Benvenue or Bienvenue: By Any Name, Historic

Benvenue or Bienvenue: By Any Name, Historic

Benvenue, a house in McLean that is thought to be almost 250 years old, acquired an historic marker Monday.

Although it is located less than a block off Dolley Madison Boulevard on Churchill Road, not many residents know what or where Benvenue is, said Dranesville Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn, who unveiled the marker.

“There was a Fairfax County before World War II,” Mendelsohn said, but “Most of us didn’t have a clue what the history was.

“Too many people I talk to don’t know Fairfax County existed more than a week or two ago,” he said, but awareness of sites such as Benvenue “give us a sense of place.”

THANKS TO A COLLABORATION between two groups of McLean citizens, Benvenue, later known by the French spelling, “Bienvenue,” is now marked by a blue and yellow sign painted in colors inspired by George Washington’s military uniform.

The colors and wording of the sign were developed by Jack Hillar, a member of the Fairfax County History Commission.

It was unveiled Monday when Mendelsohn pulled away a Fairfax County flag that had been draped over the sign.

A group of historians, including several members of the Fairfax County History Commission, watched with approval.

The McLean Historical Society and the McLean Chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons cooperated to research the topic and bring about its recognition as one of the oldest structures in the area.

A sycamore tree that grows at Benvenue is said to be the oldest and largest such specimen in Fairfax County. It is said that Gen. George McClellan, a commander for the Union Army, once tied his horse to its trunk.

Benvenue was used as a hospital for Federal troops during the Civil War, and its cottage was a home for male nurses. The names and ranks of soldiers were written in the attic, according to Carole Herrick of the Historical Society. She recounted Benvenue’s history before the plaque was unveiled before a small gathering at the house, still a private residence, on Monday.

Historical fact blends with legend when the topic is Benvenue. Many believe that Julia Ward Howe wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic after visiting Benvenue and the surrounding tent city used as a hospital.

Benvenue dates to 1757, as best as historians can determine. Its sandstone mortar may have come from a quarry near Dead Run, the stream flows through McLean to the Potomac River. Union soldiers were said to have destroyed the property, except for the buildings, when they camped there during the bitter first winter of the Civil War in 1861-62.

Wood from the trees and fences became firewood, and the livestock was slaughtered for food.

After the war, the widow of slave owner John R. Johnson asked for reparations for the Army’s use of the property. But she was denied on grounds that her husband was thought to have been a Southern sympathizer who voted for secession.

BENVENUE, THE PROPERTY’S original name, was later changed to Bienvenue. Among the legends that add romance to this property on Churchill Road is one that says Gen. Charles DeGaulle, a one-time guest, amended the spelling to the French word for “welcome.”

The McLean Chapter of the AARP raised money for the naming and marking of Bienvenue by selling a lap “throw” which depicts 15 historic scenes in McLean.

Almost 500 throws were sold at the McLean Community Center and Mesmeralda’s. Local resident Mary Trueax, Herrick said, “was our biggest sales person.

“Every time I turned around, she would phone and ask that I drop off another dozen on her front porch,” Herrick said.

Proceeds from the throws also paid for a sound system at the Lewinsville Senior Center, Herrick said.

Throws are still available at Mesmeralda’s.