Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpOn a hill overlooking the woods of Carlin Springs Road sits a 19th-century flat-log home that is one of Arlington’s earliest.

The Mary Carlin House (built circa 1800) is also among our county’s coziest–a compromise between the duties of historic preservation and the rights of private owners to livable space.

The property’s historical plaque and the write-up in Eleanor Lee Templeman’s Arlington Heritage invoke a roster of early Arlington families. Original builder William Carlin, who had a reputation as George Washington’s tailor, deeded it to his granddaughter, Mary Alexander Carlin, who had been born there. As an unmarried teacher, she lived there until 1905 and became the last to be buried in the Carlin family cemetery up the road.

But judging by her photo in an unladylike pose and with a corncob pipe, Miss Carlin seemed to current owners Charlie and Judy Titus “a bit rough.” Which would also describe their experience in buying the place in 1967, empty for three years after it had passed through decades of ownership by the Lanes and the Broyles.

“It was a black hole of Calcutta,” says Judy Titus, a homemaker who displays her collection of more than 300 dolls in a décor invoking a quaint bed-and-breakfast. “It was a mudhole,” part of three-and-a-half acres invested in by a friend for whom Charlie Titus worked as a drywall contractor. Rather than grabbing up the historical attraction, it was more like the construction entrepreneur begged them to “take this house off my hands,” Charlie recalls. He was reluctant, but she decided to visit and “climb over the trash heap” of a vintage home that they recall driving past as children on the school bus on then-two-lane Carlin Springs Road.

The Tituses plunked down $13,000 and assumed challenges that included rescuing the pre-Civil War locustwood ceiling beams that needed new mortar in a structure that once housed five fireplaces.

They endured noise from bulldozers working on new Dittmar homes next door as they cooked on a Coleman stove by candlelight before power lines were connected. “We’ve been working ever since,” she jokes as she conducts a tour of the creature comforts—an added family room and master bedroom, modern kitchen, screened patio, barbecue, hammock, gazebo—which expanded on the 1923-period barn-shaped additions and gable.

On the Titus living room wall is a framed collection of rusted spikes, hinges and latches they unearthed. The old covered well in the front yard (now dry) they turned into a shed.

In the early 1980s came pressure from the county for the Tituses to sign a 12-page covenant that would require them to obtain future permission to add shutters or paint and to notify authorities if they planned to move. “It was nuts, and no one signed it,” says Charlie.

The Arlington Historical Society came with a pitch to be included on tours—to which they agreed, in 1969, 1974 and 1993. (Judy saved the resulting news clippings.) “But some thought we should furnish with a dirt floor and stick furniture,” she complains, which would be a far cry from the handsome retirees’ retreat they maintain today.

Today passersby do knock on the door of the Mary Carlin House. “One even asked if she could rent the place for a wedding,” says Judy. “But that’s something I wouldn’t even allow my own daughter.”

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Another stalwart Arlington business is closing. Werner Jewelers, after 57 years and now the last remaining original tenant of the Columbia Pike Plaza Shopping Center, will go dark at the end of December. Werner Stargardt, the store’s 94-year-old founder now retired, was there Saturday helping with the “everything must go” sale. He sold me a watch.

The shop’s struggles, I was told by the founder’s son, owner Ralph Stargardt, come from “the general contraction of the economy and from the Internet.”