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History Preserved

A McLean family uses a conservation easement to preserve their 19th century farm property.

When Jean Symmes and her family moved to McLean from New Haven, Conn., in 1968, she knew she wanted an old house. They had been living in one in New Haven, and she was intent upon finding another residence that was rich in history. That was how the Symmes family came to live in Eight Oaks, one of the last mid-19th century farmhouses remaining from the era of free farming.

"It was a wonderful place for my children to grow up," says Symmes.

However, as McLean grew, so did the number of calls that the Symmes would receive from developers.

"These huge mega-mansions were going up and we would get calls at least once a month from developers who wanted to buy the property and tear down the house," said Symmes.

Her son Brian Symmes also remembers the pressure of development.

"People would walk up to us on the property and say, 'When do you plan to sell the house?' assuming that that was our plan, and they would make comments like, 'Well, you know you could subdivide this into four lots and that would be the best use of the land,'" he said. "It's that viewpoint of what is 'the best use of the land' that is the dominant one — that's gospel around here."

Finally, the family had enough. They decided they needed to find a way to permanently protect their house and their property. After doing some research, Jean Symmes discovered the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust (NVCT), an organization that is dedicated to preserving historical properties in the Northern Virginia region. Symmes solicited the NVCT's advice on how to establish Eight Oaks as a historical property and place a conservation easement on the two-acre property.

"She just called our office," said Whit Field, vice president and general consul for NVCT. "I met up with her and walked around the property with her, and after we did that analysis, I gave her some idea that we thought it would qualify."

Field explained that placing a conservation easement on the property would protect it from development in perpetuity, but that she and her family should discuss the matter to make absolutely certain that it was something that they wanted to do.

"It's a big commitment to make what is essentially a gift to the public," said Field.

It was never a question. For the Symmes family, preserving Eight Oaks was of the utmost importance.

"We watched McLean transform from a kind of semi-rural suburb into a place that's very developed, and I don't have a particular agenda about that politically, but you do have a sense of loss when you see the open spaces go, and all the familiar landmarks," said Brian Symmes.

The NVCT helped the family put together an application for the county, but discovered that they needed to uncover some more information about the background of the estate.

"They asked for some more historical background to strengthen the application," said Field.

AS SOMEONE WHO ENJOYED doing historical research, Brian Symmes took on the task of delving into the history of the house. After sorting through the property's title records at the Fairfax County Courthouse, he made several trips the Fairfax Room of the Fairfax County Library.

"I was able to follow the property back before the Revolutionary War," said Symmes.

The Fairfax Room proved to be an invaluable resource for Symmes, as it is houses thousands of old local newspapers on microfilm.

"It's an incredible resource for studying the nature of this community," said Symmes. "When you get into it, it really shows both the strength and character of the people who were a part of these early communities, and the way they lived by their faith and how they adjusted to changing times."

Through his research, Symmes was able to find out a wealth of information about the history of Eight Oaks. In particular, he traced the history of the Mutersbauh family, who lived on the farm from just before the Civil War until the late 1930s. Through newspaper listings and articles, Symmes was able to see when the Mutersbauh family acquired the farm and how they were forced to sell when the Depression hit.

"In 1932 and 1933 I found ads where Mrs. Mutersbauh sold off the farm one piece at a time," said Symmes. "You can clearly see the economic situation of the time — it really seems like she is shutting down the farm."

Symmes also learned a great deal about the divisions and problems created by the Civil War.

"That area of McLean is right on the boundary of where the Civil War line between people who were southern sympathizers and people who were northern sympathizers was," said Symmes. "That line really was drawn right on Kirby Road."

Thanks to the Symmes, Eight Oaks is now listed on the Fairfax County Inventory of Historical Sites. In addition, all development rights have been removed, and any architectural changes to the home must go before an architectural board in order to ensure that they are in keeping with the historical nature of the house.

"It's a spectacular place," said Field. "It's nifty to go and see these huge houses, one on either side of it, and you can see that there are still places like this being preserved in Fairfax County."