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One House’s History

How ‘significant’ was Otis Mason? The answer may decide his home’s fate.

In winter, when the trees are bare, it’s easier to see the white farmhouse tucked on a hillside above Woodlawn Stables. It’s even easier to miss it.

“Nobody knows it’s here,” says David Koritko, who used to live in the house. “It’s like an untold story.”

A teacher at Woodson High School and a volunteer at Woodlawn Plantation, Koritko is a hands-on explorer of history and archaeology. But when he moved into the old farmhouse at the beginning of 2006, he was excited simply to have found an affordable home surrounded by woods that he and his 9-year-old son Nick could explore.

The house is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a non-profit preservation organization that also runs the Woodlawn Estate and many other historic properties. For years it had included the house with the property it leases to Woodlawn Stables, which sublet the house to Koritko in 2006. It needed maintenance, and Koritko described spending months cleaning, scraping, painting and sealing windows.

After Nick’s Cub Scout Troop held a picnic at the house in June, they decided to make it their regular meeting place. The environment was ideal for the scouts. “I could immediately lead the boys off to the river and we could do botany, geology sort of things,” Koritko said.

The troop also began learning about history. Koritko knew he was moving into an old home associated with the historic Woodlawn Plantation, but he knew nothing about the man who built and it, and assumed there was little to know. “I’m thinking about this guy as just some weird guy who lived here a long time ago,” Koritko said. “But it’s not true. He was a teacher like myself.”

Otis Mason probably built his home around 1873, according to Susan Hellman, an archeologist working for Fairfax County. Tax records indicate a $100 building on the property in the 1874. Mason was 35 in 1873, exactly halfway through his life. He had graduated from Columbian University (now George Washington) 12 years before and had become the principal of a preparatory school, according to an article published in “The American Anthropologist” in 1908, the year Mason died.

PERSONAL REMINISCENCES OF MASON often focus on his skill as a teacher and a speaker. “He used to walk up the hill [to Woodlawn Baptist Church], because he was a Ph.D. in some capacity,” Koritko said, “and on weekends he would give two sermons until they got a minister.”

In his diary, Taylor Blount mentions going to see Mason lecture or preach seven times between 1872 and 1897. “He delivers a very good sermon,” Blount wrote in 1872.

In 1892 he wrote, “This morning I go to meeting. O.T. Mason preaches today and I go back tonight and hear him again.”

Mason not only delivered sermons at Woodlawn Baptist, he donated the land it sits on. When George Washington’s adopted granddaughter married his nephew in 1799, he carved out 2,000 acres of his property as a wedding gift. They built the Woodlawn Plantation, a mansion that sits across Richmond Highway from Otis Mason’s house. When her husband died, Nellie Custis sold Woodlawn to a group of Quakers who were intent on proving they could run a profitable plantation without slave labor. The Quakers later sold the house to John and Rachel Mason, who had moved from New Jersey. During the Civil War, John Mason gave Otis, his oldest son, 65 acres of land, where Otis would eventually build his country home and donate land for the church.

By the time he built the house, Mason was a fixture of the capitol city’s intellectual life. He had studied “the culture-history of the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean,” according to the “American Anthropologist” article. A “Washington Post” story from late in his life credits this interest in past and foreign cultures to his boyhood interactions with slaves who had arrived only recently from Africa and were waiting be sold in the markets of Alexandria. The article explained that Alexandria’s position as “the Omaha of the human cattle trade” made it “the meeting ground of every species of strange tale and weird superstition in the United States.” After graduation Mason shifted his focus to American Indians. He would go on to catalogue every tribe.

Mason’s interest in the nascent field of American anthropology drew him to a related organization that was also in the process of establishing its own identity: the Smithsonian Institution. He joined the staff of the Smithsonian’s United States National Museum in 1873, the year he built his home near Woodlawn, as a volunteer expert on American Indians, according to a letter from Robert Leopold, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological archives. In 1884, he left the preparatory school and became the museum’s first curator in ethnology.

THE SMITHSONIAN HAD COMPLETED a new museum building (now the Arts and Industries Museum) in 1881, and Mason was given the job of organizing for display, “the great collections piled in confusion in its halls,” as the “American Anthropologist” describes it, more than 500,000 objects, according to Leopold.

Mason’s project of categorizing cultural artifacts transcended the display shelves of the museum. By the end of his career, he had created an entire theory of anthropological study based on his classifications of what cultures made, such as tools, weapons and artwork. He also incorporated a popular European theory into his study of American anthropology, that culture’s evolved from “savagery” through “barbarism” to “enlightenment.” According to Mason, the objects cultures produced are benchmarks of this evolution.

