Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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The 105-year-old Wilson School may soon be reduced to rubble–to allow construction of Arlington’s first high-rise urbanized school, for the H-B Woodlawn secondary program.

Unless preservationists pull off a miracle.

Last Saturday I visited that underused utilitarian structure on Wilson Blvd. in upper Rosslyn and perused some documents to learn why passions have risen in this latest feud between Arlington’s heritage and its future livability.

After years of hearings and debate about overcrowded Arlington schools, the school board voted on Feb. 17 to press on with the Woodlawn move over objections from the Radnor/Fort Meyer Heights Civic Association and a unanimous vote this January to restore Wilson by the Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board.

The building facing the wrecking ball was constructed in 1910 as Fort Myer Heights School, designed by noted Richmond architect Charles Robinson. It was the fruit of planning as far back as 1902 by neighbors concerned that children were attending school using second-hand furniture in a former saloon in Rosslyn.

The two-story neoclassical structure boasted columns, portico and a cupola, and was renovated in 1925 to add a septic tank and athletic field. That was also the year it was named for the recently deceased President Woodrow Wilson, who had spent happy hours cruising the newly paved Wilson Blvd. in his Pierce-Arrow greeting the school’s students. (The boulevard itself, previously known as Awbury’s Road and Georgetown Falls Church Road, was also renamed in his honor.)

The Wilson elementary school became a beloved alma mater and community gathering place–in August 1930, the Arlington-Fairfax Volunteer Firemen’s Association hosted its annual carnival, parade and supper there. The structure was modernized again in 1957 (the fancy portico and columns were later removed) before elementary school classes there were ended in 1968.

Ensuing decades saw the school used for employment training and temporary offices when not vacant. (It currently is home on Saturdays to the Mongolian School of the National Capital Area, which, a staffer told me, is seeking a new site from the county.)

Civic association president Stanley Karson has been publishing letters arguing for a restoration of the “glorious building in its prime” to its 1910 appearance. It was he who approached the landmark review board after feeling “stampeded” by advocates of new high-rises.

Review board chair Joan Lawrence has called for a blending of new and old, perhaps through reuse of ceiling tiles and bricks and historic signage in an imaginative new structure for middle and high-school students.

Preservation Arlington last year placed Wilson on its endangered historic places list, calling it “the longest operating school building in the county that is still owned by the county.”

The site certainly embodies a fascinating and well-documented history. When I visited, the hallways and the multi-purpose room made of old ceramic brick brought back memories of my own Arlington school days.

But the school system’s current pressures make use of its existing land an imperative. And for preservation of Arlington school design circa 1910, one could point to a better example in the former Maury School further west on Wilson, now the Arlington Arts Center.

The issue is now before the planning commission, with the county board slated to consider it April 18. Karson has been lobbying board members, telling me, “A building doesn’t have to be beautiful to be historic.”

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A definite success story for local preservationists was the county board’s move last November to declare Broadview as Arlington’s 36th Historic District. That farmhouse built in 1881 by civic activist and former Union Army Maj. Robert Stinson Lacey is sandwiched between modern homes on a hill at 5151 N. 14th St., near Washington Blvd. and George Mason Drive.

Its three-story tower and Queen Anne gingerbread motifs in attractive yellow and blue are what’s left of a 220-acre farm on which Civil War canteens and belt buckles were found, according to Eleanor Lee Templeman’s Arlington Heritage. The house may have inspired the 1941 young-adult novel “The Secret of the Old House” by Margaret Leighton.

The historic designation, approved by the planning commission, Landmark Review Board and county manager, was sought by owners Alex Deucher and Angela Guzman. Their commanding view of Lacey Park, however, may soon be blocked by some pending new homes.