me if they are watch towers," said receptionist Brooke Reilly at the visitors center, noting that the impressive brick structures are just for show.
The real guardhouse for the gated community, she points out, lies opposite the visitors center. Built of brick with classical columns, a cupola and large Palladian windows, it, too, looks inspired by the architecture of Colonial Williamsburg. Just beyond the gatehouse, monumental brick piers are fitted with metal grilles allowing cars to pass and tall, rounded arches framing pathways for pedestrians.
Such a grand entrance is increasingly common among the upscale subdivisions now sprouting outside the Capital Beltway. "There are a lot more developments in this area that have elaborate entrance features, even on Route 1," said Sherman Patrick, zoning administrator for Prince William County. "They help to create a sense of place and community pride that continues well after the newness of the development wears off."
No longer are subdivisions simply distinguished by signs affixed to walls, called "entrance monuments" by land planners and developers. Now there is a wide range of landscape features designed to impress potential home buyers. Dramatic waterfalls, traditional gatehouses, custom signage and landscaped parks are considered as essential as the pricey houses, typically $500,000 to $1 million, in these developments. Their purpose is to transform bulldozed acreage into established neighborhoods with a lived-in look.
"These are the features that transform a subdivision into a community," said Jim Baish, president of the Land Planning and Design Group in Frederick, Md.
"They send the message that your community is special even before you see the houses. The idea is to theme the community with consistent elements to create an identity."
For Braemar, a 3,115-home development now being built by Brookfield Washington Homes west of Manassas, Baish developed a traditional theme based on horse farms in the area. Each neighborhood in the 1,400-acre community is identified by a smaller version of the precast concrete entrance sign, which has dark green, Celtic-style lettering and is set into dry-stacked fieldstone walls. Street signs and lighting are mounted on painted redwood posts. Even the mailboxes are custom-designed with street numbers and newspaper holders to present an unified image of tidy consistency. Fronting the active adult portion of the community are a stone gatehouse and arbor that lead to a park with a pergola and fountains. Within this higher-priced section, signs and lights are mounted on fluted steel poles.
Such attention to detail is becoming more common as suburban developments increase in size and price, while incorporating such amenities as golf courses, clubhouses and shopping centers. "As homes get more expensive, purchasers are looking for something that lets them know they've arrived at something special," John Elcano of Toll Brothers said.
Developers can balk at spending vast sums on elaborate entrance features, custom street signs and mailboxes, Baish said, but many are investing in the infrastructure anyway to keep up with the competition. "Developers typically viewed these items as a frill," he said. "But now they are seeing the benefit of establishing a community identity for larger-scale projects. It's a trend that's catching on."
To justify the expense, Baish said, "You have to have at least 600 to 800 homes so the improvement costs can be distributed over more units. It's hard to do it in smaller developments."
"Character development" is how landscape architect Joseph Plumpe, president of Studio 39 Landscape Architecture in Alexandria, describes the trend to carefully placed signs and landscape elements in new suburban communities. Plumpe said building character starts with "the architecture of the homes and the lay of the land."
For example, in keeping with the Arts and Crafts-style houses and clubhouse of Victory Lakes, a 580-acre development next to Braemar, Plumpe designed a serpentine stone entrance monument and street signs on wooden posts. Berms and plantings around the entrance drive transform the flat site into a picturesque setting.
To harmonize with the traditional masonry architecture of Winchester Homes' 310-acre Roseland Estates, a 75-home development off Route 123 in Fairfax, Plumpe fashioned a brick entrance monument with a pavilion, plus brick piers and wooden fencing. The designs, he said, are based on historic structures at Colonial Williamsburg and Mount Vernon.
"We're seeing more correlation between the style of the entrance monument and the homes in newer developments," said Mark Leahy of Fairfax-based Pinnacle Design and Consulting. "They now hang together as a cohesive unit." Leahy said this coordinated image helps to distinguish adjacent, competing developments from one another and attract buyers.
