Tag Archives: Northern Virginia

The Capital’s Surveillance Shadow: A Northern Virginia Bibliography

Editor’s note: Remember that SACRPH 2019, the organization’s 18th conference, is in Northern Virginia (NOVA or NoVa)  this October/November from October 31 – November 3, the deadline for the CFP, which you can view here, is March 15. With this in mind, we begin our focus on NoVa as our Metro of the Month.  Submit your panels everyone! 

In the 1987 thriller, No Way Out (NWO), Navy Commander Scott Farrell, played by the allegedly dreamy, inexplicable leading man of the era, Kevin Costner, finds himself embroiled in a murderous love triangle featuring a nefarious Secretary of Defense, David Brice (Gene Hackman) and a dizzy D.C. courtier, Susan Atwell (Sean Young). Being the late 1980s, healthy dollops of Cold War espionage are also mixed into plot, as are a few regrettable homophobic and misogynistic tropes.

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Even Kevin Costner circa 1987 doesn’t understand his own appeal. From No Way Out

Yet, when one watches it today, the architecture of the capital and Northern Virginia stand out as much as the film’s dated social mores and loopy military/spy thriller vibe. NWO’s opening shot slowly trawls across the NOVA/DC landscape, capturing the usual suspects – The Pentagon, the Mount Vernon bike trail along the river, the Library of Congress, the Washington Monument, and so forth – before settling on the Arlington side of the river, staring, with an impending sense of foreboding, at the capital across the water.

Even a notorious sex scene in the film (scandalous for 1987 but pedestrian for 2019) functions as a tour of the city’s monuments as much as it is a testament to the button down freakiness of Washington D.C. diplomats, advisors and lobbyists. After all, who doesn’t gaze at the Lincoln Memorial and imagine limousine-aided carnal relations?

Despite the familiarity of the Washington Mall, Congress, and other D.C. federal institutions, the architecture of the security state located largely in Northern Virginia defines the movie’s conspiratorial narrative. All the Presidents Men (1976) schemed to achieve something similar; Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), evoked a similar sentiment more recently, albeit aided by a great deal of CGI.

In NWO, the Pentagon casts its imperial shadow across the metropolitan region while its workers, many from the NOVA suburbs, scurry about in its endless regimented corridors. The CIA’s Langley Headquarters surveys the intellectual community hidden amidst a sea of green. When trying to thwart actions by a rival in the government, Farrell speeds down Georgetown’s Whitehurst Freeway with the Key Bridge and the Key Bridge Marriot in the background, the latter located just across the river in Arlington where according to historian Andrew Friedman, author of Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Virginia, C.I.A. agents clandestinely rendezvoused, eating and drinking their fill all while planning various covert actions abroad.

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Modern house in northern Virginia, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Granted, it never reaches the level of California noir, but the idea and reality of clandestine meetings between elites and operatives was planted in the NOVA soil during the region’s post-World War II development. During the 1950s, Eleanor Dulles’s Maclean, VA bungalow served as a modern day foreign policy salon, “a kind of Round Table for Cold War Washington,” where elites like Allen and John Foster Dulles among numerous others lazed about the pool, drank martinis, and played games of touch football while endeavoring to covertly remake the world in America’s interest. Later, as the nation began wading into Southeast Asia, Edward G. Landsdale (think Alden Pyle from Graham Greene’s The Quiet American), a famed CIA operative in Vietnam, held “hootenannies” at his NOVA home in an effort to create cultural and personal bonds between Washington and Vietnamese elites.[1]

For Friedman, the expansion of the intelligence community in Northern Virginia transformed its human geography from rural farmers and large landholders to suburban CIA agents plying their trade amidst a cartography of pleasantly bland intrigue: a “covert capital” “hidden in plain sight,” which more accurately embodied “U.S. imperial management on the ground” in places like Vietnam, Iran, and Central America.[2] Transnational relationships between agents abroad and elites in these places later led to resettlement in the region, further altering NOVA’s demographics, though not every group that gravitated to the region found new footholds on equal terms.

