With much of the physical infrastructure on the site now a pile of rubble, Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz wants County Board members to throw in the towel on designating parts of the Rouse estate parcel as a local historic district.
Schwartz’s recommendation comes as the Planning Commission is slated to take up the designation request on April 5. County Board members will consider it later in the month.
Designation of a majority of the 9-acre site as its own historic districts had been proposed by the Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board (HALRB), but County Board members slow-walked the timeline to consider the measure – purposely, in the eyes of some preservation advocates – leaving plenty of time for the owner of the parcel to receive the necessary permits to tear the buildings down.
The property owner allowed county-government preservation staff onto the parcel to take photographs and make observations on March 24, immediately preceding the start of demolition work. Staff photographed a number of buildings, including the main house, barn, tower and caretaker’s cottage, as well as the long-disused pool.
The estate, fronting Wilson Boulevard near the Arlington-Fairfax border, is what remains of a 26-acre tract purchased by sportsman Randy Rouse in the 1950s. Rouse, who sold off the additional acreage for development, owned the remainder of the parcel until his death at age 100 in 2017; his widow had been residing in the main house until recently.
(To many preservation activists, the property is known as the “Febrey-Lothrop Estate,” for owners of the land before Rouse took possession.)
A trust set up by Randy Rouse has been adamantly opposed to all preservation efforts, which were initiated last spring by local resident Tom Dickinson, and the trust played hardball with county officials throughout the process.
While recommending that the County Board reject the historic designation, Schwartz also proposes that staff be directed to come back by October with a report on potential ways the site could be incorporated into Arlington’s historic-preservation and/or affordable-housing efforts.
But by that point, the property owners may well have sold the parcel off for development, and unless the county government coughs up the cash to purchase the parcel (something that could run into the tens of millions of dollars), local leaders may not have much say on what the future of the tract looks like.
Unlike inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places and Virginia Landmarks Register, which effectively are honorific in nature, inclusion in a county-government local historic district in Arlington restricts the maneuverability of property owners in terms of what they can do with their property, and usually gives HALRB members final say in exterior alterations.
Currently, a total of 13 individual houses are counted among historic districts in Arlington, ranging in provenance from 1760 to 1931. Homeowners in more broad-based historic districts (such as Maywood) also have to adhere to design guidelines and receive approval from staff or the HALRB to make certain changes to the exterior of their properties.
As early as the HALRB’s hearing on the historic designation late last year, an attorney for the trust was serving notice, not feeling the need to be terribly subtle, that the property owner would be willing to use the nuclear option – razing the main house and outbuildings to the ground – rather than see the site come under auspices of a local historic district.
The trust also used the threat of legal action, which County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac on numerous occasions acknowledged would likely be successful.
Throughout the process that followed, preservation activists feared, County Board members seemed disinclined to do anything to stop demolition at the site.