Hickory Hill and the Kennedy Mystique
The McLean Mansion's most famous resident, RFK, was assassinated 50 years ago this month.
At different points in history, it was home to a pacifist Quaker, a pioneering Arlington developer and a prominent Supreme Court justice. Generations of Kennedys lived here too, wrote memoirs and persevered through tragedy, including the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, which occurred 50 years ago in June of 1968.
Today, a tech millionaire and his family own the stately mansion on approximately eight acres off Chain Bridge Road in McLean.
“I lived in California [as a kid] and I knew all about Hickory Hill,” says local historian Carole L. Herrick, author of the book Hickory Hill, McLean, Virginia: A Biography of a House and Those Who Lived There.
The original house, marked by a red brick facade with a slate mansard roof, was built in the early 1870s by carpenter and farmer George Walters, an avowed abolitionist who refused to fight in the Civil War, in keeping with his Quaker faith. Walters called the place “Hickory Hill” in reference to its elevated topography and abundance of that tree.
After 46 years, Walters’ family sold the property to a well-known dentist who, according to local gossip, was an adulterer and alcoholic who eventually went broke.
In 1924, the dentist sold it to his neighbor Frank Lyon, a prominent Arlington developer whose legacy lives on in the eponymous Arlington neighborhoods of Lyon Park and Lyon Village (the latter of which is on the National Register of Historic Places). Lyon gutted the original house, erected a Georgian-style mansion in its place, and in 1936, flipped the property to an automobile dealer.
Five years later, the property changed hands yet again. In 1941, just days after being confirmed to the bench, Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson and his wife, Irene, took up residence at Hickory Hill, according to Herrick’s book. They promptly added a badminton court.
Justice Jackson pondered some of the nation’s weightiest issues during his 13 years in residence on the hill. He defended free speech, arguing that the Pledge of Allegiance should not be a compulsory recitation in schools, and stood up against the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. In 1945, he took a year off from the Court to prosecute Nazi war criminals as the U.S. chief prosecutor during the Nuremberg trials.
In 1954, Jackson’s eventual support of school desegregation led to the unanimous Brown v. Board of Education decision. But Jackson suffered a fatal heart attack a few months later. Within a year, his widow had sold the property to a first-term Massachusetts senator and his wife for $125,000.