The Vietnamese endured the residue of the Jim Crow South and U.S. resentment over military failure in Southeast Asia. Iranians, often better off and with ties to higher ranking intelligence officers, reestablished themselves in upper middle class suburbs. El Salvadorians, victims of America’s secret wars in Central America, arrived as almost invisible specters, working some of the hardest manual labor jobs in the region and ultimately existing in a “zone of illegality” often viewed as undocumented despite residing in the U.S. legally.

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Eden Center, Peter Reft, July 2014

Each cast a cultural influence. Eden Center in Falls Church recreates the markets of Ho Chi Minh City while El Salvadorians transformed neighborhoods such as Alexandria’s Chirilagua neighborhood. Many Iranians slid easily into real estate development and other management positions, thereby contributing to the region’s physical transformation. And NOVA’s diversity extends beyond these examples. By the early 1990s, an observer traversing the halls of its public schools would hear nearly 50 languages spoken, including Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Spanish, Korean, and Vietnamese.[3]

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Eden Center, Peter Reft, July 2014

Agents too brought remnants of their experiences abroad back with them, whether artifacts from Asia and Latin America as interior design or the imperial built environment they imported and embedded into the landscape. “The ephemeral newness and just-add-water domesticities frequently associated with the post-World War II suburbs, for transnational CIA families,” asserts Friedman, “became functional necessities, just as the neocolonial architecture seen as indigenous to these suburbs often played the double role of importing the comfort and style of colonial bungalows they inhabited abroad into their home environment.”[4]

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The blandly conspiratorial Key Bridge Marriott, Peter Reft, July 2014

Yet, while the intelligence community undoubtedly shaped NOVA, so too did the vast military industrial complex that ballooned in the post World War II period. In part under the leadership of Vannevar Bush, operations research (OR)—or to oversimplify, scientific applications used to align weapons systems and other armaments in the field—became the economic coin of the realm. RAND might have pioneered efforts in OR from its Santa Monica location but as Paul Ceruzzi notes, “the armed services wanted scientists nearby, and they established counterparts to RAND located in the Washington region.”[5]

It helped that after World War II worries that the concentration of military/intelligence agencies in cities would leave national security vulnerable to nuclear attack led Truman to embrace “industrial dispersion,” a “quiet effort that operated largely below the political radar screen,” as historian Margaret O’Mara writes. Dispersion resulted in the militarization of suburbia and the suburbanization of science and coincided with mass suburbanization. Dispersion along with the government’s increasing support of science as a form of economic development transformed the federal government into an extremely powerful consumer of industry while simultaneously increasing its interest in locating contractors in metropolitan areas outside of densely populated cities.[6]

Highway construction followed nationally, and more specifically, in Northern Virginia. Of numerous plans in circulation, only the infamous Beltway was ever fully realized. Its completion laid the groundwork for the growth of Reston, Dulles Airport and the Dulles Corridor. Tysons Corner, positioned at Beltway interchanges for routes 123 and 7, made it a prime location for housing, retail complexes, and corporate offices. Other destinations also benefitted, such as Annandale, but none to the extent of Tysons Corner.[7] Indeed, over the past several decades Tysons Corner has grown exponentially and today even has a silver line metro stop, though the station sits in the middle of two large thoroughfares and the “edge city’s” walkability remains marginal at best.

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Panorama aerial of Tysons Corner, Virginia, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

As the Cold War ramped up, the federal government created the National Science Foundation (NSF) and promoted the idea of science and tech research as economic development, or as O’Mara puts it, “city building.” The result has been the sort of “edge city” or “urbanized suburb” idealized by Joel Garrea, which has come to typify Northern Virginia.

Obvious parallels between Silicon Valley, Southern California’s aerospace industries, and NOVA exist. Today, Silicon Valley is seen as at the vanguard of the consumer electronics industry and social media, but it made its bones on federal contracts. Early on, Stanford’s Fredrick Terman, one of the individuals credited with laying the groundwork for today’s Silicon Valley, recognized that federal funds “served as seed money for industrial innovation.” Despite its long history of skepticism toward government and its promotion of free markets, Stanford (and others who established tech businesses in the Valley) quickly lined up at the trough of federal defense spending.[8]

Not to be outdone, Southern California, which historian Lisa McGirr argues is the birthplace of modern conservatism, also welcomed federal dollars for its aerospace industries, many of which relocated to or established offices in NOVA during the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s: Computer Science Corporation (CSC), Science Applications International Corporations (SAIC), California Analysis Center Incorporated (CACI), DynCorp, and RAND, among others. Reagan’s SDI program brought these industries to a fever pitch by the mid 1980s, only to be consolidated under a handful of corporations later during the 1990s and 2000s.

