Living History

For longtime Cherrydale resident Kathryn Holt Springston, historic preservation isn’t just a cause. It’s a lifestyle.

If the contents of Kathryn Holt Springston’s brain—full of memories of “Old Arlington” and the collected esoteric knowledge from a lifetime of curiosity—could be put on display, her house would be its museum.

The 1898 American Gothic/Dutch Colonial in Cherrydale—a two-bedroom, one-bathroom, no-family-room, no-guest-room, un-air-conditioned house, which is still heated with oil and retains that acrid, burning-petroleum smell in winter—is a relic of the past. It’s one of those quaint, unimproved historic homes that prompts you to wonder how anyone could still live in it after all this time.

Springston—considered by many to be Arlington’s unofficial resident historian—is obsessed with the past. She has lived in her home for six decades (since her birth in 1952), and she’s proud of it. In fact, the house epitomizes her general philosophy in life: that it’s important to maintain a relationship with history rather than tearing it all down and building anew.

Inside the house, bookshelves, hutches and walls are crammed with local artifacts from bygone eras that Springston and her family have collected (legally, she stresses) over the years: fossilized sharks’ teeth from along the Potomac River, arrowheads, rocks and geodes, old railroad spikes, antique oil lamps.

And then there are the rusty objects that she and her son, Dakota, dug up from the backyard of the home’s triple lot during their respective childhoods. These include canteens, pistols, keys, mule shoes, relics from the “V Corps” of the Army of the Potomac, and a tube of mange medicine dated 1862—a time when much of the neighborhood was a Union Army mule camp.

Dakota, now 21, who has been living in the house during an extended break from college, keeps his own collection of swords, Civil War and World War I and II helmets, and books from as far back as the 1600s. Springston’s husband, Scott, a media technician and videographer for Fairfax County Schools (whom she describes as just as “kooky” as she is) collects action figures and displays about 30 Civil War cannonballs in the living room.

Amid the thrift-shop-like clutter is a small, faux-weathered sign that reads, “Registered Historical Nuthouse.”

Springston herself keeps a trove of historic valentines. At Christmastime, she unearths nearly 2,000 ceramic, celluloid, Bakelite, cloth and plaster Santa Clauses, some dating from 1830. Many people know her simply as the owner of “the Christmas house”— referencing her dazzling seasonal display of kitschy decorations that draws crowds of gawkers every year. (As do similar displays for Halloween, election season, Thanksgiving, Easter and the Fourth of July.)

But she is also appreciated as a self-taught authority on local history and architectural preservation. “My role,” she says, “is to help people find their own period of history that fascinates them, so they can help preserve it.”  

It was after her first  job, in her 20s—helping to redesign Mrs. Robert E. Lee’s garden at Arlington House, fresh from earning a degree in horticulture from Northern Virginia Community College—that Springston fell in love with historical interpretation. She went on to obtain a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Mary Washington and worked as a historian and historical interpreter for the National Park Service and the Smithsonian Institution for 29 years. She also served as the director and curator of the Arlington Historical Society for a decade.

Noticing a surge in historical interest after the national bicentennial in 1976, she created the self-appointed niche of Arlington tour guide for herself, spending the next 30 years independently researching and developing 23 separate walking and bus tours of the architectural, wartime and life-and-times history of Arlington.

Until recently (when she had to suspend the tours due to family obligations), these guided excursions and speaking engagements were offered through the Smithsonian Associates program, the Arlington Historical Society, the Arlington Office of Senior Programs, Arlington Public Schools and many other groups.

“She is the keeper of the memories,” says her neighbor Nancy Iacomini. “The memories of how life was, how the neighborhoods grew. She doesn’t present it in a preserved-in-amber kind of way. She weaves it together so it’s not academic and not clinical, but living and organic.”

Springston is also well known for her Sears house tours, which once included drive-bys of about 80 homes representing 50 different models of the mail-order “kit houses” that were sold by Sears, Roebuck and Co. from 1908 to 1940 (now worth a premium for their relative rarity nationwide). Hundreds of them line Arlington’s streets, as they were shipped only by railroad, and Arlington was located along several lines, including the Washington & Old Dominion. Once off-loaded in boxcars, the kits were carted by horses or trucks to the building sites, where homeowners assembled up to 30,000 precut, numbered pieces.

“Learning about these houses helps tell you what life was like in America through the ages,” she explains. For example, “houses got smaller after World War I due to family sizes shrinking, women working outside the home and having less hired help, and the coal shortage. Arlington is home to housing from every period of the nation’s development.”

Respected for her accumulated architectural knowledge, Springston has been quoted as a Sears house expert in the Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune. She has also fielded calls from homeowners all over the nation who want to know if they own one. She’s especially thrilled whenever someone in Arlington or a nearby county wants her to come inside and consult.

“I get my tape measure, put on my headlamp, run down to the basement and start measuring joists and studs,” she says, looking for the telltale dimensions. Within minutes, she knows whether a home is, or is not, among this unique historical class, based on the year it was built, column arrangement, stamped lumber and a few other clues.  

“Kathy highlights what’s interesting about Arlington that most people don’t recognize,” says Michael Leventhal, Arlington County’s historic preservation coordinator.

“We’re not dealing with what most people think about in historic communities, like long blocks of ornate Victorian cottages,” he explains. “It is the history of the ordinary that is most intriguing here—the homes of the middle-class government workers. They are modest buildings, unpretentious. Kathy sees beyond what people drive past and don’t notice.”

