A mere eight miles from Mount Vernon, George Washington’s Georgian neoclassical plantation home, and just nine miles south of Old Town Alexandria, the colonial bastion that provides much inspiration for Northern Virginia’s epidemic of multimillion-dollar neo-colonial McMansions, sits Hollin Hills, one of the country’s most progressive housing developments.
Conceived by forward-thinking developer Robert Davenport in the 1940s and designed by architect Charles Goodman, the enclave of some 450 modernist homes is an anomaly not only in the greater Washington metropolitan area but in the whole country. Despite Hollin Hills’ popularity among its residents and well-documented public acclaim, in the half century since its inception, it has inspired few imitators.
When architects Sally and Ken Wilson moved to a leafy cul-de-sac in Hollin Hills six years ago with their two sons, it was exactly the sort of place they had been looking for. “I lived here for six months when I was just out of school,” says Ken. “I thought it was the coolest place, and, if we could afford to, I always wanted to come back.” With a hint of nostalgia Sally adds, “It’s a great neighborhood, with a fantastic community association. I never imagined doing that kind of stuff but the people are so cool, you want to.”
It was the post–World War II housing boom that made Hollin Hills possible in both its physical and social form. Fueled by an expanding economy and boundless atomic age optimism, the American Dream of home ownership was now well within reach of a growing middle class. While in most instances the result was your average split-level, the left-leaning Goodman and Davenport envisioned for Americans a better life through enlightened modern design. It was precisely this dedication to a higher standard, and Davenport’s long-standing involvement, which helped Hollin Hills evolve into such a lasting and solid community.
Sometime in the late 1940s, after securing initial investments from a group of liberal veterans known as the American Veterans Committee, some of whom were the neighborhood’s first residents, Davenport and Goodman set about creating a site plan for the 225 lush rolling acres that would reflect the pair’s progressive ethos. These overarching decisions, so unique considering today’s zoned, coded, and mandated suburbia, are the foundation of the special character Hollin Hills exudes. Houses were situated on slopes and at angles that afforded maximum privacy and respected natural drainage pat-terns and flora. Meandering roads followed the contours of the land, abandoning both the standardized grid and sidewalks, too. Parks and trails were established along the small streams that border the property. Even a benign set of rules, such as the banning of fences between proper-ties, further extended the pastoral setting and fostered a shared community atmosphere. “It really stands apart from what you would expect to find in D.C.,” Sally comments. “It’s a 35-minute commute from downtown, but I feel like I’m in a vacation house.”
When it came to designing and building the homes, Davenport and Goodman took a similarly dynamic approach. Over the course of the community’s roughly 20-year development, the team offered prospective buyers nine different housing types, each with numerous variations depending on scale, siting, materials, and the needs of the homeowners. They set up their own shop where the team of builders constructed 12-foot-long wall panels, which were then trucked to the site and assembled into place—a sort of onsite prefabrication. (Goodman would later consult for National Homes, the country’s largest prefabricated housing manufacturer.) To maximize the views created, and introduce a symbiotic relationship with the outdoors, all of the houses featured large expanses of windows (as much as 28 and a half feet of floor-to-ceiling glass in some models).
Brick, perhaps the only concession to colonialism, was recycled from decaying Baltimore warehouses and formed much of the houses’ interior and exterior massing. Of the relationship between these materials, architect Paul Rudolph noted in a 1961 Life magazine article that “the contrast between the solidity of the brick and the openness of the glass makes an admirable compromise between the cave and the goldfish bowl.”
Many of the early Hollin Hills designs featured standard pitched roofs atypical of mid-century modernism; however, later models introduced a graceful inverted butterfly roof and also a completely flat roof that could still stand up to Virginia’s thunderstorms and winter. In most of the homes, a large open-plan living and dining area was separated from the bedrooms by a service core made up of the kitchen and bathrooms. Through the adaptable and modular designs, Hollin Hills operated as a larger-than-life petri dish in which Goodman could experiment with evolving architectural concepts, and continually refine his practice.
Although the Wilsons’ house was one of the last to be completed, in 1970, and was much grander in scale than the original postwar models, Goodman’s design offered little in the way of modern amenities. Ken quips, “I had about four feet of closet space, which might have worked in 1950, but just doesn’t anymore.”
After living in the house for three years, Ken and Sally decided to tackle a renovation themselves.“The goal,” says Ken, “was to be able to walk up to the house and not be able to find where the addition was.” Gutting the rear of the structure, but keeping Goodman’s scheme for a row of three bedrooms across the rear elevation, the couple expanded the interior service core to accommodate an updated kitchen, larger closets, and master bathroom, while maintaining the clean lines of the clerestory and trim on the exterior. Taking a cue from Ken’s Washington, D.C.–based practice, Envision (which has designed environmentally responsible offices for the U.S. headquarters of Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, and the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) project in D.C.), the Wilsons went to great lengths to use sustainable materials and pay close attention to energy efficiency. “We used copper plumbing instead of PVC, zero-VOC paints, insulated glass, bamboo and sustainably harvested wood, increased the roof rafter size to allow more insulation, made the walls thicker, and put in a mechanical system that is three times more efficient,” says Ken. Through-out the home, all of the new cabinetry employs a formal-dehyde-free wheat board made from agricultural wheat straw waste. The couple even went so far as to get reclaimed brick from Baltimore, just as in the original homes—“but now it costs three times as much because of the labor involved in taking old mortar off the bricks,” Ken says. Although the house is now a third larger, the energy costs are remarkably reduced.
The Wilsons’ seamless 21st-century renovation shows that Hollin Hills still has much to offer the next gen-eration of American housing. In 1957, at the American Institute of Architects’ Centennial Exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Hollin Hills was chosen as one of “Ten milestones in the future of America’s architecture.” Undoubtedly, the future envisioned then is far different from what exists today, but it’s still fair to say that the development represents a milestone—a neighborhood that can boast not only an original vision but the ability to live up to it.