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Westover's Little Yellow House

Residents fight to save a historic home

A little yellow house in North Arlington has sparked a big controversy between a developer and residents of the Westover and Fostoria neighborhoods.

A historic fixture in the community for almost a century, the house at 1601 North McKinley Street is soon to be torn down to make way for two modern homes. With less than 60 days before the developer closes a deal to purchase the house and push ahead with his plans, many in Westover are now rallying to save it.

The little yellow house, built some time between 1908 and 1915, has two front doors, a remnant of its use in the 1920's and 1930's as a general store. The house has two front porches, one on the first floor and one directly above it on the second, where the store's owners once reportedly lived. The roof is made of tin in the style of nineteenth century German farmhouses, according to "Fostoria: A Community Where Arlington's Past is Present," a graduate history thesis by Ruth Rose. Inside, a fireplace is set into one wall of the entryway with a chimney that has two openings to heat the second floor and the section that was once the store.

"It is a unique part of our neighborhood," said Louis Beardsley, a Westover resident. "There is no other like it."

Beardsley is working to organize others in Westover to save the home, a cause that has gained much support among leaders of the Westover Civic Association.

"We just want to find a solution that is beneficial to both parties, one that saves the house and doesn't end up costing the builder anything," he said.

Beardsley, an engineer and home restorer, has proposed moving the house from its current foundation to another property, an endeavor he undertook in 2002 with a historic Victorian home. But the move would be expensive, between $90,000 and $120,000 in Beardsley's own estimate.

"Off the cuff, I haven't seen the numbers, but I think it would be cost prohibitive," said developer John Karanik, owner of Suburban Construction, who lived in the Westover neighborhood for almost two and a half years.

"I'm waiting to hear back from them on several alternatives to save the house," Karanik said. "There were some folks who made suggestions on what could be done, but I have not seen any details from them about those ideas."

Karanik said that "almost everybody has only seen the house from the outside. But on the inside there are a lot of problems. It has very low quality cabinetry, old fixtures and the molding isn't in very good condition."

Karanik's company also demolished a small, New England style beach cottage in 2001 at 5915 North 15th Street. That home was constructed in 1900.

THE WESTOVER CIVIC ASSOCIATION met Oct. 26 with Kevin Vincent, vice chairman of Arlington's Historical Affairs and Landmarks Review Board, a body that advises the county on matters related to historic preservation.

Because Westover is not currently designated as a historic district, Vincent said, there is little anyone can do to prevent the demolition. Property laws in Virginia, he said, favor property owners in cases such as that of the yellow house. Getting the house added to the National Registry of Historic Places, for example, would not grant the structure any protection. Arlington County has 52 sites listed on the registry.

"All that means is a plaque and a tax break," Vincent said. "Property owners might be proud to get it. It has a lot of cachet and some property owners might be reluctant to tear a building down that's registered because of public sentiment, but it has no meaning in a legal sense. You can still tear it down. There's no restriction at all if you're the owner."

The only legal means to stop Suburban Construction from tearing down the house is to get the county to designate the property a historic district. Yet to do that, residents would have to ask the county for the designation, allow a survey of their neighborhood, and the county would be requried to hold a public hearing with homeowners.

"That process would take too long to get finished before he owns the house and does what he wants to with it," Beardsley said.

TO PREVENT the future destruction of other historic Westover homes, Vincent told the civic association that their best option is to work with county towards the creation of a special historic district in the neighborhood.

Beardsley was cautious about the suggestion, saying many in the neighborhood may not support the proposal. Only three neighborhoods in Arlington carry the distinction of being historic districts — Colonial Village, Buckingham and Maywood — and homeowners there must seek county approval for renovations or changes to their property. Putting in a new window, for example, or siding would require a "certificate of appropriateness" from the county.

But, the rules of each historic district, Vincent said, can be tailored to the needs of local residents if they are willing to work closely with the county's historic preservationists. The district's rules could only apply to cases of homes being torn down, Vincent said, if that is what residents want to emphasize. Other historic districts, like that in the Maywood neighborhood, only have rules that apply to the front of a house.

"The important thing is that the change is appropriate to the tone and style of the district," Vincent said. "But if the change is on the back of the house, where nobody is going to see it — go to Maywood and you'll see plenty of cases like this — then you can almost do anything you want."

Beardsley and others in Westover's Civic Association are still hoping to convince Karanik to change his mind in this specific instance regarding the little yellow house.

"This is a part of our community and its history," Beardsley said. "It is a part of Old Virginia and we don't want to lose it. Hopefully, we can reach a compromise before that happens."