What constitutes a historic place that is worth saving? The question has been posed again and again by both preservation advocates and opponents during the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 63-year history.
It has the ability to incite divisive and impassioned responses from citizens across the country, who care deeply about the character of their communities.
Such currently is the case in Northern Virginia. The Federal Highway Administration has announced plans for a massive highway building project along Route 1 in Fairfax County. This alteration will drastically affect the Woodlawn historic district, which is anchored by the Woodlawn mansion, a historic site owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
This is not some modest road-widening project; the FHWA’s plans would triple the footprint of an already intrusive highway from 50 feet to almost 150 feet, including expansion room for future bus lanes or other mass transit.
The Woodlawn mansion and the land surrounding it on the north side of the existing Route 1 is a National Historic Landmark, the highest designation bestowed by the Secretary of the Interior and limited to a small number of the country’s historic places. The larger Woodlawn historic district — most of which also is owned by the National Trust — includes 19th- and 20th-century historic buildings, two historic cemeteries and an 1850s-era Quaker Meeting House. Also adjacent to the highway is a private riding stables dating from the 1970s, which since 1982 has been leased from the National Trust by a local business, Scanlin Farms, Inc.
FHWA has proposed two options for its road widening project: “widen-in-place” and a “southern bypass option.” Either of these options would cause irreparable damage to the historic district, and neither option is a choice we would wish to make. But the two options would lead to two different results for the historic district.
The widen-in-place option would completely change the character of the Route 1 corridor as it passes by Woodlawn, cutting into the hillside that marks the southern boundary of the National Historic Landmark, increasing noise and visual disruption to Woodlawn and the Quaker Meeting House, which still in use today. The widen-in-place option also would require the relocation of Grand View, an 1858 home on the site, and the highway authorities to dig up and move more than 100 historic graves at the 1875 Woodlawn Baptist Church Cemetery.
The southern bypass option would mean moving a single, modern barn and one historic building, the 1873 Otis Mason House. The historic buildings that make up the stables complex will be saved and can be used under the southern bypass option. Although the southern bypass certainly would disrupt the stables operations, Scanlin Farms, Inc., has been offered other alternatives by the FHWA that will permit it to keep operating, either on this site or other locations nearby.
Although the decision of which option is implemented and ultimately steamrolls through the Woodlawn historic district rests solely with the FHWA, the National Trust has voiced its support for the southern bypass option. As stewards for the entire Woodlawn site, we must support an alternative offered by the highway authorities that will move this intrusive new road project as far away as possible from the invaluable and irreplaceable historic resources that lie at the core of the district.
Woodlawn’s historical and cultural significance cannot be overstated. The 126-acre estate originally was part of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and its main house dates back more than 200 years. During the pre-Civil War era, Woodlawn was established as a “free labor colony,” selling lots to both free black and white farmers. The owners of the estate employed only free laborers to undermine the argument that the abolition of slavery would mean the death of the Southern plantation economy. Today, Woodlawn stands as a symbol of liberty and equality that we are honored to help protect for generations to come.
Making difficult choices when it comes to preservation issues is nothing new at the National Trust. Our privately- funded, nonprofit is guided by its mission to take on-the-ground action to support and encourage grassroots preservation efforts and protect historic resources when necessary. The National Trust has helped to save and enhance thousands of places across the U.S. since its inception.
As the Route 1 project advances, we are committed to working with the community and the FHWA to protect our most valuable asset: our history.
David J. Brown is executive vice president and chief preservation officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.