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Historic Home Now Nature Center

Once the home of silent film star Pola Negri, Gulf Branch Nature Center houses bees, toads, turtles and even an owl.

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Brownie Troop 6671 on a nature walk around Gulf Branch park

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Naturalist Jennifer Soles talks with Brownie troop 6671 before they head out on a nature walk.

Despite its proximity to the hustle and bustle of Washington, D.C., north Arlington is one of the least urban parts of the county, since most of its development took place more than two decades ago. Surrounded by 38 acres of wooded parkland is Gulf Branch nature center. The center provides both historical and natural recreational resources for Arlington community members.

Gulf Branch nature center is located on Military Road, in a building that dates back to the 1910s and used to be a private home. In fact, its many rooms were once home to famed silent film star (and one-time Rudolph Valentino fiancé) Pola Negri. The center celebrates this fact each year with screenings of her films.

In addition to Negri, the center pays tribute to many past and present human and non-human inhabitants of the area. A huge glass-encased observation hive housing thousands of bees greets visitors as they enter the nature center. Watching these industrious insects do their work is a truly mesmerizing experience.

Up a short flight of stairs from the lobby are dozens of other live animals native to the area – including turtles, sunfish, toads and the center’s piece de résistance, a majestic Barred Owl, who was brought to the center with a broken wing.

"A lot of people come just to see him," said Jennifer Soles, Naturalist at the center.

Soles became a full-time employee at Gulf Branch last May. Since arriving, she’s made a concerted effort to bring more adults to the center. Soles started a "nature for dummies" series that explores different natural themes in Arlington, and leads adult craft workshops and a book club.

"People tend to make time for their kids to come to the center, but not for themselves," she lamented.

Downstairs is the center’s Native American room, which features artifacts found in the area dating back as far as 2,000 B.C. The dug-out canoe in the middle of the room was made by naturalists at the center more than a dozen years ago. Soles recalled playing in the structure when she was a kid herself. Unfortunately, the canoe doesn’t really function – the center’s staff tugged it the 3/4 mile down to the Potomac River only to watch it sink to the bottom.

As well as its permanent displays, the center provides special events and activities tailored to meet the community’s needs.

Lillian Prins is an 8th grader who volunteers twice a week at the center feeding and cleaning its furry and scaly inhabitants. She’s been donating her time since the 6th grade.

"I like being with the animals," said Prins. "Everyone who works here is really nice. . . I think it would be really cool to work here some day."

Brownie troop 6671 was arriving at the center for a nature walk with Soles she finished a tour. They were working on getting their "animals triate" – the triangular badges that dot each accomplished Brownie’s sash.

Lori Rottenberg is one of the troop’s leaders. Both of her daughters have attended summer camps at the center. For her family, the nature center is a valuable resource.

"Amid such a developed community like Arlington, places like this are precious," she said.

While the Brownie troop made their way into the woods, they passed the Robert Wood Log House – a replica of a historic log cabin built with logs from an 1871 house. The log house is used in historical interpretation programming.

The girls also marched past the center’s working blacksmith forge – one the few places in northern Virginia where people can learn about the craft from skilled blacksmiths.

Although Gulf Branch’s biggest yearly activity (Pioneer Day) has passed, its staff runs programs for Arlington residents of all ages on a regular basis. To find out more about the center’s offerings visit www.arlingtonva.us/calendar or call 703-228-3403.