Exactly 40 years after the Sully Historic Site in Chantilly reopened after a major restoration, Fairfax County officials and visitors gathered to celebrate.
As children played centuries-old games on the lawn, tossing beanbags and rolling hoops, Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) headlined a series of speakers who acknowledged those who rescued the historic house from demolition and restored it to its original appearance.
The speakers had to pause several times as nearby jets made their thunderous descent across Route 28 to Dulles International Airport. The jets served as a reminder that the historic site had been slated for demolition when the airport was being developed in the 1950s.
Built in 1794, Sully was the home of Northern Virginia’s first congressman, Richard Bland Lee, a member of the state’s noted Lee family and an uncle of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. An act of Congress in 1959, spearheaded by Rep. Joel Broyhill (R-Va.) and signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, saved the house from destruction, Frey said.
“It’s doubtful that [Lee] and his family would have imagined that the place they just called home would one day be a window into the history of their time and then would draw more than 24,000 visitors a year,” he said.
Fairfax County voters made the site restoration possible by approving a bond issue in 1973, Frey said. Approval of the bonds set in motion the work of historians, carpenters and other tradesmen who “made the house come alive,” he said.
Sully is architecturally significant, Frey said, as one of the remaining 18th-century homes in the area with a combination of Georgian and Federal architecture.
The restoration work presented significant challenges because the house “hadn’t been locked in time,” Frey said. “People had lived here and modified the house to suit their own needs,” installing modern conveniences such as running water and electrical power, he said.
Upon completion of the painstaking restoration project, the historic site, which is operated by the Fairfax County Park Authority, reopened to the public Sept. 6, 1975.
“Today it really looks very much like Mr. Lee would have remembered,” Frey said. Furnishings, paint and decorations are in the style of 1794, with modern heating, air conditioning and fire protection systems carefully concealed in the structure, he said.
One room of the main house serves as a museum, displaying artifacts from the site and historical information about the Lee family and subsequent owners of the property.
Several original outbuildings at the site have been preserved, including a smokehouse, laundry and kitchen that date to 1794, and a stone dairy built about 1801, according to information at the site.
The historic site also displays a 19th-century log schoolhouse that was moved to Sully from its original site in Haymarket, a log cabin built in 2000 to represent slaves’ living quarters, a well, a cistern, a wine cellar and a gravesite that marks the burial grounds of several members of the Lee family.
The preservation and restoration of the site are ongoing, site manager Carol McDonnell said. Over the next 18 months, an outside consultant will study the property and produce a historic structures report, she said.
“That’s going to help us look at the structure and the historic architecture from an engineering point of view, to make sure that what we’re doing is preserving the structure and not doing anything that’s going to harm it in any way,” McDonnell said.
Frey said Sully has an important story to tell.
“This house stands as one of the last reminders of the evolution of Fairfax County from its earliest days of the settlers coming and its development as a rural, agricultural society into the technological giant that we have today,” he said.
Barnes is a freelance writer.