Historic Houses of the Potomac Path

Historic Houses of the Potomac Path

Some of the homes described no longer exisit, torn down before people realized their value.

The Mason family had a major role in home building in the Mount Vernon area. The first three parts of this segment described several of their houses—Hollin Hall, Gunston Hall, Lexington, and Mount Eagle, while this installment highlights two more of their manors.

Were Spring Bank a person, you could say that she lived a life of great highs and lows. She was once a grand Mason family home, the house of a famous Civil War general, the residence of an Alexandrian slave trader, and finally an ignominious host to a trailer park. Given this life, Spring Bank also would have been the poster child for the insensitive treatment of historic homes in Fairfax County. Virginia’s by-right development laws argue otherwise, but, heck, do we have to bulldoze everything?

Robert Patton of Alexandria bought 128 acres from Roger West’s former plantation, West Grove, in 1805, and with his new wife, Ann Clifton Reeder, built Spring Bank in about 1809. The house was located on the Potomac Path, on the east side of the current intersection of Route 1 and North Kings Highway. The Patton’s daughter, Eleanor Ann married George Mason VI, who owned at different points in his life, Gunston Hall and Mount Eagle.

After Patton’s death in 1826, his family rented the home in 1833 to John Armfield, who with his partner Isaac Franklin, were the largest slave traders in Virginia. From their office on Duke Street in Alexandria, the two men managed the shipment of 1,200 slaves annually from Alexandria to New Orleans.

Patton’s heirs sold Spring Bank in 1844 to George Mason, who while a grandson of George Mason IV of Gunston Hall, was not one of the “numbered” Georges (I through VI). He married his third wife shortly thereafter—Sally, his cousin and the daughter of George Mason VI. At the time of Mason’s purchase, Spring Bank consisted of a twenty-five-room mansion, a three-story brick barn, stables, and other outbuildings. He also owned Hollin Hall, and Lexington on Mason Neck.

DURING THE CIVIL WAR, George Mason was a bitter antagonist to the Union Army troops that camped at Spring Bank farm. He was described as a “haughty, overbearing autocrat,” who pleaded for military protection from General Robert E. Lee. Upon his death in 1870, The Alexandria Gazette referred to him as a “high toned Virginia Gentleman of the old school.”

SPEAKING OF THE LEES, Robert’s nephew and war-time cavalry chief, Fitzhugh, rented Spring Bank from the Mason family in 1884 while he successfully ran for governor of Virginia. The Masons sold the property in 1885 and it passed through a number of owners until 1941 when Robert Bowman converted the mansion into an apartment building and the remaining land into a mobile home park. By that time, the once-stately manor had been shorn of its portico, window and door pediments, and all of the embellishments that led to a description of the home one hundred years earlier—“One of the best and most extensive mansions in this part of Virginia.”

S.S. Kresge bought Spring Bank in 1970 in order to build a K-Mart store on the site. Just hours before its scheduled 1972 demolition, the late historian Edith Sprouse and other volunteers salvaged a few mementoes from the home. Included were the front steps that were reportedly taken from the U.S Capitol after the British burned it during the War of 1812. The K-Mart later became Michaels Arts and Crafts at 6303 Richmond Highway. The proposed Kings Crossing development would bring residential and commercial ventures to the land.

PEYTON BALLENGER BUILT Mount Pleasant in 1854 on a hilltop south of Cameron Run at the current site of Huntington Plaza shopping center, across Kings Highway from the upper level of the Huntington Metro station. The Civil War installation, Fort Lyon, was across the street in 1860. The Ballenger family farmed the land, complete with the honeysuckle-covered ruins of the fort, until 1933. A portion of the Ballenger tract later became Jefferson Manor Park. The date of Mount Pleasant’s destruction is unknown, but probably yielded to the area’s post-World War II suburban sprawl.

Little information is available on Mount Comfort, but it appears to have been built prior to 1840 by the Ashford family. It passed through several owners until W. M. Orr turned the remaining tract into Mount Comfort Cemetery, which was initially owned by the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, but is now a private facility on South Kings Highway. At the 1949 cemetery dedication, Thomas, Thirteenth Lord Fairfax delivered an address that lauded the continuing alliance between America and Great Britain.

MOUNT ERIN IS the only one of the Cameron Run manors still standing, even though it was surrounded by the Virginia Hills subdivision in 1956. Irishman Thomas Tracy bought part of the Cleesh estate in 1811, then built a house that he named after his homeland. Earlier, Tracy tutored Nelly Custis and her brother at Mount Vernon, as well as giving piano lessons.

After several intervening owners, Samuel Pulman, a member of the prominent Cameron Valley family and an Alexandria merchant, bought Mount Erin in the 1850s. During the Civil War, two of Pulman’s sons were killed by an errant shell fired from nearby Fort Lyon.

There was an unsuccessful attempt in 1945 to make Mount Erin into a country club, perhaps mimicking nearby Mount Eagle’s conversion. The owners added a commercial kitchen and a two-story, glass enclosed logia that remains to this day an uncomplimentary addition to the stately main house. It is located on Hillview Avenue above Telegraph Road

THOMSON F. MASON, a lawyer and prominent resident of Alexandria, was grandson of George Mason IV of Gunston Hall, and son of Thomson Mason of Hollin Hall, Seeking relief from the summer heat, Mason built Huntley during the period 1824-30 on a 1,000 acre tract that had been part of the Mason family’s Hunting Creek Farm. Some have speculated that Benjamin Latrobe, one of the architects of the U.S. Capitol, designed the house, but more evidence points to George Hadfield, who created Arlington (the Custis-Lee mansion) and City Hall in Washington. Mason named the house after the home of his maternal grandmother in Scotland.