For an upscale subdivision of 45 homes planned for Frederick, Md., called the Vistas at Springdale, he designed signs and mailboxes on stone piers to repeat the homes' stone foundations.
The image is "agrarian" and meant to differentiate the development from an adjacent subdivision "where the styles of architecture are much more disparate," he said.
For Forest Hill, a subdivision of 20 homes to be built by Equity Homes in Fairfax, Leahy set a brick gazebo into the median of the entrance drive. "It's not a gatehouse. It's there to support an image of security and tradition."
In other communities, signs and landscaping play up the natural features that are already part of the site. At the entrance to River Creek, a 615-acre golf course community of 700 homes outside Leesburg, a waterfall spills over artificial boulders into a creek. The theatrical design was created by the Alexandria-based landscape architecture firm Land Design to recall the stone bluffs of the Potomac River, which borders the development. It is part of a package meant to "create the impression that you're in nature, not a subdivision," according to Silver Spring developer Marc Montgomery.
From the entrance into River Creek, drivers cross a bridge to a gatehouse. Where the road eventually meets the golf course, the crossing is marked with arbors on stone piers. Speed limit and directional signs are designed in a consistent format with dark green-painted wooden posts and finials.
Old-fashioned street lamps look as if they were copied from New York's Central Park.
"We think about space in the same way that a movie is made," said Land Design partner Peter Crowley, who has designed dozens of subdivision settings. Every element, from the boulders in the entrance monument to the numbers on the mailboxes, he said, is carefully positioned to direct the driver to a destination and create a consistent image throughout the community.
Crowley says open spaces -- golf courses, parks and village greens -- play a critical role in establishing a theme. "Fifteen years ago, we would have hidden parks from view off cul-de-sacs. Now we integrate them into the entrances, road system and community so residents can enjoy them." For Brambleton, a 2,000-acre new town in Loudoun County, Crowley designed a quarter-mile long park that leads from a waterfall at the entrance to the town center.
For most of these developments, the entrance monument still plays an important role in making a good first impression. "It used to be an afterthought, but now it's one of the first things that's established in a community," said Cassie Cataline, vice president of marketing for KSI Services.
As Cataline and others point out, the lettering, plaques and walls that make up the entrance monument must follow county regulations governing signage.
According to zoning administrator Patrick, a subdivision sign in Prince William County is limited to 10 feet in height and cannot exceed 64 square feet in size. For a planned community in Loudoun County, Baish said, a sign cannot be more than 60 square feet in area and its support structure -- wall, fence or post -- cannot be more than 120 square feet and five feet in height. A sign for a single-family residential development in Fairfax County cannot exceed 30 square feet in area and the background structure on which the sign is mounted cannot exceed eight feet in height, he said.
Bigger, however, is not necessarily better, according to land planners and landscape architects. "Entrance monuments are getting smaller and less grandiose," Plumpe said. "A lot more are tastefully done to extend the architectural imagery of the community into the landscape."
Several landscape designers said the more discreet signs and architectural treatments of newer subdivisions are influenced by the popularity of denser, pedestrian-oriented neotraditional developments such as Kentlands and Fallsgrove in Montgomery County.
At KSI's Piedmont, a 1,600-home development in Haymarket, the entrance monument is composed of a rounded arch set between simple piers set on a brick base surrounded by seasonal plantings. The piers and lettering are repeated in the brick fencing and signs throughout the golf-course community.
A simple brick column set into a landscaped circle announces the entrance to Lorton Station, a 1,500-unit community now being built by KSI near the former prison in Fairfax County. The development is built next to a VRE station so Land Design identified the entrances, neighborhoods and bus stops with oval signs that recall old railroad stations.
"All these elements -- signs, walls, mailboxes, landscape -- are meant to work together," Crowley said. "The idea is not to separate the entrance feature but to make it part of a place that sticks in your memory."