Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpThe historic Birchland home is off Arlington’s beaten track.

Hidden by stately trees and an imposing stone wall, it has been ensconced for more than a century on the thoroughfare of North Glebe Road at Williamsburg Blvd.

The Birch family being one of Arlington’s early-settling landowners, the elegant plantation-style home –among the county’s oldest that is still occupied – also sits on property that played an intriguing role in Civil War intelligence gathering.

I recently chatted with longtime owner Jeanne Page. She shared a timeline her late husband Harry produced using early land records and Eleanor Lee Templeman’s Arlington Heritage.

Birchland (not to be confused with the Birch cabin on North 26th Street) rests on a site traced back to a 1724 grant from Lord Fairfax to the Robertson family. The Birches inherited it in the latter 18th-century and by 1812 had built a cabin on the hill, which newlywed occupants Billie and Elizabeth Birch named Birchland Plantation.

That couple in 1828 was bequeathed the surrounding 320 acres. By 1861, the land became part of the union defense line of Washington. A tall southern red oak in the yard known as “the spy tree” served as a lookout post, and the cabin was a telegraph station briefly the headquarters of Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock.

The tree, dated precisely to 1606, was cut down as recently as 1995 and is commemorated with a plaque. After three decades, Mrs. Page says, her husband worried the rotting tree was a threat to the neighbors’ house. It is now an eight-foot-round ivy-covered stump.

The Birch clan in the 1880s sold the property to the Weaver family, founders of the W.T. Weaver & Sons Hardware still in Georgetown (Walter Weaver was an Arlington supervisor and chief of road building). The Weavers would own Birchland for 80 years, constructing the current three-story white plantation home with four front columns in 1897.

The Pages purchased it in 1961. “We bought the house to be near schools” (for their two daughters) and close to her husband’s work as an Air Force colonel, recalls Page, a retired teacher. Her husband put money down on the house before she saw it. “It was pretty run-down, but the price was right,” she says. “It was a summer house, so the wind blew nicely through the front porch.”

The high-ceiling home with a stone foundation retains its original windows of leaded glass with no mullions, and a double-decker bowed triple window. It has an outside-entry basement door and remnants of what looks like an old coal chute. “We found things the Weavers left behind, which my husband kept,” says Page. (Indeed, Weaver descendants continue to visit their ancestral home, I was told by Page’s daughter Peggy.)

My own memory of the Page place, as a local from the neighborhood, is that it was among several homes that had their front yards sliced off in the early 1960s when the county used eminent domain to widen old Glebe Road. “We were sore” about that, Mrs. Page said. And though the owners couldn’t prevent the new traffic-easing improvements, her husband – being a “smart cookie” – demanded a quid pro quo for his cooperation.

Col. Page worked with county engineers and the result was that the privacy of their historic home today is still protected by that handsome tall stone wall.