When you stumble onto a piece of heritage property, Rule No. 1 is to treat it with respect.
Michael Foster still remembers the day two decades ago that he went out for a jog and stepped into a time warp. His route on that particular summer morning led him from his home in Cherrydale into the nearby Woodmont neighborhood, where he ran along a road that seemed more rural than suburban.
That’s where he passed an old chicken coop and a small farm stand by the side of the road, and eventually found Anne Pearce Hendry, owner of the stand and the garden acreage attached to it.
“Now, I’m no retail genius,” says Foster, a local architect whose design credentials include White House renovations, Washington Golf and Country Club, and a host of schools, churches and commercial buildings, “but I know you don’t sell a lot of vegetables on a road with no traffic.”
Upon engaging Mrs. Hendry (then around 85) in conversation, he learned her motivation for selling the occasional squash or tomato. Since the mid-19th century, the property had boasted decorative, medicinal and commercial gardens. When her husband, Dr. Ernest S. Hendry Sr., a gastroenterologist and research scientist, bought the place in 1927, he continued the tradition by planting exotic trees and edible gardens. She was merely carrying on the legacy.
The 20-acre Hendry property, it turned out, was both a beneficiary and a victim of Arlington’s prosperity and growth. A developer had asked to buy the house and land from Mrs. Hendry and her grown son and daughter for $4.5 million with the idea of building a retirement facility. The family said yes, but the Arlington County Board nixed the idea. Then the developer proposed a 56-unit residential development instead. The County Board was OK with this, but the Hendrys weren’t.
The site’s horticultural antecedents were a sticking point. At stake were the many ornamental trees Dr. Hendry had planted before his death, including Japanese raisin, bottlebrush buckeye, ginkgo and English walnut—not to mention a tulip poplar that is currently the largest tree measured in Arlington County (standing 140 feet high with a trunk circumference of 21 feet, the tree is sanctioned by the Arlington Urban Forestry Commission and included on the Arlington Champion Tree List). A large-scale housing development would have meant clearing many of the plants and trees to make room for homes and paved driveways and backyard patios.
Furthermore, the tree canopy wasn’t the only asset at stake. The property also harbored the historic Civil War earthworks remains of Fort C.F. Smith, one of 60 redoubts that encircled Washington by the end of 1863 (22 of them are in Arlington).
But the very fact that a developer had named a price for the land—and that the county had approved his proposal—lifted the property’s assessed value. One published account says the taxes went up 84 percent in a single year.
These facts left Foster determined to help the long-widowed Mrs. Hendry find a land-use solution that was economically sound, as well as historically and environmentally sensitive. “We studied everything from urban agriculture to an embassy site,” he recalls.
In the end, nature prevailed. In 1994, the Hendrys inked a deal with Arlington County for $5.25 million with the satisfaction of knowing that much of the site’s rich history would be preserved. Fort C.F. Smith Park is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the old Hendry residence, an eclectic part-Victorian, part-villa-style house surrounded by parkland, can be rented out for weddings and community events.
But the Hendrys didn’t sell all of their land to the county. In a separate deal, Robert Hemphill, co-founder of global power company AES Corp. bought 4.3 acres for $2.4 million. The family also sold off two half-acre lots to individuals, one of whom was Michael Foster.
Realizing that this half-acre of paradise was rare, Foster pondered its possibilities. For a while, he and his wife, Vicki, a lawyer and part-time art teacher, remained in their modest Cherrydale home, where they were “proud to be able to cut the grass with an electric mower and a 25-foot cord.”
But as the family grew—they have two girls, Alex, 17, and Jessie, 15—the need for space and the allure of the woods grew stronger. They eventually began construction on a new home not far from the original roadside vegetable stand.
What they built, as befits this quirky site at the confluence of history and modernity, is a house that’s neither traditional nor contemporary, but a little bit of both. Foster describes it as “Victorian with attitude.” Rounded exterior walls recall Queen Anne turrets, and a 12-foot front gable alludes to simpler frame styles, although without any of the typical Victorian gingerbread detailing. The front porch has a crisp pergola-style screen overhead. Enormous window walls on the back of the home drink up views of the meadow and parkland. And, in a welcome touch, the garage is tucked under the side of the house so cars aren’t the first thing visitors see when they arrive.
Understated in its appearance, the house is clad in cypress. “Part of me would love to have done a modern glass box,” Foster says, “but I didn’t want to stand apart [from the neighbors] by my ego.”
Inside, an unorthodox yet rational configuration of rooms paints a portrait of how the family lives. In lieu of a formal living room, the main gathering space is a large family room with 18-foot ceilings and tall, natural-wood-cased windows stacked high along one wall, allowing natural light to flood inside.
Some evenings this comfort zone—with its double-sided fireplace to the outdoors—welcomes three or four friends for wine and cheese. Alternately, the space has played host to nonprofits, church groups or business meetings of 150 or more, including events for the Lost Boys of Sudan, Tibetan refugee housing resettlements and the Children’s Law Center. As chairman of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, Foster has also held events there for Leadership Arlington, Community Residences and the Dominion Guild, among others.
Then again, it’s not just a party house. One of Foster’s design goals was to create “spaces of intimacy” and “spaces of hospitality.” It does indeed have both.
Take the dining room, just off the atrium by the front door. It holds a 15-foot table that can seat 12 for dinner, although it’s more often used as a buffet for large events. Most family meals, meanwhile, are eaten close to the kitchen, in a bright, casual alcove facing the rear lawn.
“[Michael] treated us like a client [during the design process],” says Vicki, who serves as general counsel to her husband’s firm, MTFA Architecture, which is located at Courthouse Metro, a little over a mile from the house. “We talked about who we are as a family, how will space affect the family.”
The library—the second-most-used room in the house—is another space that does double-duty. This book-lined sanctuary, with two leather club chairs and a partner’s desk, can be closed off to create a “book womb” (as the family calls it). But when there’s a party, the doors slide back and the desk becomes a bar.
“My favorite room in our old house was the library,” Vicki adds nostalgically. “It’s where I did all my studying for grad school.”
For Alex and Jessie, who were still little when the project was in blueprints, no dream home seemed complete without a tower. While their father sketched out plans for its radial composition of versatile, casual spaces, the girls built a tower with building blocks and fell in love with the idea of adding one to the house. That concept is now manifested as a “solar chimney” with operable windows that channels natural light into the heart of the home and promotes passive ventilation.
As for dad’s indulgence? The house has a driving tee on a rooftop perch adjacent to the tower. Foster says he has driven a fair number of golf balls into the trees beyond but acknowledges that he doesn’t really use it much now.
Fortunately, one needn’t be standing on the roof to enjoy the home’s spectacular scenery. During most seasons, the great room’s generous windows frame a dappled array of golden meadows and lush green foliage.
In winter, when the tree canopy gives way to broader vistas, the view includes the distant spires of Washington National Cathedral.
Nancy McKeon is a freelance writer and former editor at The Washington Post.