Though not completely analogous, Silicon Valley had Stanford and the Stanford Research Park, while NOVA has George Mason University—which, behind the leadership of George Johnson in the late 1970s and early 1980s, oriented many of its programs toward OR and systems analysis. However, unlike Stanford, which pioneered this sort or relationship and created the model, GMU reacted to local firms, or, as Ceruzzi writes, “it is an effect, not a cause of the booming economy.”[9]

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Modern office building in northern Virginia, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

For all its benefits, NOVA also lacks the kind of entrepreneurial venture capitalists that scour its Northern California counterpart. For better or worse, the government remains the primary consumer of the kinds of products and services produced by NOVA firms. Finally, building an industry around military policy makers, in which they serve as the conduit for development, results in a much different working culture. In Silicon Valley, “it is always the engineer, the programmer, even the computer hacker, who ranks at the top, even if he or she may not be the CEO of the company or necessarily have gotten rich from his or her efforts,” notes Ceruzzi.[10] Admittedly, in the decade since Ceruzzi published Internet Alley: High Technology in Tyson’s Corner, 1945-2005, figures like Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jack Dorsey have dominated the narrative around the Valley in a fashion that seems more hierarchical than he asserts in his 2008 work, but his point remains salient.

Of course, the growth of defense industry companies such as Raytheon and the government’s emphasis on science research only partially explains the region’s development. If not for John “Til” Hazel and his partner Milton Peterson, Northern Virginia might look very different.

Described by journalist Joel Garreau in his flawed but influential work Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, Hazel was both “legal sledgehammer” and “John the Baptist of Development.”[11] According to Garreau, only Pierre L’Enfant, the French designer of the capital, had “done more to shape the Washington area.” Hazel rejected affordable housing, depicted environmentalists as irrational, and viewed unfettered development as the holy grail of suburbanization. “If he brought no little arrogance to his vision, it was because he was creating no less than a new world,” writes Garraeu, “He was bringing civilization to the ‘howling wilderness’ … He was bringing it the benefits of modernity….”[12]

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Tysons Corner Center shopping mall, Tysons Corner, Virginia, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Opponents like Audrey Moore and the slow growth movement she represented blunted some of Hazel’s efforts, but the Northern Virginia developer rode roughshod over the region for decades until his efforts to transform the Civil War battlefield site of Bull Run into a suburban shopping mall ran into a buzzsaw of well positioned resistance.[13] Ironically the military’s history and not the development of its future capabilities was what ultimately blunted NOVA’s suburbanization.

What has all this meant for the state of Virginia? By 1999, Fairfax County contained 14 percent of the state’s population and provided nearly a quarter of its tax revenue. Depending on the study consulted, and whether Arlington County and the City of Alexandria are included in the equation, the percentage of revenue to the state climbs to nearly 50 percent.[14] In 2008, NOVA accounted for one third of the state’s nearly 22 million residents, half of its economic development, and nearly the same in tax revenue, but only received back between 25 and 40 percent in cash and state services. “They treat us like the Bank of Fairfax,” said one county official at the time. Politically, over the course of the past two decades NOVA single-handedly transformed Virginia from red state to purple to blue. During the 2008 presidential campaign an advisor to the late John McCain told MSNBC that NOVA wasn’t “real Virginia.” The cognitive dissonance between Northern Virginia and its southern counterparts in Richmond led to a Washingtonian article that same year titled simply, “Will Northern Virginia become the 51st State?”

With changes afoot related to the arrival of half of Amazon’s HQ2 project, Northern Virginia remains far from static. Jeff Bezos’ online behemoth promises that the region’s growth will continue apace, perhaps in ways less dependent on the government—though contractors across the region whisper conspiratorially about the company’s alleged foray into federal contracting. Not exactly the stuff of late-1980s Kevin Costner spy thrillers, but, for good and for ill, compelling nonetheless.

