- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 8, 2006

Woodlawn Plantation and Pope-Leighey House, historic homes about three miles west of Mount Vernon, are flanked by gas stations and fast-food restaurants along busy U.S. Route 1. Nevertheless, once visitors start up the long driveway to the homes, which sit on nearly 150 acres overlooking the Potomac River, all the hustle and bustle of modern life seem far removed. The properties are shielded by extensive plantings of magnolia trees, viburnums, daffodils, cherry trees, dogwoods and azaleas.

The first home that comes into view is Woodlawn Plantation, which was built in 1805 by Maj. Lawrence Lewis, a nephew of George Washington’s, and Eleanor “Nelly” Custis, a granddaughter of Martha Washington’s.

“The land, which initially was 2,000 acres, had been given to them by Washington as a wedding gift,” says Stacey Hawkins, special events and program manager at Woodlawn Plantation and Pope-Leighey House. “Washington thought this parcel was one of the best in the country [on which] to build a mansion,” Ms. Hawkins says. In one document, he called it a “most beautiful site for a gentleman’s seat.”

To design the mansion, the family hired William Thornton, the first architect of the U.S. Capitol. To build it, they used their slaves and bricks made on the plantation. Washington, who died in 1799, never saw the home, which was completed in 1805.

“The Lewises had a very lavish lifestyle, and Woodlawn became a place to see and be seen,” Ms. Hawkins says.

On display are many of the Lewises’ original pieces, including a sewing box, chairs and a tea chest that once belonged to America’s first president.

The plantation and the Lewises’ privileged lifestyle could function only because of the large slave population, Ms. Hawkins says. It’s estimated that at least 90 percent of the more than 100-person plantation community was made up of slaves.

“We know very little about the enslaved community,” Ms. Hawkins says. “At other old plantation homes, archaeology has been able to tell us about the enslaved population, but not here.”

This is because of Woodlawn’s more recent history. After the Lewises sold the property in the mid-1850s, it had several owners. In the late 1800s, a large Quaker community moved in and farmed the land so intensely it upended the soil to the extent that any remnants from the enslaved community were lost, Ms. Hawkins says.

Since the 1950s, the site has been run by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Also on the site, barely visible from Woodlawn, is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope-Leighey House, a 1,200-square-foot “Usonian” house, a term Mr. Wright used to describe his vision of affordable, beautiful housing in a democratic America. The name Pope comes from the home’s first owner, Loren B. Pope, who moved into the house in 1940 and paid about $7,000 for it. Leighey is the name of a second set of owners: Robert A. and Marjorie Leighey, who bought the house in 1947 for $17,000.

Visitors are welcome to tour one or both homes with a combination ticket.

“But of the two, I think Woodlawn is a little more child-friendly, at least for the younger kids. It’s where children can learn what daily life was like more than 200 years ago,” Ms. Hawkins says.

Strollers, however, are not allowed inside Woodlawn.

The Pope-Leighey House, with its intricate wood details, oversized windows and varying ceiling heights (from 7 feet to more than 11 feet— to give the impression that the home is bigger than its 1,200 square feet) is more of a straight study in American architectural history and more appropriate for older children, she says.

The question remains, however: What is this modern architectural masterpiece doing right next to a George Washington-era Federal-style mansion?

Answer: It’s not the home’s original site. It used to be in East Falls Church, but in the 1960s, as plans to build Interstate 66 were made, then-owner Mrs. Leighey was notified that “the expressway would pretty much run through her living room,” Ms. Hawkins says.

Mrs. Leighey wanted to make sure the house was saved and turned it over to the National Trust, which dismantled it and rebuilt it on the current, protected site. Mrs. Leighey lived in the house, on its new site, until her death in 1983.

Though these two homes are the biggest draw, attracting about 15,000 visitors a year, the site has even more to offer.

“Some people come for the gardens — they walk the trails, have picnics, take strollers, enjoy the view,” Ms. Hawkins says. “It’s peaceful.”

When you go:

Location: Woodlawn Plantation and Pope-Leighey House are at 9000 Richmond Highway, south of Alexandria.

Directions: From the Beltway, take the exit for U.S. Route 1. Merge onto Route 1 south toward Fort Belvoir. Go about eight miles, and Woodlawn Plantation and Pope-Leighey House will be on the right.

Hours: Woodlawn Plantation is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; it is closed on major holidays. Pope-Leighey House is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, March through December. (Tours are required and start on the half-hour.) It is closed on Mondays and major holidays.

Parking: Free parking.

Admission: Adults pay $7.50 for one site, $13 for both sites; students in kindergarten through 12th grade pay $3 for one site, $5 for both sites.

Information: 703/780-4000 or www.woodlawn1805.org and www.popeleighey1940.org.

Notes: Wear good shoes and bring a picnic. The grounds are extensive and include several picnic tables.

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