The date of a signing ceremony and open house at the Oak Hill mansion in Fairfax County was incorrect in an Oct. 16 Where We Live article. The ceremony will be held from 10 a.m. to noon on Oct. 23, not Sept. 23. (Published 10/19/04)
Oak Hill's four- and five-bedroom single-family houses were almost all built in 1969 and 1970 -- except for one four-bedroom Georgian built in about 1790.
That house, also called Oak Hill, will be the focus of a neighborhood celebration Sept. 23, when the building and its 2.6-acre grounds will open to the public.
The celebration, called a signing ceremony, marks the end of a considerable effort to document and preserve the house and its grounds and determine the best future for the property, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in May. Oak Hill was built by the wealthy Fitzhugh family; it underwent a restoration in the 1930s.
The late-Georgian style structure narrowly escaped demolition recently, in no small part due to the now irreplaceable boxwoods and trees dating to the era of Mount Vernon.
"The landscape design there is typical of formal gardens from the early Colonial period," said John Zuiker, urban forester with Fairfax County's Department of Public Works and Environmental Services. "We estimated the age of the boxwoods to be about 200 to 250 years old by comparing the trunk diameters and height to the same type of boxwoods in Colonial Williamsburg and Mount Vernon."
The urban foresters also found American arborvitae, American beech and Ohio buckeye trees of "very significant size" at Oak Hill, Zuiker said.
The documentation of the grounds led the Oak Hill Citizens' Association to entreat owner and developer Steve Korfonta of Seville Homes LLC not to destroy the house, and to enlist Fairfax County Supervisor Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock) to prevent the structure and its historic vegetation from becoming the site of either seven luxury townhouses or two mini-mansions.
"There were people who thought the money could have been better spent developing a soccer field, but many of us realized that these grounds are so much a part of not just the local history but of Virginia history -- not just the house but the grounds, especially the vegetation, and once that's gone, it's gone. The boxwoods and the trees -- they can't ever be replaced," said neighborhood resident Jeanne Kadet, who is a master gardener.
Korfonta, the developer who bought the property from previous owner Andrew Sheridan, discussed the old mansion's fate with the community from the beginning, said Jan Hedetniemi, president of the citizens association.
Korfonta planned to build two large houses on the mansion's site "that would have been overwhelming -- massive, compared with the rest of the community -- with three-car garages and million-dollar price tags," Hedetniemi said. That's nearly twice the current value of the neighborhood's homes, which sold for prices ranging from $420,000 to $606,580 in the past year, said real estate agent Cary Fitchner-Vu of Long & Foster.
According to Hedetniemi, when Sheridan decided to sell the property earlier this year, he chose a buyer who understood the significance of its history and who agreed to work with the community to determine the most appropriate use for the land. Sheridan himself bought the property in 1983 after seeing the 1790s-built house advertised in the paper.
"You realize that people have lived in this house for over 200 years," Sheridan, an ophthalmologist, said of the experience of living there.
"It's kind of secluded so you don't really get to know the neighbors much, but it's a nice quiet place," he added. He also enjoyed the ghost stories about the house, though he never saw or heard anything to confirm them.
The work and cost involved in maintaining the old house, plus an empty nest and the loss of his wife, eventually made Sheridan want to downsize.
Living in a house that old "is expensive and takes a lot of time; you're constantly trying to renovate and fix things," he said. During the 20 years he lived there, Sheridan replaced the heating and cooling system, the roof and the pool heaters, as well as doing "constant painting."
At next week's ceremony, the county Board of Supervisors, the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust, the Fairfax County Park Authority, the Oak Hill Citizens' Association and Seville Homes will celebrate the trust's purchase of a historic easement on the property from Seville Homes as well as the property's inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places this year.
Reenactors from Gunston Hall will wear period costume to add historic perspective to the event, there will be Colonial children's games and crafts, and Seville Homes will host a lunch.
The easement means that the property will remain undeveloped in perpetuity. The current owner will renovate the mansion and sell to a private owner; the new owner must agree to open the grounds to the public at least four times a year.
The Oak Hill neighborhood is more than just one historic house. It's also a modern community of actively involved neighbors of varying ages and stages of life.