Below you’ll find our usual attempts to craft a bibliography on the region. We’d like to extend special thanks to Krystyn Moon, Tommy Hill, and Lindsey Bestebreurtje for their expertise in building the bibliography; their efforts were immensely helpful. As always, we know we’ve probably missed something. If so, let us know in the comments!

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Aerial view with a focus on Francis Scott Key Bridge between Northern Virginia and the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Bibliography

Banham, Russ. The Fight for Fairfax: A Struggle for a Great American County. Virginia: GMU Presses, 2009.

Baker, Andrew. “Metropolitan Growth Along the Nation’s River: Power, Waste, and Environmental Politics in a Northern Virginia County, 1943-1971.” Journal of Urban History, 23, No. 5 (2015): 703-119.

Bestebreurtje, Lindsey. “Built By the People Themselves: African American Community Development in Arlington, Virginia from Civil War to Civil Rights.” PhD Diss., George Mason University, 2017.

Bestebreurtje, Lindsey. “A View from Hall’s Hill: African-American Community Development in Arlington.” Arlington Historical Magazine 15, No. 3 (Oct. 2015): 19-34.

Bunch-Lyone, Beverly and Nakeina Douglas. “The Falls Church Colored Citizens Protective League and the Establishment of Virginia’s First Rural Branch of the NAACP.” In Verney, et. al. Long is the Way and Hard: One Hundred Years of the NAACP. Arkansas: University of Arkansas Press, 2009.

Ceruzzi, Paul E. Internet Alley: High Technology in Tysons Corner, 1945-2005. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008.

Chacko, Elizabeth, and Ivan Cheung. “The Formation of Contemporary Ethnic Enclaves: Little Ethiopia in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.” In Race, Ethnicity, and Place in a Changing America, 2nd ed., edited by John W. Frazier, Eugene L. Tettey-Fio, and Norah F. Henry, 129-41. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006.

Chacko, Elizabeth. “Ethiopian Ethos and the Making of Ethnic Places in the Washington Metropolitan Area.” Journal of Cultural Geography 20, no. 2 (Spring-Summer 2003): 21-42.

———. “Identity and Assimilation among Young Ethiopian Immigrants in Metropolitan Washington.” Geographical Review 93, no. 4 (October 2003): 491-506.

———. “Washington, D.C.: From Biracial City to Multiethnic Gateway.” In Migrants to the Metropolis: The Rise of Immigrant Gateway Cities, edited by Marie Price and Lisa Benton-Short, 203-25. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2008.

———. “Ethiopian Taxicab Drivers: Forming an Occupational Niche in the US Capital.” African and Black Diaspora: An Internal Journal 9, no. 2 (July 2016): 200-13.

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Aerial view of Northern Virginia in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Friedman, Andrew. Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.

Friedman, Samantha, Audrey Singer, Marie Price, and Ivan Cheung. “Race, Immigrants, and Residence: A New Racial Geography of Washington, D.C.” Geographical Review 95, no. 2 (April 2005): 210-30.

Gordon, Douglas. “Arlington Rebuilds a Community and its Roots.” Architecture + Design in the Mid-Atlantic 23, no. 4 (2012):18-28.

Hayden, Dolores. The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1995.

Hill, Thomas. “The Securitization of Security: Reorganization of Land, Military, and the State in the Pentagon’s Backyard.” Journal of Urban History 41, no. 1: 75-92.

Kaye, Anthony E. Joining Places: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Meyers, Jessica. “Pho and Apple Pie: Eden Center as a Representation of Vietnamese American Ethnic Identity in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area, 1975-2005.” Journal of Asian American Studies 9, no. 1 (2006): 55-85.

Moon, Krystyn R. “The African American Housing Crisis in Alexandria, Virginia, 1930s-1960s.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 124, no. 1: 28-68

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Wolf Trap Concert Hall in northern Virginia, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

———. “The Alexandria YWCA, Race, and Urban (and Ethnic) Revival: The Scottish Christmas Walk, 1960s-1970s,” Journal of American Ethnic History 35, no. 4 (Summer 2016): 59-92.

Morris, James McGrath. “A Chink in the Armor: The Black-Led Struggle for School Desegregation in Arlington, Virginia, and the End of Massive Resistance.” Journal of Policy History 13, no. 3 (2001): 329-366.

