Visit two historic architectural treasures
Two houses in Fairfax County’s Woodlawn Historic District, just a five-minute walk apart, juxtapose the landed gentry’s 19th-century, genteel lifestyle with 20th-century, middle-class practicality.
Take some time this fall to visit both Woodlawn and the Pope-Leighey House, two National Trust for Historic Preservation Historic Sites.
The Woodlawn mansion is perched on a hill within view of the Potomac River. The two-story, 6,500-square-foot Georgian mansion was designed by William Thornton, the architect of the U.S. Capitol, and completed in 1805.
George Washington gave the land to his step-granddaughter Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis Lewis and his nephew, Lawrence Lewis, in 1799. Nelly wanted her home to pay homage to her beloved grandfather, living at Mount Vernon only three miles away. His bust that she placed in the family parlor dominates the room today.
Washington called the plantation’s location “a most beautiful site for a Gentleman’s Seat,” and gentlemen came calling. Nelly, known as a gracious hostess, once said, “It’s not a Virginia fashion to pay short visits,” so guests were invited to linger in her spacious rooms and formal gardens. Among the luminaries the couple entertained in style were John Adams and the Marquis de Lafayette.
Arriving guests would exit their carriages and enter a grand hall running the width of the house in view of a winding staircase, reminiscent of Mount Vernon’s central passage.
They might then visit the two richly furnished “public” rooms: the music room and the formal dining room, which had marble fireplaces, elegant crown molding, and ceilings higher than those in the private family rooms.
Today’s visitors can gaze at oil portraits and handsome furniture from Washington’s era (20 percent is original), including sideboards, canopy beds and washstands.
The music room has a period pianoforte, harp and violin. Another room displays a needlepoint smoking hat, which Nelly made so her husband’s hair would not reek of smoke.
Of course, to make the home and plantation function, 90 enslaved people worked in the house and farmed the land. Free from household duties, Nelly, a person of privilege, could pursue her interests in music and stitchery.
She is known for her exquisite needlework, and today Nelly’s Needlers, formed in 1975, support Woodlawn. The group’s members make needlework items for the gift shop, sponsor an annual needlework show, and teach sewing, quilting, needlepoint, crewel embroidery and counted thread.
Woodlawn’s tours have been expanded to tell the stories of everyone who lived and worked at the plantation. After a short hiatus, tours of Woodlawn are scheduled to resume in September.
The Pope-Leighey House
Down the hill nestled in the woods is the one-story, 1,200-square-foot Pope-Leighey House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s for Charlotte and Loren Pope.
Pope, a Washington Star copyeditor making $50 a week, could not afford a typical Wright home, which sold for around $650,000 in today’s dollars. The couple chose a Usonian design instead, which cost $7,000 in its day, including all the furniture and Wright’s fee.
The L-shaped house, moved from its original Falls Church location to make way for I-66, is an example of Wright’s Usonian houses, which he created as affordable, practical housing for the middle class.
To reduce costs, the house has no gutters, basement, garage or attic. Wright used brick, wood, concrete and glass — no drywall, paint or plaster. He designed an efficient kitchen for one person. Much of the interior has natural, honey-colored, cypress wooden planks. Clearstory windows make rooms feel bigger.
Wright believed that homes should not be a series of boxy little rectangles. His vision was rooms without ends.
Thus, the house’s central living-dining area is open-floor plan, a combination library and living room with a table for meals or games.
Wright wanted to “build with nature rather than against it,” he said, so floor-to-ceiling windows lead to a patio, connecting the indoors to the landscape.
Wright integrated furniture into the home’s design, intended to blend in and not dominate a space. Beds are low and without box springs. Ever practical, he placed the doorknobs unusually high — a form of childproofing.
As Wright once said, “Every home should be as unique as the people living in it.” The Popes and their two children lived in the home for five years before selling it to Robert and Marjorie Leighey, who donated it 20 years later to the National Trust in 1964.
Nearby Quaker site
Another nearby attraction is the still-used Woodlawn Quaker Meetinghouse, built as a place of worship by anti-slavery Quakers in the 1800s before the Civil War.
The abolitionists created a farming community of free African Americans and white settlers to prove that small farms could succeed without enslaved people. The Friends invite the public to their Meetings for Worship at 11 a.m. every first Sunday of the month.
Tours of Woodlawn and the Pope-Leighey House cost $15 ($12 for seniors; $7.50 children K-12). National Trust for Historic Preservation members get a 50% discount. Masks, social distancing and advance tickets are required. For more information or to reserve a tour, visit woodlawnpopeleighey.org or call (703) 570-6902.