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Thursday, March 30, 2023
ArlingtonOpinionLetter: Arlington has no commitment to preservation

Letter: Arlington has no commitment to preservation

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Editor: A recent front-page headline in the Sun Gazette asked: “Is Historic Preservation Getting Short Shrift in County?” I was of course shouting not only yes but “hell yes!!” in response.

It’s been getting short shrift for decades, and shows no sign of improvement.

Of all the good things that happen in Arlington, attention to history and particularly historic preservation has always been an Achilles heel, a notable and profound weak spot in our public reputation and cultural affairs.

Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board (HALRB) chairman Richard Woodruff deserves high praise for having the courage to speak truth to power about the woeful lack of meaningful, substantive attention to historic preservation in Arlington. The county preservation staff have underperformed for decades; they take orders from the county manager, who is equally to blame for this atrocious indifference.


Within the last year, the county preservation staff, the county manager and the County Board all approved the permanent destruction of both the unique, 9.5-acre historic Febrey Estate (where a developer now plans to build 45 to 50 megamansions) and the unique, completely restored historic Fellows-McGrath 1889 “painted lady” Victorian home.

In my experience (although there are literally dozens of examples), worst of all was the similarly approved destruction of three other truly historic properties, all within a year, in 2011:

• The Certigrade home, 100-percent made of rot-proof, pleasant smelling cedar, FHA Loan #1, personally dedicated by then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1943;

• The Febrey-Kinchloe Mansion (Overlee Swim Club house), the locus of high society in Arlington in the 19th and early 20th centuries, where numerous dignitaries visited over many decades, and an oft-noted ghost presence; and

• A 1949 all-steel Lustron kit home, one of only 11 ever built in Arlington.

In addition, there was the tragic loss of senator/astronaut/presidential candidate John Glenn’s Arlington home.

The County Board, county manager and historic-preservation staff stood by with hands shoved in pockets whistling to the wind must not be forgotten in the long list of worst failures in preservation in Arlington.

A reporter from the New York Times once asked me, “What of importance has been saved in Arlington?” A former mayor of Alexandria also asked me, “When will Arlington wake up and start saving its important historic resources?”
Add to all this destruction is the permanent environmentally critical loss of tree canopy, ground cover and vegetation, with resultant desolation and water-runoff issues.

There is one simple answer that I have proposed on several occasions to the County Board over the years: follow the highly successful example of Fairfax County and other Virginia jurisdictions and establish a resident-curator program in Arlington, as authorized under state law.

This is a win-win-win solution for the county, historic preservation, tamping down high costs of home ownership, and the occupant of the property, who lives there for free in return for accomplishing all maintenance and repair on the property.

I have even offered to start and run such a program, but the County Board and staff continue to turn a blind eye to and ignore such opportunities to pay more than lip service to historic preservation in Arlington.
They must be held accountable for such abominable lack of attention – “short shrift,” indeed.

When will they ever learn?

Tom Dickinson, Arlington

Dickinson is founder of Save Historic Arlington and a former president of the Arlington Historical Society.

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