Mason published two groundbreaking monographs in 1884: “Throwing Sticks in the National Museum” and “Basketwork of the North American Aborigines.” He traveled to Arizona to research the latter. In his letter, Leopold credits Mason with writing, “It has been the ruling thought of my life, that the people of the world have left their history most fully recorded in the works of their hands.”

By the end of his life, Mason had become an anthropological icon. In 1902 he was “the most familiar figure in the field of American anthropological science” according to the Washington Post. A story that appeared two years later in the Washington Times, describes him in its headlines as the “Author of Many Important Essays on the Uses to Which Man Has Put the Forces and Materials of the Earth,” and “Elected to Distinguished Offices by His Fellow-Countrymen, and Honored Elsewhere, He is Still Modest and Unassuming.”

STUMBLING UPON THIS FIGURE, Koritko and the scouts began a project of learning more about his life. They also took an interest in his archaeological record. Koritko organized activities like preparing rubbings of the tombstones at Woodlawn Baptist and repainting some of the house’s rooms. He also organized the scouts to help him in a campaign to add the house to the National Register of Historic Sites, because they believed it met one of the register’s key criteria by being “associated with the lives of persons significant in our past.” Koritko and the scouts began seeking help from local experts, like Hellman and Leopold, who wrote his letter in support of the idea. Koritko said he wanted to demonstrate how community resources could be harnessed to save historic homes at a low cost.

But according to Ross Randall, the director of Woodlawn Estates, adding the Otis Mason house to the National Register is unnecessary, because the house is already included under Woodlawn’s National Register status. He also said Koritko bypassed Woodlawn’s resident staff of experts in restoration and archaeology. “What most folks do in an effort to preserve anything to do with Woodlawn is they take advantage of the services here ... That does not seem to have been done in this case.”

Koritko says Woodlawn has neglected the Mason house as an historic site and as a rental property and allowed it to decay. After being contacted by Koritko, the county mandated that the house’s septic system and outdoor electric lines be replaced. Both projects involved extensive digging on the property.

An archaeological survey of Woodlawn Plantation from 2002 calls on the Historic Trust to devote more study to the house, as well as another. “The Trust seems to have viewed these resources primarily in the context of ‘tenant’ houses,” the report reads. “There seems to have been relatively little effort to understand their place in the context of Woodlawn’s history.”

Hellman, the county’s archaeologist, said that her brief examinations suggest the house “is deteriorating a bit,” but stressed the overwhelming expense (usually more than $100,000) and complexity of a complete restoration to historic standards. “I think that’s one reason that organizations like the Trust sometimes delay renovations of older structures. They want to make sure they do it right.”

“It’s something that they have to go into very slowly, very carefully.”

KORITKO’S RELATIONSHIP with Woodlawn Stables and the Trust deteriorated. In early December, the owner of the stables, Joan Mitchell, informed him by letter that when his one-year lease expired on Dec. 31, it would not be renewed. The Trust stopped leasing the Otis Mason property to the stables on the same day, according to Randall, so that it could repair the house’s septic system.

“[The house] will not be neglected,” Randall said. “One of the reasons we have terminated the lease with [Woodlawn Stables] is to study the house in greater detail and make sure that all apparatus are suitable.”

Meanwhile, Joan Mitchell, who owns the stables said she hopes a new tenant will be found for the house. Before renting it to Koritko, she had housed her own employees on the property that backs up to the rear paddocks. Koritko characterized the house as being in severe disrepair when he moved in, and expressed concern that if the house was not protected, the decay would continue. But Mitchell said she’d had employees living there for three yeas before him.

“People were living in the house before he moved in, so somebody didn’t think it was too bad. It’s a farmhouse. Its an old, old farm house.”

“IT SHOULDN’T BE THIS DIFFICULT to try to save something,” Koritko said in a December interview. The difficulty seems to lie in Otis Mason’s nebulous historic status. How “significant” is he? Surrounded by Washingtons, Custises and Lees, a former Smithsonian curator’s accomplishments as an anthropologist and teacher may not be enough to save his house from archaeological triage.

Now Koritko and his son are looking for a new home. The Cub Scouts are hoping to meet at Woodlawn Baptist church. And the Trust is trying to decide what to do with its white farmhouse on the hill above the stables.