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Restoring an Arlington Treasure

Local family is refurbishing Glebe House and preserving the property for future generations.

When Jonathan and Anne Ortmans purchased the historic Glebe House in November 2004, they joined an illustrious list of past owners that includes a Civil War general, a mayor of Washington, an ambassador and George Washington’s chaplain.

The Ortmans are now completing the restoration of the house, an official National Historic Register landmark, and have committed to the future preservation of the building and surrounding land by supplying the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust with an easement for the property.

The easement mandates that neither the Ortmans nor future owners can demolish the house and subdivide the property, which sits on an acre of land near the corner of Glebe Road and N. 17th St.

“There was a lot of concern in the community over whether it would be torn down,” said Jonathan Ortmans, 42, who runs a nonprofit organization involving public policy issues. “We thought it would be such a shame for Arlington to lose a piece of history.”

The owners must now get approval from the county’s Historic Preservation Coordinator and Historic Affairs and Landmark Review Board before making further changes to the building, and are not allowed to cut down trees or obstruct the view of the house from the road.

The grounds surrounding the house, built in 1855, will now be open at least once a year.

“This property is very much intertwined with the history of Arlington,” said Mike Nardolilli, president of the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust (NVCT). “This is the symbol of the neighborhood, and it’s very important to preserve these treasures."

The NVCT, founded in 1994, has worked with landowners to help preserve 13 acres of land in Arlington and more than 1,300 acres across Northern Virginia.

Though the Ortmans could have demolished the house and built four or five multi-million dollar homes in its place, it was never a consideration for the couple, who have a 9-month-old son.

“There are not that many historic homes in Arlington, and this one is so appealing because of the large amount of land,” Jonathan Ortmans said. “I love the idea of an acre of garden.”

THE HISTORY OF the property mirrors the changing nature of Arlington, and has housed some of its most notable residents. Nardolilli calls Glebe House the third most important historic building in the county, behind only Arlington House, owned by the National Park Service, and the Ball-Sellers House, owned by the Arlington Historical Society.

The land was originally purchased in 1770 for the Fairfax Parish, and the term “glebe” refers to the portion of church land devoted to use by the minister, Nardolilli said.

The original house was built in 1775 for the rectors, including George Washington’s chaplain at Valley Forge, but burnt down in 1808.

The property was eventually sold to John Mason, George Mason’s son, and a new home was constructed. John Peter Van Ness, a congressman from New York and mayor of Washington from 1830 to 1834, used it as a country home until it was destroyed in a second fire.

The present house was constructed in 1855, and General Hamlin and the 6th Corps of Ohio used it as a base during the Civil War. After the war, Caleb Cushing, a U.S. Attorney General and an ambassador to Spain, made the house his residence.

After passing through a series of owners, the prosperous Ball family, from which Ballston derives its name, moved in. In 1956 the Arlington Historical Society was founded in Glebe House’s dining room.

THE MOST UNUSUAL feature of the house is its octagonal wing, which boasts a double staircase. On the bottom floor of the wing is a stained-glass window depicting Yosemite National Park, which was first displayed at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

The Ortmans have removed the wrap-around driveway in order to devote more of the property to green space. The guest house in the backyard is a converted carriage house, and the Ortmans have added an adjacent garage.

The family hopes to move in by late spring, but there is still a lot of work to complete. They have met with a dozen historians to solicit advice on restoring the interior, and are adding modern bathrooms, utilities and wiring.

“Our objective is bringing it back to being a family home,” Jonathan Ortmans said. “It has taken a lot more work than anticipated but the historians are giving us good advice and guiding us in the process.”