Where We Live | Belle Haven in Alexandria, Va.

shareShare
A short drive south of Old Town Alexandria, Belle Haven is a suburban escape for senators, military families and the Washington region’s well-heeled. (Craig Hudson/For The Washington Post)

A short drive south of Old Town Alexandria, Belle Haven is a suburban escape for senators, military families and the Washington region’s well-heeled.

The homes here have been splashed across the pages of The Washington Post Magazine and featured on NBC’s “The West Wing.” Now known as the “West Wing” house, a Belle Haven Colonial was character Andrea Wyatt’s dream house in Season 4.

But before Belle Haven was a picturesque neighborhood, it was a plantation with slaves. The landowners, Maj. John West and John Colville, capitalized on the area’s proximity to the Potomac River, which made it an ideal port for tobacco exports.

“The West family, like other large planters of the day, took advantage of the legal form of slave labor and expanded slaveholdings to over 30 slaves by 1776 with roughly 10 to 15 serving West Grove Plantation,” said Jim Bish, a retired educator and historian.

The West Grove plantation house was burned down during the Civil War, and the land remained undeveloped until David Janney Howell, a civil engineer, began construction on the Belle Haven Country Club and golf course in the 1920s.

According to the Belle Haven Country Club’s website, the name Belle Haven comes from the Scottish pioneers who settled along the Potomac River in the early 1700s and named their settlement after their favorite countryman, the Earl of Belhaven. The first house was built in 1924 and, like the country club, still stands in the neighborhood.

Today, this suburban enclave of around 400 homes — a mix of ramblers, Cape Cods and Colonials — hugs a hillside overlooking the river.

“What’s always struck me is the almost San Francisco-type streets in terms of the steepness of some of the hills,” said Dan Storck (D-Mount Vernon), a member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

But another defining characteristic is the community itself. Belle Haven isn’t a place for folks who want to keep to themselves. This community thrives on its social life.

“You’re making a choice to live in close proximity of folks, which means you have to be able to get along with folks,” said Marty McGuinness, president of the Belle Haven Citizens Association.

Nearly every event, whether sad or celebratory, turns into a reason to socialize.

When McGuinness’s miniature Australian shepherd went missing, neighbors went into action. Search parties scoured the streets for Sssst, pronounced “Forest” but spelled with four S’s and a T. Children patrolled the neighborhood on bikes.

“They said they never saw him move so fast,” said McGuinness, who was out of town at the time. “Nobody could ever get him. But then someone had enough sense to open our front door.”

Even after Sssst was safely returned home, neighbors lingered in driveways. “Everyone comes together and looks out for each other,” said McGuinness. “And then, of course, it turned into a social thing, too.”

The citizens association puts on several events, including an annual dinner, a Fourth of July parade and an Easter egg roll. It greets new residents with a bottle of wine, a neighborhood directory and a cookbook containing residents’ family recipes.

But the Women’s Club, which has more than 250 members, is the axis upon which much of Belle Haven’s social life revolves.

“That’s not to say that the men don’t come and bartend and be a part of our parties,” said Eleni Silverman, president of the Belle Haven Garden Club, a subset of the Women’s Club, “but it is really women who are driving this.”

The Women’s Club started in 1936, when many women stayed at home. But the club, like the women who run it, has persisted through changing times and shifting norms.

“When I first moved there, I was one of the few women who worked full time,” said Catherine Foltz, a former resident and real estate agent with Long & Foster. “It’s changed over time because more and more of the women work these days.”

The club has evolved to focus on community outreach and cultural events and recently added a section for younger women. But even the garden club, which includes four master gardeners, is not entirely about gardening.

“It’s a way of sharing our lives together,” said Silverman.

Living there: Belle Haven is bounded by Richmond Highway to the northwest, Fort Hunt Road to the east, Windsor Road to the south, and Quander Road to the west.

Many residents spend their entire lives in Belle Haven. There are 30 of them here, including McGuinness. Now, his children are continuing such neighborhood traditions as ice skating at Mount Vernon RECenter and riding bikes through Fort Willard Circle, an old Union Army fort at the center of the community.

“It’s the kind of place you want to return to,” said Foltz. “My daughter would love to go back to the neighborhood and live there.”

The average price of homes sold in 2019 was $1.1 million. The median was $1.2 million. There are four active listings on the market, ranging from a four-bedroom, three-bathroom rambler listed at $879,000 to a newly renovated six-bedroom, six-bathroom Colonial listed at $2.4 million.

“People will move into the community and move up,” said Foltz. “That’s been the history of Belle Haven for years.”

But mentioning money here is met with palpable unease. “Because it’s a wealthy neighborhood, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that people here are snooty. But honestly, you know, there’s always snooty people everywhere,” said Silverman. “People here try to connect. And I think it would be hard for you not to find someone to connect with.”

Schools: Belle View Elementary, Sandburg Middle and West Potomac High.

Transit: Belle Haven is a mile and a half from the Huntington Metro station on the Yellow Line. The Fairfax Connector, Metrobus and Richmond Highway Express also serve the community.