Sited on a hill that overlooks what is now Huntley Meadows Park, the home served as a seasonal retreat. The mayor of Alexandria, Mason entertained regularly at both his Alexandria townhouse—Colross—and at Huntley with “great style and elegance.”

Mason’s widow left the property to her two sons, who promptly mortgaged it, then lost it to their creditor, Dr. Benjamin King. King in turn sold the tract to Albert W. Harrison and Nathan W. Pierson in 1868, with the Harrison family later taking sole ownership of Huntley that lasted until 1946, when is was sold first to August Nagel, then later Ransom Amlong.

In 1986, developers restored the exterior of Huntley as part of a rezoning deal with the county to build townhouses on part of the property. Also that year, the Amlong family sold Huntley to John Shapiro and Kelly Kellogg, who left it vacant and prey to vandals. Fairfax County Park Authority bought Huntley and 2.9 acres in 1989. The house is currently mothballed until funds become available for renovation. Until the historic home is made ready for regular visiting, the county opens Huntley twice a year for guided tours.

The main house has six bedrooms and eight fireplaces. Adjacent is a tenant house, summer kitchen, an underground ice-house, and a privy. It is located on Harrison Lane between South Kings Highway and Lockheed Boulevard.

ABEL TROTH, SON Of Jacob Troth who bought Woodlawn in 1846, built a home on a 209 acre parcel of the former Woodlawn land, which had been part of General Washington’s Dogue Run Farm. Washington’s famous sixteen-sided barn was located there. Troth and his wife Lydia, named their new home Engleside.

Courtland Lukens, a prominent businessman, was a subsequent owner and the one most identified with the house. Lukens Lane connected Engleside to Pincusion Road—the old Potomac Path—before the Accotink Turnpike, now Route 1, was built through the farm in 1856. The current Engleside neighborhood takes its name from the house.

The Fairfax Herald reported that lightning struck Washington’s old barn in 1932, igniting a fire that destroyed the unique structure. The General designed the barn to thresh wheat, using horses running atop the stalks and seed heads on an upper floor to separate the wheat from the chaff. The grain fell through slots in the threshing floor to be collected below. Mount Vernon built a replica of the barn in the mid-1990s.

The Engleside farm became just another Virginia suburb in the 1940s and developers razed the house. The barn site is near the intersection of Leaf Road and Pole Road; the latter took its name from the practice of laying logs on the roadway through marshy areas.

JUST DOWN A gravel path from the Woodlawn mansion is a simple, white clapboard house called Grand View, a dwelling that far less imposing than the nearby brick home. Jacob M. Troth, another son of Jacob Troth, married Ann Walton in 1859. The young couple built Grand View on land that Ann inherited from her father David Walton, whose family home, Walnut Hill, was located on the current site of Mount Vernon Country Club.

Today, the original house and its several additions, is separated into two apartments—one rented and a second used by a staff member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which owns not only both Woodlawn and Grand View, but also Woodlawn Stables across Route 1. “The Trust converted the house in the 1980s and now it’s in need off some TLC,” remarked Woodlawn associate director Bruce Whitmarsh as he pointed at some peeling paint.

A highlight of Jacob and Ann Troth’s time at Grand View was the 1878 visit of President Rutherford B. Hayes. After visiting both Mount Vernon and Woodlawn, the Hayes party stopped at Grand View. It was on Sunday and the entire Friends’ congregation came up the hill from the Meeting house to greet the President and his wife Lucy after they toured Grand View.

CHARLES BALLINGER, one of the many Quakers that populated the Mount Vernon area in the mid-19th century, built a home in 1859 on a segment of the Accotink Turnpike that is now Sherwood Hall Lane. He bought the land for his home from his new father-in-law, Edward Gibbs, a fellow Quaker and owner of Hollin Hall. Ballinger married Maria Gibbs that same year and a daughter, Mary Alice Ballinger, was born in 1866.

In 1869, Gibbs sold the remaining Hollin Hall land to Theron Thompson, who started a well-known dairy farm. Ballinger and other nearby farmers sold milk to Thompson Dairy. One of the dairy barns remains standing today, albeit with a steeple on its roof. Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church converted the barn into a chapel shortly after the church was founded.

Mary Alice Ballinger married Frank Wilkinson in 1891 and Sherwood Farm stayed in the Wilkinson family until Joyce Brown, their granddaughter sold the property in 1999. The house now sits incongruously on Midday Lane among the large, modern homes of the New Kirkside development off Sherwood Hall Lane.

The Ballinger and Wilkinson families donated land for the construction of a one-room community center in 1903. Named Sherwood Hall, the building was home to the Mount Vernon Grange and the local chapter of the King’s Daughters, a service organization that helped schools and hospitals. The current road drew its name from the building.

Of the twenty-two homes described in this segment of the Route 1 series, eight were lost to redevelopment projects. The last of these was Spring Bank in 1972 and since that date, citizens have become more aware of this area’s history and perhaps less willing to part with it. Fairfax County’s laudable initiative to save Huntley in 1989 contrasts sharply with loss of Mount Eagle, Spring Bank, Mount Zephyr, and Engleside during the unbridled building splurge of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Progress ain’t bad, but neither is our past.