Perry, Nancy. “The Influence of Geography on the Lives of African American Residents of Arlington County, Virginia, during Segregation.” PhD diss., 2013.

Nancy, Perry. “Everybody was Looking for a Good Government Job”: Occupational Choice during Segregation in Arlington, Virginia.” Journal of Urban History 40, no. 4 (March 2014): 719-741.

Perry, Nancy, Spencer Crew, Nigel M. Waters. “‘We didn’t have any other place to live’: Residential Patterns in Segregated Arlington County, Virginia.” Southern Geographer 53, no. 4 (Winter 2013): 403-427

Petrozziello, Allison J. “Feminised Financial Flowers: How Gender Affects Remittances in Honduran-US Transnational Families.” Gender and Development 19, no. 1 (2011): 53-67.

Posey, Zakia L. “Oromo Transnationalism in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area: An Examination of the Development, Challenge, and Prospects of Gaining an Institutional Footing.” PhD diss., Michigan State University, 2014.

Price, Marie. “Placing Transnational Migration: The Sociospatial Networks of Bolivians in the United States,” 209-219. Race, Ethnicity, and Place in a Changing America. Edited by John Frazier. Binghamton University Publishing, 2006.

Price, Marie and Elizabeth Chacko. “Mixed Embeddedness of Ethnic Entrepreneurs in a New Immigrant Way.” Journal of Immigrant and Refugee Studies 7, no.3 (2009): 328-346.

Repak, Terry A. Waiting on Washington: Central American Workers in the Nation’s Capital. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

 Reston Town Center: Downtown for the 21st Century. Ed. Alan Ward, 1st edition. Washington, D.C.: Academy Press, 2006.

Schrag, Zachary M. “The Freeway Fight in Washington D.C.: The Three Sisters Bridge in Three Administrations.” Journal of Urban History 30, no. 5 (2004): 648-673.

———. The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro. Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Vogel, Steve. The Pentagon: A History – The Untold Story of the Wartime Race to Build the Pentagon, and to Restore it Sixty Years Later. New York: Random House, 2007.

Wilson, Jill H., and Shelly Habecker. “The Lure of the Capital City: An Anthro-Geographical Analysis of Recent African Immigration to Washington, DC.” Population Space & Place 14, no. 5 (September-October 2008): 433-48.

Wood, Joseph. “Vietnamese American Place Making in Northern Virginia.” Geographical Review 87, no. 1 (January 1, 1997): 58–72.

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Aerial view of high-rise neighborhood in Arlington’s fast-growing Rosslyn, Virginia, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Primary Sources (oral histories, online exhibits, etc)

Bearinger, David. “From Bolivia to Virginia: Interview with Emma Violand-Sanchez.” Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Accessed December 14, 2016 (http://virginiahumanities.org/2013/06/from-bolivia-to-virginia/).

Lindsey Bestebreurtje, “Built By the People Themselves.” (http://lindseybestebreurtje.org/arlingtonhistory/)

“Echos of Little Saigon.” (https://littlesaigonclarendon.com)

“The Gray: Isaac Schwarz.” Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln’s City. Accessed November 14, 2015. http://www.jhsgw.org/exhibitions/online/lincolns-city/exhibits/show/mr-lincolns-city/blue-gray/isaac-schwarz.

Iacobelli, Amanda. “German and German-Jewish Immigrants: Michael German, Lewis Baar, David Bendheim, Max Pretzfelder, J.H Gerhard, and Henry and Isaac Schwarz”http://alexandriava.gov/uploadedFiles/historic/info/archaeology/AR500BlockGerman.pdf (2006).

Immigrant Alexandra Oral History Project. (https://www.alexandriava.gov/historic/info/default.aspx?id=86067) .

“Life Across the River.” Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln’s City, Accessed November 14, 2015. http://www.jhsgw.org/exhibitions/online/lincolns-city/exhibits/show/mr-lincolns-city/life-across-the-river.

Featured image (at top): Panorama aerial of Northern Virginia near Washington, D.C., Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

[1] Friedman, Covert Capital, 35-38, 150-152.

[2] Andrew Friedman, Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2013), 32.

[3] Joel Garreau, Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, (New York: Random House, 1991), 353.

