Hickory Hill and the Kennedy Mystique

The McLean Mansion's most famous resident, RFK, was assassinated on June 6, 1968.

Hickory Hill Today. Photo courtesy of Beltway Photos.

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 more than half a century 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.

Supreme Court Justice and onetime Hickory Hill owner Robert Jackson serving as U.S. chief prosecutor during the Nuremberg trials in 1945.

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.

JFK on the lawn with a young Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in 1957. Photo by Douglas Jones/Look Photograph Collection/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

John and Jackie Kennedy moved in on Oct. 15, 1955, happy that the house was conveniently located a mere mile from Jackie’s childhood home at Merrywood. Though the power couple’s tenure in McLean was brief, their year in residence coincided with some pivotal events. It was here that JFK penned Profiles in Courage (while bedridden after a debilitating back surgery), Jackie gave birth to a stillborn daughter, Arabella, and the young senator was nearly selected to be Adlai Stevenson’s running mate—a moment that would ultimately sow his path to the Oval Office. Their presence also had a lasting impact on McLean’s physical landscape. When the federal government announced its intention to relocate the CIA’s headquarters to nearby Langley, the plan was to expand Chain Bridge Road into a four-lane highway to accommodate the influx of commuter traffic. This didn’t sit well with property owners who feared the construction would impinge on their meandering estates. JFK would later join other prominent citizens in a campaign to convince the state to build a whole new highway to divert commuters across what were then largely open fields. We can thank him for Dolley Madison Boulevard.

When John and Jackie moved to Georgetown in 1956, they sold the house to John’s parents—who, in turn, rented it to his younger brother Robert and Robert’s wife, Ethel.

At this point Hickory Hill, more than any other residence outside of Hyannis Port, came to represent the Kennedy mystique. Snapshots of Bobby, Ethel and their kids playing football in the yard, riding horses, chasing dogs and swimming brought life to sleepy McLean. Images of the happy family dominated national media coverage. Parties became the norm, including an annual spring children’s pet show that brought bears, elephants and even a few “pet rocks” to the property.

Bobby and Ethel Kennedy at home with their growing family in 1961. Photo by AP Images/Henry Griffin.

The house also became the site of the “Hickory Hill seminars,” where intellectuals such as Rachel Carson, John Glenn and, on the rare occasion, JFK himself (who by then was living in the White House) gathered to talk about education policy, the existence of God and psychology.

Bobby and Ethel, it seemed, were constantly adding onto their abode to make room for social obligations and their rapidly expanding brood, which eventually numbered 11 kids and several dogs, including Bobby’s favorite pet, a Newfoundland named Brumus.

The family’s high-profile presence also had its downsides. As U.S. attorney general, Bobby’s repeated efforts to pursue legal action against infamous Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa resulted in threats to the politician and his family.

“RFK had a convertible and he would ride around [McLean] with Brumus,” says historian Herrick. “[The Teamsters] were thinking about shooting him and they thought it would have been easy [to spot him] because he’s the guy in the car with a dog.”

On Nov. 22, 1963, Bobby was having lunch poolside when he received the call that his brother John had been shot in Dallas. Police and Secret Service agents immediately swarmed the property, fearful the violence might be part of a larger conspiracy, while Bobby, still in shock, reportedly paced the grounds with Brumus at his heels.

Four years later, Bobby would announce his own candidacy for president. By then, he and Ethel had bought the house from the elder Kennedys. Days turned into nights at Hickory Hill as he and his advisers crafted speeches and policy, only occasionally interrupted by a gaggle of kids coming to say good night to their father. One friend described the bedtime intrusions as “wall-to-wall pajamas.”

Only three months into his candidacy, with Ethel by his side, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles.

Ethel remained at Hickory Hill until 2003, when she put it on the market for five times its assessed value, a reported $25 million. At that point, the 7,850-square-foot mansion had 13 bedrooms, according to county records, but it needed significant repairs. It had no garage or central air conditioning, and the electrical and plumbing systems were out of date.

Tech magnate Alan Dabbiere bought the house in 2009 for $8.25 million. He and his wife, Ashley, spent the next three years modernizing the interiors, while taking pains to preserve the style of its famed facade.

Today, the residence continues to preside over Chain Bridge Road, where it’s stood as an emblem of elegance and power for nearly a century and a half. But it still bears a few folksy touches.

At the bottom of the driveway, where it intersects with the public street, a farmhouse-shaped mailbox is plainly labeled with white lettering. The mailbox simply reads “Hickory Hill.”

Matt Blitz is a history, science and travel journalist whose work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Smithsonian Magazine, Washingtonian, Atlas Obscura and Food & Wine. He also heads up the Atlas Obscura Society DC, creating adventures for D.C.’s curious-minded.


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Categories: Local History