It may seem an incongruous spot for a nature preserve, nestled in the middle of the high density commercial and residential area of Alexandria Mark Center. Winkler Botanical Preserve was originally created by the Winkler family's Catherine Winkler Herman, her daughter Tori Thomas, and the Winkler Foundation. Beginning in 1979, they sought to protect this special area during the development of Mark Center. Since its creation, the preserve has been open to the public, providing environmental education, and offering programs for children, including summer camps. Those environmental education and children’s programs soon will continue under the management of NOVA Parks.
Along with gifting the preserve to the regional park system, the Winkler Organization provided more than $3 million as an operating endowment to support educational programs and improvements. In addition, the organization gifted the City of Alexandria with $1 million to “advance community engagement and learning resources for City residents and visitors of the Preserve.”
NoVA Parks indicates, “True to the vision of the Winkler family and the history of the Preserve, a primary focus will be to provide nature education to children. With the City of Alexandria having resources dedicated to transporting school children to the Preserve, NOVA Parks will offer free educational programs that are tied to the Virginia Department of Education’s Standards of Learning. The free programming will also be available to schools from other jurisdictions in Northern Virginia. The Preserve has a history of offering premium quality summer camps. NOVA Parks will build on this and offer expanded summer camps, similar to those offered at Potomac Overlook Regional Park and Meadowlark Botanical
The Winkler donation included an additional $1 million for capital improvements at the site. NOVA Parks, which officially began site management on Oct. 1, has outlined improvements to be undertaken in their September 2022 Plan and Budget.
“Access to the property by the general public and school groups is currently limited by the available parking. Planning and developing better parking and vehicle turn-around space will enable the Preserve to expand its reach to the community.”
THE PRIVATE LODGE on the property is named after Herman, Catherine's Lodge. Improvements call for re-staining the lodge. Also for adding interpretive signage to tell the story of the Winkler family, the nature preserve they envisioned, and how they made that vision a reality. Trail signs will add educational information about the Preserve’s natural resources.
Visitors will be struck by the beauty and function of the series of linear pools that feed to the large main pond in front of the lodge. The pools collect and move runoff from the higher walled off area of the I-95 highway corridor and high rise parking lots abutting the property, along with pollutants, such as grease, oil, and trash, into a catch basin and the ponds, where they can be periodically removed. While providing this stormwater function, the ponds present a natural looking aesthetic, enhanced by the season’s colorful fall leaves. The main pond features a pumped dual waterfall, adding a delight of sight and sound.
A small cabin and a wood tower, remnants of past summer camp and adventure rope course days, add a bit of mystery. The rustic lodge incorporates several bent wood features and unusual log benches which invite visitors to linger and watch the water and plants near the pond. The natural bent wood bench and gate elements were created by David Robinson, a New Jersey artist. He was for many years the field supervisor in charge of restoration of unmilled wood structures at New York City’s Central Park. That park’s design, created in 1858, included many such whimsical and practical features created by co-designer Calvert Vaux. Unfortunately, most of the original structures were gone by the 1950s.
After his work in New York, Robinson established a business creating natural wood structures, like those seen at Winkler, for other parks and private gardens. For obvious reasons, some visitors are not welcome to admire these wood designs. Management is encouraging a few North American Beavers to leave the property, humanely, according to steward Tom Sundin.
Sundin, who has worked at the Preserve for 39 years, will continue as Preserve Steward. He’s served the site long enough to have seen past children campers return as young adult camp counselors.
NOVA Parks soon will name a manager to oversee daily operations and develop new programs, as well as a seasonal management team and camp counselors, but continuity remains through Sundin and other original staff.
The Winkler Botanical Preserve is located at 5400 Roanoke Ave is now open to the public 8:30 a.m. - 4 p.m.