[4] Friedman, Covert Capital, 90

[5] Paul E. Ceruzzi, Internet Alley: High Technology in Tysons Corner, 1945-2005, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 23.

[6] Margaret O’Mara, Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 29, 34.

[7] Ceruzzi, Internet Alley, 63.

[8] O’Mara, Cities of Knowledge, 109.

[9] Ceruzzi, Internet Alley, 123-125, 15-16.

[10] Ceruzzi, Internet Alley, 92, 15

[11] Joel Garreau, Edge City, 382.

[12] Garreau, Edge City, 351, 383

[13] Joel Garreau, Edge City, 351, 390-391, 396, 404.

[14] Ceruzzi, Internet Alley, 119-120.

Mid-Century Modernism on the Fringes of D.C.: Charles Goodman and NOVA’s Hollin Hills

When one thinks of Northern Virginia, Old Town Alexandria might be the first place that comes to mind. Historic, compact, and on the water, Old Town remains a popular brunch and tourist destination and a way station for intrepid souls proceeding on to nearby Mount Vernon. Yet, since the 1960s, Alexandria’s industrial areas such as Old Town North have embraced modern mixed-use development; throughout Old Town, the occasional cobble street meets with plenty of twenty-first century realities. Historic Old Town serves as an anchor for a rapidly urbanizing and expanding Alexandria, where modern townhomes and apartment complexes in the new developments of Potomac Yard and Braddock are shaping the built environment around Alexandria’s iconic downtown.

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Hollin Hills, photograph by John Bluedorne, April 2018

The more modern design of NOVA’s other notable town, Arlington—which can be seen from Georgetown across the Key Bridge—has as recently as 2015 been described by the Washington Post in less than glowing terms: “Welcome to Arlington County’s high-rise downtown, a concrete canyon where nightlife goes to die — and where, in recent years, the commercial vacancy rate has climbed to 30 percent.” Still, not everyone agrees. “Semi-traditional cities” such as Arlington, Robert Steuteville argued recently, are among the most dynamic places for urbanism today. “[H]alf urban grid and half suburban street patterns” minus the sprawl, places like Arlington attempt to imbue a certain urbanity in their suburban landscape. In both cases, the balance between suburban comfort and historical heritage abuts with both the desires and challenges of urbanism.

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Hollin Hills home interior, photograph by John Bluedorne, April 2018

Still, NOVA’s twenty-first century growth does not rival the development that unfolded after 1945, a period in which mid-century modernism made inroads into the region’s built environment. Smaller homes, ultimately American interpretations of the burgeoning International and Bauhaus movements popular in Europe, emerged in a handful of communities around NOVA and southern Maryland. The juxtaposition between traditional Virginia housing and the then developing modernist movement was no less jarring than the divide currently developing between Arlington’s “new urbanism” and Old Towne’s colonial vibe.

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Hollin Hills interior, photograph by John Bluedorne, April 2018

With an expanding federal government in the post-World War II period, NOVA needed more housing stock. For young architects hoping to make a statement, the Virginia suburbs offered the chance to try something different, while maintaining an equilibrium between dynamic urbanism and idyllic rural existence–urban homes, embedded in an environment meant to highlight the natural virtues of country living. Hidden within a landscape of federal architecture (the CIA, the Pentagon, NRA headquarters) and numerous suburban subdivisions are pockets of mid-century modernism more often associated with California than the mid-Atlantic. For a singular example, one can visit the innovative Pope Leighy House in Alexandria, built by Frank Lloyd Wright as part of his Usonian movement.

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A very California looking ranch home in Hollin Hills, photograph by John Bludorne, April 2018
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Another California-style Hollin Hills home with a touch of spring color, photograph by John Bluedorne, April 2018

If you want more of a community feel, visit Bethesda, Maryland’s Carderock Springs for its “situated modernism” or, if in Northern Virginia, Alexandria’s Hollin Hills—a community its architectural founder described as “ideal country living for urban people.”

