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City’s Future Preserving History

Preservationists excited as nine years of hard work comes full circle at the Blenheim estate’s June 2 groundbreaking.

Writing on the walls at the Blenheim estate tells a story about the Civil War from the soldiers’ perspectives. It may not be in the form of a cohesive narrative, but their scribbles provide a first-person glimpse into the past.

The journey that historians and Civil War buffs went through in order to preserve the Blenheim property, located at 3610 Old Lee Highway, has taken nearly nine years, but they’re reaching an important milestone, Saturday, June 2. That’s the day of the Blenheim site’s groundbreaking ceremony for the work that historians hope will make it a historic tourist destination.

"We’ve just never given up," said Hildie Carney, the former president of the city’s historical society and an advocate for Blenheim’s preservation.

From dates and signatures, to regiments, drawings and even pornography, Civil War soldiers used graphite and charcoal to decorate the walls in the historic Blenheim house. The city bought Blenheim in 1999 to preserve it as a museum and park, which will include an interpretive center, walking trails, a rain garden for stormwater detention, an outdoor events area and demonstration areas. The interpretive center will feature recreations of the Blenheim house walls and graffiti.

"We’re delighted that June 2 is happening; this is a dream come true," said Carney. "We can’t believe this is happening."

The city needed some persuasion, though, which is where Carney, David Meyer, Brad Preiss, Bill Jayne and Andrea Loewenwarter stepped in. They were all neighbors of Blenheim and saw an opportunity for the city when the estate’s beneficiaries wanted to sell the property that had remained in their family’s possession for nearly 140 years. The group still gets emotional when it talks about the process it went through to preserve the site.

"We said ‘Oh, the developers are going to be all over this place,’" said Meyer, who is also a professional historian. "We all thought it should be preserved."

That was in 1998, just after the city watched one of its last large pieces of land turn into development of single-family homes. The size of the land for the Farrcroft development was too large, and too expensive, for the city to intervene, said Preiss. But Blenheim was just 12-acres — still sizable, but within reach for the city, he said.

"The city had never purchased a property of this size or scope," said Preiss.

PUBLIC HEARINGS began and so did the blood, sweat and tears for the determined group of preservationists. They made "save Blenheim" posters and signs, knocked on doors and stood in front of shopping centers to get the word out. Meyer remembers Preiss standing in front of the Courthouse Plaza Safeway with at least 30 people standing there listening to him.

"He became like a 19th century street preacher," said Meyer. "It’s amazing we all still kept our jobs."

They had already formed the Citizens Coalition for the Preservation of Blenheim, and after some dedicated advocacy work, the coalition grew to more than 150 people, said Carney. The members knew they "had to be one step ahead and one day ahead of everyone else," said Meyer, or the property would end up as another development of cookie-cutter houses.

"It’s amazing we all still kept our jobs," said Meyer.

But the group took a pro-preservation stance, not an anti-development one, said Loewenwarter, now a historic resource specialist for the city’s museum and visitor center. "It was very positive."

One of their accomplishments was getting the city to extend its historic overlay district over the 12-acre site. "That bought us time," said Preiss. The city then bought it in 1999, and its office of historic resources worked with planners to develop a master plan for the site.

The plan, completed in December 2003, lays out the historical significance of Blenheim. It includes details about the owners of the home, beginning with the prominent Willcoxon family, who built the home between 1857 and 1859 to replace a previous home on the property that had burned down. During the Civil War, the home became well known to both Union and Confederate soldiers because of its location along a major military access road, the Fairfax Court House-Falls Church Road.

Graffiti started showing up on the walls around March 1862, extending through the mid-20th century, according to the master plan. Historians think the home was used as a hospital during the war, based on research. It is also thought that the farm home was used as temporary barracks by soldiers as they passed through.

The graffiti in the attic is so well preserved because the family used it for storage, and not as living space, said Loewenwarter. When they rented the home, the attic was off limits because Barbara Duras Scott, a Willcoxon descendant and the last family owner of the home, knew the value of the history up there, said Carney. The family did paint or wallpaper the first and second floors, though, so until a careful restoration process began, the historians didn’t know how much graffiti actually existed.

Writing covers just about every wall, in every room, of the home. The attic is the most pristine, which is why it isn’t scheduled to open to the public on any regular basis. Plans are being made for special tours of the attic, especially during the 150th anniversary of the war, in 2011, said Preiss.

Because the type of construction of the interior walls at the time, it took a couple of years to cure before the walls could be whitewashed. This is what allowed the walls to absorb the graphite and charcoal writings that have remained so vivid, said Loewenwarter.

"It was basically a white canvas," she said.

Scott was the true historian, said Carney, who knew her well and used to visit the home. She would tell first-hand stories about the property based on her family’s oral traditions.

"It turns out, this is one of the most historical sites in the country," said David Meyer.

Since the Civil War was one of the first wars where the average soldier was literate, said Meyer, the sheer number of different writings on the walls is significant. It’s a place that tells the soldiers’ stories, and it shines light on their thoughts and experiences at the time.

"This is a great place to interpret their experiences," said Meyer. "Not just through a three-day battle like at a lot of sites, but through the four and a half years of the war."

The group believes the site will become a destination point for people from all over the country. The National Register of Historic Places added Blenheim in 2001, citing its significant associations with architecture and social history. The museum, interpretive center and grounds will serve as a memory of that history. For the five preservationists that worked so hard to save it, it serves as a memory of their hard work and dedication to not only saving Fairfax’s history, but also becoming it.

"This is owned by the citizens of the city," said Meyer. "We want it to be open for as long as possible during the daytime. We want people to come and enjoy it."