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Alcova Heights:
Community Spirit

By Linda Wheeler
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 14, 1995

Alice and Dan Nicolson wanted a big, old house when they came to Washington more than 30 years ago. Agents showed them places near where the Capital Beltway is now, but that was too far from work in the District. Other places were too new.

Finally, in desperation, an agent took them to a huge house in South Arlington called Alcova, with two-story columns, wide porches and romantic iron balcony.

"We thought it was a bit pretentious, but then said, Why not?,' " said Alice Nicolson, remembering how they liked the big spaces inside and the huge yard outside. Since then they have raised three children there, held many neighborhood parties and traced the history of the property, one of the oldest in Arlington County.

According to the Nicolsons, the first house was built on the 142-acre estate about 1855. The rather plain farmhouse was transformed into a gracious Southern mansion about 1916 when J. Cloyd Byars, a congressman, added a pitched roof, the wide porch and the pillars. It was Byars who named the place Alcova, which stands for Alexandria County, Virginia -- the original name for Arlington County. And it was Byars who divided the estate in lots that would eventually become the neighborhood of Alcova Heights.

Byars's son, Bailey P. Byars, remembers moving to Alcova when he was about 8 and wandering the land, hunting squirrels and rabbits. He also remembers his father's efforts to sell the lots. In 1921, when Bailey Byars was 15, his father grew tired of reselling a lot at the corner of what is now Glebe Road and Columbia Pike. A half-dozen buyers had defaulted on the property, and so the father told the son that if he could sell it permanently, the teenager could keep half the money.

"A friend told me about a car-dealership owner who was looking for a place," Byars said. "We struck a deal and I called Dad. The deal was I would get a new car for my part. It was a 1921, tan touring car with running boards. Back then there were no hardtops, they were all convertibles. I didn't have a driver's license but I drove that car everywhere."

Byars also remembers when the Depression came along and the family had to sell Alcova. His parents moved to Florida but they kept the carriage house as a place to stay when visiting.

Byars went into the real estate business, selling Alcova Heights lots. Most were 50,000 to 70,000 square feet, he said. By the end of the 1930s, he had sold the last lot and moved to another part of Arlington. There are now about 400 homes in the community.

Byars has stopped by to meet the new owners of his family home each time it has been sold. He helped the Nicolsons' daughter, Sally, write a high school essay about the history of the house and gave the family old photographs dating from 1920.

An ornate metal sign that spells out the name of Alcova hangs on the Nicolsons' porch. It and a companion sign were a gift from Byars several years ago. The signs originally had hung at the entrances to the estate.

As attractive as the neighborhood looked to the Nicolsons back in the Kennedy administration, it looked just as good last year to Michael Coughlin when he and his wife, Angella Kelly, bought a three-bedroom bungalow.

"We discovered this is a cohesive and friendly neighborhood," Coughlin said. "Within weeks of moving in, we had met everybody. Everyone seemed very welcoming. In July of 1994, there was push to reestablish the citizens association and we got caught up in that."

So caught up that Coughlin, a teacher, is the president of the association and his wife, an attorney, is the chairwoman of the traffic committee, he said. The association meets four times a year and deals with such issues as commuters cutting through the neighborhood, traffic patterns on nearby major roads and the scare that followed on the heels of a drug-related murder last year.

Coughlin said he feels safer in Alcova Heights than he did when he lived in several neighborhoods of the District where the streets are usually empty at night. In his new neighborhood, he said there are almost always people out jogging, walking dogs or working in their yards.

The association has planned several events this month, including a potluck dinner on the lawn of the Nicolsons' house and a Halloween parade through the neighborhood for the children.

This old-fashioned spirit of community and the attraction of vintage houses in suburban areas, those that are more than 55 years old, have attracted buyers to the neighborhood, according to real estate agent Lynne Brock of Coldwell-Banker, Stevens.

"There are a lot of older homes there and people have changed them to meet their needs," she said. "Some have added on rooms, others have gutted them and rebuilt the interior."

Brock said most of the homes are farmhouses, bungalows and Cape Cods with a few new Williamsburg-styled colonials mixed in. She said the newest homes sell for about $300,000 and the older, smaller ones for about $200,000.

In 1994, 11 homes were sold in Alcova Heights and this year, so far, nine. Brock said there are seven houses on the market.

One that probably won't go on the market for a long time is Alcova. The Nicolsons have reconfigured the interior of the house to make the space more usable, adding a curved staircase and a portico at the back door.

They have just finished a three-year project of stripping about an inch-thick layer of paint from the walls, windows and columns of the historic building. And they have repainted the entire house.

The next project will be to correct the historic marker on Eighth Street near their front gate. It was erected by the county several years ago and the Nicolsons say their research shows a different early owner for the property and a later date for the construction of the house. But even now they are not sure what corrections should be made to the sign.

"We traced the land deeds back to the mid-1850s and then we were not able to trace any further back," Alice Nicolson said. "We were unable to determine whether indeed a house was on the property at that time."

"I think the only way to track down an exact year for the construction will be to get tax records which would show an improvement," she said. "We may have to go to Richmond to check the archives there. It is something we intend to pursue."

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