For the immersive Hollin Hills experience, one cannot beat the eponymously-titled house tour, held every two years in the Alexandria neighborhood. The community became the first in the D.C. metro region to consist entirely of contemporary housing. With the Vernacular Architecture Forum’s conference having just finished on May 5 and the SACRPH 2019 conference in Northern Virginia on the horizon, The Metropole decided to head down to Alexandria to take in the 2018 Hollin Hills House and Garden Tour. What follows is a brief thumbnail history of Hollin Hills accompanied by photos from the most recent house tour held on April 28. (All photos courtesy of John Bluedorn and Ryan Reft).

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More ranch, more Hollin Hills, photograph by John Bluedorne, April 2018

Sitting about 14 miles outside of Washington D.C. and consisting of 326 acres and over 450 homes, Hollin Hills remains, as Meghan Drueding wrote in 2014, “a well-preserved paradise for midcentury aficionados.” Following World War II, architect Charles Goodman, developer Robert Davenport, and landscape architects Lou Bernard Voight, Dan Kiley, and Eric Paepke created a community of small homes meant to be modern, affordable and “stylistically aligned with the ideas of such architects as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra,” while simultaneously blending into the neighborhood’s rolling hills and wooded areas—“a community of homes nestled into the landscape,” reflected John A. Burns, architect and long-time resident.

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Both photos (above and below) demonstrate how Goodman and his landscape architects attempted to build into the environment, photographs by Ryan Reft, April 2018

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While Goodman undoubtedly cast an influence over mid-century vernacular architecture, so too did the landscape architects and designers that worked alongside him. Dan Kiley, for example, went on to commissions with IBM headquarters, Dulles International Airport, and the U.S. Air Force Academy.[1] Kiley, Goodman, Voight, and Paepke ultimately created what some have called “a landscape of democracy” as they sought to blur the boundary between public and private, enabling the flora to “envelope the houses in their embrace.”[2]

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Garden part of Hollin Hills Home and Garden Tour, photograph by Ryan Reft, April 2018

“It was the sort of land every builder would turn down,” Goodman told an interviewer in 1983, “but I felt it would make for ideal country living for urban people, and Bob Davenport did, too.” Built between 1949 and 1971, many of the homes would be considered small; they remain so even though most have expanded on their initially slight footprint. Though modest in size, “[h]igh ceilings, open floor plans, and an efficient use of space make them feel larger than they really are,” Drueding noted. At the time, Hollin Hills contrasted starkly with a local tradition “dominated by red brick, gable roofs, white trim, sash windows and paneled doors,” writes Burns.[3]

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Charles Goodman Park, Hollin Hills, VA, photograph by Ryan Reft, April 2018

The homes became available in 1949, with the first selling for $12,500. “The whole method was to break everything down to a system that would simplify construction and still give you great freedom of design,” Goodman told architectural critic Benjamin Fogey in 1983. “The results were relatively inexpensive starter homes … families flocked to them.” The community earned a citation for having the best houses under $15,000 from Life magazine. In 2005, WAPO estimated their value to be “easily 50 times that amount.” Even with the 2008 housing debacle, a safe guess would suggest that number has increased, significantly; an ironic turn for housing built specifically for affordability.

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The ghost of Hollins Hills House and Garden Tour past, photograph by Ryan Reft, April 2018

Admittedly, some of its first residents viewed their homes with a dollop of trepidation. “I first thought the houses looked like chicken coops,” Rebecca Christofferson reflected decades later. “I decided subsequently that many of them still look like chicken coops, but I have grown to love chicken coops.” Of course, one person’s chicken coop is another’s modernist masterpiece. Christofferson’s husband, Leif, described their home differently. “There is something uplifting about the design, the light coming in,” he noted. “I like the design, I like the windows, I like the fireplace. I like the outdoors and the fact it flows into the house.”[4] Many of the community’s first residents worked for the government, employed in white collar, but not necessarily lucrative positions. The homes were meant to reflect those inhabiting them: unpretentious and simple, yet sophisticated and affordable.

Influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, Goodman got his start with the federal government serving as a public architect for the Public Buildings Administration and the Treasury Department. From this position, he promoted modernism in government architecture domestically and abroad, notes the Fairfax County website devoted to another community designed by Goodman, the Commons of McLean.