The neighborhood is just west of the Capital Beltway, about half a mile north of Braddock Road. Its 180 homes sit on roughly half-acre lots with large old trees and wide parking strips.
The active citizens association maintains a close eye on neighborhood cleanliness. An architectural review committee oversees structural changes such as enclosing carports or painting exteriors. "The colors of the houses are all earth tones," Hedetniemi said. "One house is blue -- that was when the association wasn't as active," she said, laughing.
"But it's not a bad blue," she hastened to add.
The utility lines that run along Wakefield Chapel Road are buried within the neighborhood, which neighbors agree improves upon the tidy, clean appearance.
Even though crime is almost nonexistent in the neighborhood, residents take turns serving in a citizens watch group. The neighborhood is divided into six areas, each of which is responsible for citizens watch patrol 60 days a year.
Volunteers share a neighborhood kit, with a sort of Mayberry set of law enforcement tools, including a magnetic sign that identifies the "patrol" car as the neighborhood watch vehicle.
"It's not like this is a dangerous place to live," said Sheila Cuyjet, one of the organizers of the citizens watch. "It's about watching out and caring for each other."
Her husband, Chuck Cuyjet, works from home during the day and is attentive to safety in the neighborhood. "Sheila calls me the cop of the world," he said.
Many residents know who lives in every house in their section of the neighborhood, in no small part due to the annually published neighborhood directory that lists every household with contact information, plus names and numbers of neighborhood baby-sitters, pet sitters, snow shovelers and lawn mowers.
Fitchner-Vu lives near Oak Hill and has sold real estate in the neighborhood for years. She noted that a number of current residents are Northern Virginia natives who find Oak Hill's ramblers, split-foyers, three-level splits and Colonials ideal for raising families. "The neighborhood tends to draw families, and in many cases those who grew up in the area and are returning to start or raise a family in their hometown," she said. "This is a very active community with neighborhood parties, yard sales and the such."
Pete Lewis, another neighborhood resident and the original owner of his 1969-built house, said one thing he really likes about his neighborhood is how close it is to decent golf facilities. The retiree often plays golf with across-the-cul-de-sac neighbor and fellow retiree Moe Hedetniemi.
The two have been neighbors for nearly 35 years, ever since Hedetniemi bought his five-bedroom Colonial for $47,500 in 1970.
Back then, Hedetniemi said, "There were no trees. The developer added them." Braddock Road was a narrow two-lane affair and nearby Kings Park was the farthest development west on Braddock.
Although plenty of longtime residents who are now empty-nest retirees remain in the neighborhood, Hedetniemi said he has noticed an increase in the number of children again, too.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, for instance, Ben Perel, 14, greeted his classmate, Kate Culhane, 13, in her front yard. She and her sister Rebecca, 10, had just won the local football skills competition. "First place -- that's boys and girls," their father said proudly.
Patrick and Patti Culhane, residents for 18 years, chose the neighborhood when they got married and needed a central commuting location. Because Oak Hill is close to the Beltway, it's ideal for commuters whose work regularly takes them to opposite sides of the Beltway. For those commuting downtown, a Metrobus runs to the Pentagon Metro station.
The community is very kid-friendly. Besides having a range of possible playmates, children can get around fairly easily. There is an underpass to safely cross busy Braddock Road to Ravensworth Shopping Center -- about a 15-minute bike ride. The county-run Wakefield Chapel Park and recreation center with in-line skating park, pool and tennis courts is less than half a mile away, at the intersection of Braddock and Wakefield Chapel Road. There are two pools -- Ida on the west side of the neighborhood and Wakefield Recreation Association on the east side -- both with swim clubs and social activities. The kids themselves organize occasional impromptu entrepreneurial events such as a car wash, according to Robert Perel, 7. "I earned $8.50," he reported.
"All the kids play together in the summer," Chuck Cuyjet said. "They all descend on our house all the time -- they just did it earlier this afternoon."
The Oak Hill signing ceremony will be held 10 a.m. to noon Sept. 23 at 4716 Wakefield Chapel Rd., Annandale; for more information, call 703-425-9300.