In recent weeks, Answer Man has been exploring old houses in the Washington of today. But what about old houses in yesterday’s Washington? You will remember that when the capital was created in 1800, it included the existing city of Alexandria and the adjacent land known today as Arlington County.
What are the oldest surviving houses in those places?
Well, let us go first to 5620 Third St. South in Arlington. There we find the Ball-Sellers House, named for its first private owner and its last. It was acquired by the Arlington Historical Society in 1975, which just happened to be roughly 200 years after farmer John Ball built it. The vernacular style of the house — wooden logs chinked with plaster and covered in clapboard — allows historians to date its construction to the 1750s.
Ball farmed the area around his house with his five daughters and also ran a grist mill on Four Mile Run.
The house’s next owner was George Carlin, a tailor whose customers included George and Martha Washington. Three generations of the Carlin family lived in the house. It is their name that is memorialized in Arlington’s first residential subdivision: Glencarlyn.
Marion Sellers, the niece of a later owner, donated the house to the Arlington Historical Society, which operates it as a museum.
Ball did not own any enslaved people, but the Carlins did. The family supported the Confederacy. It’s possible the house was taken over by the Union Army during the Civil War, which may be one reason it escaped destruction.
“It is a miracle that it survived,” said Annette Benbow of the Arlington Historical Society.
Why should we care about the Ball-Sellers House?
“This is one of the few houses that the common man — just a farmer — built,” Benbow said. “It’s not a big, big estate, like Mount Vernon. It’s just a guy who owned land and farmed it with his daughters. We know the entire history of Arlington because we know who lived there. It’s a pretty important house. We’re so proud to own it.”
One of the interesting aspects of the Ball-Sellers House is that some of the original roof is protected under a later roof. That’s also the case with the oldest surviving house in Alexandria: 517 Prince St., or what’s known as the Murray-Dick-Fawcett House. The oldest part of the house dates to 1772. There is access to the space between the old roof and the roof that was later built above it at a less-severe pitch.
“You go back there and it’s ‘Wow. These are the original shingles on this house.’ It’s cool every single time,” said Gretchen M. Bulova, the director of the Office of Historic Alexandria. (The city bought the house in 2017.)
The timber frame house was built by Patrick Murray, a merchant who immigrated from Scotland. As with the Ball-Sellers House, the Prince Street house was enlarged over the years.
And as with the Arlington house, it helped that the Murray-Dick-Fawcett House was in the hands of a single family for a very long time. John Douglas Brown and his descendants owned it from 1816 to 2000. (As with the Ball-Sellers house, there were periods when enslaved people also lived in the house.)
“What this house really offers is that it has stayed largely intact over time,” Bulova said.
Answer Man can’t help but wonder at the paucity of really old houses in one of the area’s oldest enclaves. Bulova helped explain: “When the town was founded [in 1749] and lots were sold, they were sold in quarter-block lots,” she said. “Owners were required within two years to build a substantial structure. Anybody who didn’t build on their lot defaulted on the property.”
And so it was in the landowner’s interests to erect something.
“A lot of the houses put up were frame,” Bulova said.
The frame house would be torn down later and a brick house built in its place. This was especially prudent when fire was such a hazard, even if it deprived future old-house buffs of old houses to salivate over.
This suggests that the teardowns we see today — where 1970s ranchers are replaced with mini mansions — are not such a new thing, after all.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly