If there is going to be a showdown over the future of a large tract of land and the century-old home that is its centerpiece on the western end of Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, it won’t be happening until next spring or summer.
Members of the Arlington government’s Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board (HALRB) voted 10-0 on Nov. 17 to move forward on a preliminary study toward determining whether the 9-acre Rouse estate at the corner of Wilson Boulevard and North McKinley Road meets qualifications to be designated as a local historic district.
The bone of contention? The trust that controls the property doesn’t want the study, or the historic designation, to move forward.
The property is owned by a trust set up by sportsman Randy Rouse, who purchased the estate (then consisting of 26 acres) in 1951 and owned it until his death at age 100 in 2017. His widow currently resides on the circa-1907 main house.
Local residents have petitioned the county government to consider historic-district status for the parcel, which if eventually approved by the County Board would give HALRB members authority over exterior changes to buildings and a major input on whether the site can be developed.
It is rare for the HALRB to move forward on such a proposal when the property owner is against it. The body’s chairman, Richard Woodruff, noted the case of Arlington Presbyterian Church on Columbia Pike, for which some activists urged protection but the congregation wanted razed to make way for affordable housing.
“We didn’t want to go against the owners – we have a similar situation now,” said Woodruff, urging fellow members to decide up front whether they were willing to go down the route.
“The staff’s got a lot to do, and I don’t think we should waste their time . . . if we’re not going to follow through,” he said.
Panel member Joan Lawrence said there were “some distinctions” in the two cases, and the body voted unanimously to request staff begin a preliminary study.
But any expectations that such an effort will be quickly completed were dashed by historic-preservation staffer Cynthia Liccese-Torres, who said a personnel shortage and impacts of the COVID crisis made it likely any study would not be completed until next spring or summer.
“At a minimum, we would need at least six months – I know that is not ideal, but I am trying to be practical,” she said. “We just have too much on our plate right now.”
HALRB members accepted that timeline, asking that staff return at the halfway point to provide a progress update.
The trust that owns the property several months ago believed it had a buyer lined up, but the deal apparently has fallen through. HALRB members said they hoped that despite its opposition to the historic designation, the trust (or subsequent owners) would be willing to work out a plan that would allow for subdividing the property while leaving the main house and some surrounding land intact.
“There can be a lot accommodated on the site . . . without impacting either the house or the sense of place around the house,” HALRB member Richard Dudka said.
The original home on the parcel was constructed around 1850; the current home replaced it in 1907, and subsequently was altered after Rouse purchased it.
(Rumors hold that Howard Hughes leased the property during World War II and held lavish parties there. Entertaining in the home during the early 1950s was Rouse’s then-wife, actress Audrey Meadows of “Honeymooners” fame.)
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.
While owners of properties being considered for inclusion as a local historic district could always attempt what might be considered a nuclear option – razing the structures to the ground before a vote on such a designation takes place – such a move likely would result in a reaction that would complicate efforts to redevelop the parcel down the road. However, whether it was the Arlington Presbyterian case or many that came before it, property owners that play hardball often ultimately get their way.
(Even government bodies can play hardball when it comes to historic districts: The Arlington School Board in 2015 fended off citizen and HALRB efforts to declare the Wilson School property in Rosslyn as historic – the building then was torn down to make way for new construction – and a year later only agreed to an historic designation for Dorothy Hamm Middle School on the condition that the County Board, not the HALRB, be the arbiter of future design changes.)
Currently, a total of 13 individual houses are counted as 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.
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