Tag Archives: Washington D.C.

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.

 

Member of the Week: Vyta Baselice

Vyta BaseliceVyta Baselice

PhD Student in American Studies

George Washington University

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

My dissertation explores the cultural history of concrete. I examine why concrete became the second most consumed material on the planet and how it came to define architectural and social modernity in the United States. The dissertation therefore attempts to move beyond aesthetic concerns typically addressed in literature on concrete and, in addition to built environments, looks at cement plants, concrete distribution businesses, contractors, and construction workers, among other important players. My interest in concrete is a result of both my personal and educational backgrounds. I grew up in a post-Soviet country, where the material was quite literally everywhere. My experience of studying architectural design and history, first at Wesleyan and then at University College London, got me interested in materials and environments people take for granted.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I currently work as a teaching assistant for various courses in the history of art, architecture, and science and technology. My teaching experience with undergraduate students allows me to clarify my own ideas about design and culture. This is important because although I come from a specialized background, I write for a non-expert audience. And it was only when I started teaching that I realized that students with no experience in architecture have a difficult time not only reading plans, drawings and other documentation, but also finding the language with which to describe space. So, I am now particularly sensitive about selecting helpful case studies that we can collectively break down and analyze, paying attention to how architecture can perform as functional buildings, artistic projects, capitalist ventures, and political statements.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I have been working on an article that examines the way concrete was transformed as a result of research and engineering efforts during World War I. This project has allowed me to engage with secondary and archival materials in the history of engineering, which is a fascinating though new field to me. In terms of other scholars’ work, I am excited to read Megan Black’s The Global Interior (Harvard, 2018), which examines the transnational aspirations of the Department of the Interior. Black’s approach to her topic is particularly inspiring to me as I am tackling some similar issues related to politics, culture, and the environment.

What advice do you have for graduate students preparing a dissertation project related to urban history or urban studies? 

I would advise students to select a topic that allows them to visit diverse archival repositories and field sites. While I have found secondary and digitized materials to be helpful and convenient, it has been critical to actually get to the archives and flip through the different materials, which often reveal unexpected relationships and thoughts. This has been particularly true for a documentation report I wrote for the Historic American Buildings Survey on Paul Rudolph’s Burroughs Wellcome Headquarters. The different project-related boxes I examined at the Library of Congress often included information on other buildings the architect was working on simultaneously. It was fascinating to consider how those projects might have informed the design of Burroughs Wellcome. Visiting the building was likewise critical for understanding the scale of the project and the extent to which representational tools attempted to mediate some of the less successful aspects of the design.

You live in Washington, D.C., which has no shortage of interesting structures. What concrete building should be included in any architectural tour of Washington, D.C.?

Oh, that’s a tough question. Some of the most obviously stunning buildings are large in scale and built by and for various government departments, like Marcel Breuer’s Department of Housing and Urban Development headquarters or Stanislaw Z. Gladych and Carter H. Manny Jr.’s J. Edgar Hoover Building (otherwise known as the imposing FBI structure). The DC metro likewise showcases a pretty impressive application of exposed concrete for transportation. I would, however, like to highlight some other lesser known works of concrete that represent earlier experimental uses of this material, like John Earley’s Meridian Hill Park, which is truly a spectacular urban park project, or the mini golf park in East Potomac Park.

Member of the Week: Brett Abrams

Brett L. Abrams

Senior Archivist

National Archives and Records Administration

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

I am examining the role of visual arts in the development of Washington, D.C. during the twentieth century. My previous books examined the intersection between popular culture and urban history. Hollywood Bohemians looks at transgressive sexuality in the understanding of Hollywood during the 1920s and 30s. Capital Sporting Grounds analyzes proposals for built and proposed stadiums in the Washington, D.C. landscape.

How do you make time for your independent research around your day job at the National Archives? Do you stick to a writing routine, or is every day different?

Although not in a routine way, I usually devote some time to research, reading or writing on historical topics during the evening or on weekends. The challenge is balancing that with spending time in the present with my cats and my husband.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either that you have edited or from other presses or journals?

Because of my time limits, I don’t do much reviewing and often only read about books pertinent to the subject I am writing about. However, recently I enjoyed reviewing Benjamin Lisle’s Modern Coliseum: Stadiums and American Culture.

What advice do you have for scholars of urban history who are considering pursuing work as archivists?

Currently, archives appear to be most interested in hiring people with strong training in information services and library training along with a history background.

What do you think is more likely to happen first: an NBA championship win by the Washington Wizards, or achieving peaceful diplomatic relations between the U.S. and North Korea?

At this moment: U.S. and North Korean peace but the Capitals did remove part of the D.C. curse.