When Ron Battocchi first moved to Boulevard Manor neighborhood in Arlington in 1977, he said one of the first knocks at his door was from his new neighbor: Nelson Reeves. Reeves introduced himself, gave Battocchi one of his famously huge beets, and offered to till Battocchi’s yard to help get him started in gardening. It wasn’t an empty gesture either; Reeves not only helped till Battocchi’s yard, but offered parts of the neighboring Reevesland farm to grow flowers on and gave Battocchi seeds to start his own garden. Today, Battocchi’s garden is in full bloom with various flowers and vegetables, some still on the property that once belonged to Reeves. Reevesland, on the other hand, sits isolated and abandoned on top of the adjacent hill.
“The house has deteriorated,” said Battocchi, describing one tour into the building where county staff found dead animals rotting inside. “It has not been properly maintained. It’s valuable to preserve that history. It needs to be put to a good use.”
Reevesland was Arlington’s last dairy farm. Built in 1865, the Reeves home and surrounding property is a relic of Arlington’s days as a rural farming community. Nelson Reeves died in 2000, just a few weeks shy of his 100th birthday. His three children sold the property to the county for $1.8 million in 2001 in hopes that the county would preserve the property, but despite being named a “historic district” in 2004 by the county, the property has sat empty and is beginning to show signs of its disuse. The milk shed behind the building has suffered structural deterioration, leading the county to erect temporary wooden supports to hold the building upright.
The Reevesland restoration project was given a $500,000 budget. However, reports from the county staff indicated that stabilizing the building’s foundation alone would cost $710,000.
“After staff conducted design studies and evaluations, it was determined the cost estimate to stabilize the foundation exceeded the budget,” said Jessica Baxter, a communications specialist for the Arlington County Department of Environmental Services, in an email. “The board has requested recommendations on alternative options, which will be submitted by the county manager this spring. A public announcement will then be made of the board’s guidance.”
According to Susan Kalish, public relations director for the Arlington County Department of Parks and Recreation, the project has been put on hold at 60 percent through the design phase. The county has spent $63,453 for design development during the first phase of the project and on repairing damage caused by water leakage in the roof and foundation.
“The goal was to stabilize the farmhouse,” said Kalish. “We were originally planning on rebuilding the foundation and installing a new basement, as well as remediate hazardous building materials, like asbestos, but it became obvious it was going to cost more.”
Joan Horwitt, who’s made it a personal mission to bring new life and community interest to the site, said the county’s inability to renovate the site is unacceptable. In 2010, Horwitt started “Lawns 2 Lettuce 4 Lunch,” a program that brings Ashlawn Elementary School students to the gardens at Reevesland where they help plant vegetables, observe their growth, and ultimately enjoy a salad almost entirely of their making.
Because of the site’s status as a historic site, Horwitt couldn’t plant the vegetables directly into the ground, so Lawns 2 Lettuce 4 Lunch created eight raised beds to plant in. Later, an Eagle Scout project added four beds to the site. On April 11 and 12, Chris Gaines and other Boy Scouts from Troop 111 added another set of four garden beds as part of Gaines’ Eagle Scout project.
Horwitt says the garden currently grows about half the produce Reeves created in his garden. While the raised beds were initially a frustrated obstacle, Horwitt said they discovered that they were actually very beneficial for teaching students. A class could gather around a bed and easily walk between the garden lanes or look down at the growth from eye level.
While Horwitt says the gardens have been a major success, her main goal is restoration of the house as a learning center. More than 100 citizens, including Reeves’ children, showed up to a March 24 Arlington County Board Public Hearing in support of this aim.
“We have been asking for years for use of the house,” said Horwitt, citing community benefits like community growth and improved education, as well as a long term reduction in childhood obesity. “We renovate parks for thousands of dollars. Taxpayers funded the Artisphere ($6.7 million initial conversion cost), paid for a dog park (James Hunter Park, renovated for $1.6 million) ... we all pay for that. When things are a priority in Arlington, they get funded. To me, allowing a historic home in Arlington to be boarded up is outrageous.”
“Reevesland as an agricultural-based learning center would be a perfect fit,” said Battocchi. “What Joan [Horwitt] has done with the place is extraordinary.”
According to Kalish, the main house is unstable, and for any kind of activity to take place within the building it would have to brought up to health and safety code standards.
“It needs work,” said Kalish.
In the mean time, Horwitt says she will continue to bring school classes out to Reevesland in hopes of passing Nelson Reeves’ love of gardening on to another generation. In a few weeks, a class from Carlin Springs Elementary School will be visiting and helping to plant a “Tops and Bottoms” garden, in reference to the 1995 Caldecott Honor Book “Tops & Bottoms” by Janet Stevens, where a rabbit plants a garden with a variety of vegetables that grow above and under the soil to confuse a greedy bear. Horwitt says the book and garden teach students about the variety of produce and differences in how they are grown.
With one of the recent classes, Horwitt said they planted a thimbleful of lettuce, based on advice by Thomas Jefferson. The students were initially very disappointed; nothing seemed to be happening. But suddenly, on one trip, the lettuce had suddenly burst into full bloom. With any luck, Horwitt is hoping Reevesland itself can experience a similar revival.