Also popular were Springston’s Civil War tours, which showed history buffs the sites of the 22 former forts in the county, as well as homes that once served as hospitals and camp sites. The itinerary also included: two skirmish locations; the spot once occupied by Civil War photographer Mathew Brady’s studio (it’s in the Ballston area on Wilson Boulevard, somewhere between Stafford and Vermont streets); and Freedman’s Village, the camp of former slaves that the government established during the Civil War, where much of Arlington’s black community took root. (Once part of the Arlington House estate, it’s now memorialized by more than 3,800 grave markers at the southern end of Arlington National Cemetery.)

On topics blue and gray, Springston delights in sharing little-known pieces of historical trivia, such as the fact that two-thirds of Arlingtonians voted against Virginia’s secession from the Union. She has been known to convey these tidbits while dressed in 1860s garb—including a re-created hoop skirt and an original shawl—and while serving Mary Anna Custis Lee’s applesauce cake. (“It’s the recipe she would bake for Robert E. Lee when he was in the field,” she explains.)

Yet another tour circuit, “Historic Boundary Markers of the Federal District,” took participants to some of the still-standing stones demarcating the 10-square-mile District of Columbia, as it existed from 1791 to 1846—nine of which remain in Arlington from when it was part of Washington, D.C.

Counted among the area’s oldest federal monuments, the stone markers were laid by a team of surveyors that included the free black Benjamin Banneker, for whom an Arlington park is named and where one of the stones is located, placed in the ground when the area was still “pure wilderness.”

Sara Collins, former head of the Virginia Room at the Arlington Central Library and former president of the Arlington Historical Society, notes that Springston’s “dramatic flair” helps to bring history to life.

“She’s an actress. She’s passionate. Most of Arlington’s history is buried, not visible. She keeps it alive and in front of people.”

Back when Springston used to lead graveyard tours—pointing out where old family cemeteries once lay before being destroyed by high-rises, shopping malls and parking lots—she helped the National Genealogical Society write a book about the graveyards of Arlington.

But really, many of her tours could be considered ghost tours, because much of what she points out in the county is no longer there.

Which brings us back to the house.

Springston’s property, which stretches nearly an acre—complete with a large weeping willow tree, a rope swing hanging from one of two 200-year-old black walnut trees, a freestanding porch swing, a compost heap and her son’s organic vegetable garden—feels a bit country.

It’s almost farm-like.

Dakota’s garden, from which dozens of his Arlington County Fair prize-winning vegetables and jellies have emerged, is packed full of beans, corn, tomatoes and potatoes. As plants grown from heirloom seeds, they are descended from crops once grown at George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. He also grows tobacco, simply because it’s a Virginia tradition.

This little patch of land is reminiscent of the old days in Arlington, when, in fact, it was the country, when neighbors grazed cattle and used mules to plow their gardens, kids played in the open fields and forest, and natural springs and streams had not yet been diverted underground for roads and highways. Springston remembers walking to school at Cherrydale Elementary (now gone) past a cattle farm where the Honda dealer at Lee Highway and Quincy Street now stands.

“I miss the green space,” she says. “Even though there’s more parkland per person in this county than [in] any other jurisdiction in the East, the rural-ness is gone, and with that, there is a loss of community. People don’t know each other like they used to.”

There have been times over the years when she played the role of “rabble-rouser and loudmouth” activist, she says, in attempts to prevent Route 66 from slicing through the county in the ’60s and ’70s, and to save various woods, forts, and historic buildings and homes.

But when it comes to preservation,  she believes that leading by example is one of the most effective forms of advocacy. So she and her family have made it a priority to play an integral part in preserving the traditions of their own community.

Over the years, they have organized parades, block parties, yard sales and dances. Everyone in the neighborhood is invited to the Springstons’ annual Christmas open house and bonfire. The family welcomes more than 200 kids every Halloween. And both Springston and her husband are past presidents of the Cherrydale Civic Association.

She may not chain herself to buildings to save them, says neighbor Nancy Iacomini. But she shows why it’s important to keep older traditions and structures.

Sadly, Springston hasn’t led any tours lately. Her most recent job was caring for her late mother, Florence Holt, who passed away last year at the age of 95 after spending a lifetime living with her extended family in the house she and her husband bought back in the ’40s.

That devastating loss and other family concerns have, for a time, tamped down Springston’s fiery disposition and her ability to traipse around the county in costume.

But at 60, she has no intention of retiring from her lifelong crusade.

“I will get fired up again,” she says. “As a Cold War baby, I am very excited to still be here. I am excited about life.”

In the meantime, says historic preservation coordinator Leventhal, she continues to engage in one of the most challenging aspects of historic preservation: stewardship.

“She still lives in her mom’s house. She is a steward of that house, and a good steward,” he says. “The hard work in preservation is maintaining a building for 50-plus years…living as the building is, rather than trying to conquer [it] and change it into something else.”

Admittedly, Springston still goes on the occasional rant, extolling the virtues of a time long gone when people didn’t need big houses, when citizen dedication to the community was higher, and when the “Arlington Way” meant that resident voices—not developers—drove county decision making.

But when asked what time period she’d like to be living in ideally, she answers without hesitation: “Right now.”

Sue Eisenfeld is a writer, editor, consultant—and history lover—in Arlington.

Categories: People
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