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One only need a Mai Tai to complete the Tiki circle, photograph by Ryan Reft, April 2018

During World War II, Goodman worked as the principal architect for the Army Air Forces Transport Command. After the war, he founded Charles M. Goodman Associates and turned his attentions to residential housing. From 1946-1956, 32,000 Goodman-designed homes were constructed. In 1957, writing for the American Institute of Architect’s centennial, Fredrick Gutheim heralded Hollin Hills as a promising sign of the future. Yet by 2012, a Washington Post article described Goodman as merely “one of the modernist movement’s better-known architects.” Architectural historian Richard Longstreth noted ten years earlier that “as celebrated as it was in its own day,” the neighborhood had fallen into “semi-obscurity” over ensuing decades.[5]

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Hollin Hills garden, photograph by Ryan Reft, April 2018

The popularity of the show “Mad Men” and its overall aesthetic have helped bring some renewed attention to Hollin Hills. In fact, the production designer for the show, Dan Bishop, grew up in the community—as did Jeremy Conway, production designer for the “Sex and the City” TV series and films. “The architecture there did influence my sensibilities about modern homes,” Bishop told interviewers in 2010. “I live in one now, with glass walls surrounded by trees in South Pasadena [Calif.]. Truthfully, I would rather live in a Hollin Hills house.”

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More Hollin Hills landscape, photograph by Ryan Reft, April 2018

Landscaping plays a large role in the Hollin Hills aesthetic. “It’s a unique experiment in the fusion of architecture and landscape architecture,” former president of the American Society of Landscape Architects Dennis Carmichael noted in a 2005 lecture, because “landscape was very much a form-giver, an iconic part of the whole place.” The developers left vegetation much as it was, houses sat upon generously apportioned properties, and the layout of streets “was responsive to topography,” notes Longstreth.[6] “The fact that the houses were built up from the natural setting rather than, like most American suburban settings, cutting down all the trees and flattening the land,” acknowledged one resident, “I think that’s exciting.”[7]

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Two satisfied Washingtonians, photograph by Ryan Reft, April 2018

Houses don’t front the road unless above or below street level; no homes look directly at one another. Sitting above and below curving rolling hills, houses sit at angles that provide maximum exposure to sunlight and privacy. “[O]ne doesn’t see a Levittown-style lineup of little houses,” Nancy McKeon wrote 2010, “but a winding, climbing treescape that happens to shelter an entire living, breathing, modernism-obsessed community.” Designers deployed cul-de-sacs and T streets to reduce traffic.[8] “The houses of Hollin Hills are in the landscape, not on the landscape,” notes landscape architect Dennis Carmichael.[9] As Goodman used to say, homes in Hollin Hills “slide through the trees.”[10]

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The foot fist at the end of the Hollin Hills House and Garden Tour, photograph by Ryan Reft, April 2018

If you find yourself in Alexandria or NOVA more generally, and yes we are talking to you intrepid SACRPH members, wander about the streets of Hollin Hills for a journey into modernist residential housing or Charles Goodman put it, “ideal rural living for urban people.”

 


[1] Dennis Carmichael, “A Landscape of Democracy”, in Hollin Hills: Community of Vision, A Semicentennial History 1949-1999 (Civic Association of Hollin Hills, Alexandria, VA: 2000), 76.

[2] Carmichael, “A Landscape of Democracy”, 70.

[3] John Burns, “The Postwar Housing Phenomenon” in Hollin Hills: Community of Vision, A Semicentennial History 1949-1999 (Civic Association of Hollin Hills, Alexandria, VA: 2000), 44.

[4] Scott Wilson, “First Settlers”, in Hollin Hills: Community of Vision, A Semicentennial History 1949-1999 (Civic Association of Hollin Hills, Alexandria, VA: 2000), 89.

[5] Richard Longstreth, “Review: Hollin Hills, Community of Vision: A Semicentennial History, 1949 – 1999”, Washington History 13.2 (Fall/Winter, 2001/2002): 87-88.

[6] Longstreth, “Review: Hollin Hills, Community of Vision: A Semicentennial History, 1949 – 1999”, 87.

[7] Wilson, “First Settlers”, 89.

[8] Burns, “The Postwar Housing Phenomenon”, 46.

[9] Dennis Carmichael, “A Landscape of Democracy”, 70.

[10] Burns, “The Postwar Housing Phenomenon”, 52.