On Sunday I visited Ash Grove, a home originally built around 1790. Its location in Tysons is a fascinating one. I've never seen modern residential built so close to a historic site. The footprint of Ash Grove is just forty feet from the front door of a row of town houses across the street and the house is almost as close.
To set the stage for understanding the story of Ash Grove, you’ll have to cast aside every notion and mind’s eye images you may have of this ever-growing mini-city ten miles west of Washington. Remove the malls, remove every road and every car, every building, all the Silver Line infrastructure, every shiny corporate headquarters, and almost everything that makes up this place with 20,000 people and four Metro stops.
Ash Grove’s story has been touched on, but it has also slipped away from a time not too long ago when it easily stood out in its rural landscape. With the 275th anniversary of Fairfax County happening this year, it’s a good time to tell some of its story.
We’re going start by going back to the middle to later part of the eighteenth century, when the population of Fairfax County was about half of what Tysons (previously known as Tyson’s Corner) is today. This part of Fairfax County was but a dusty cross roads with several springs, which were the source for a handful of creeks such as Pimmit Run. Travel to Alexandria, Occoquan, and Colchester took half a day on roads that were more like half cleared paths.
The county’s first court house was located at modern day Tysons, but researchers have found scant information on its ten-year stay (1742-1752) before moving to Alexandria. Instead of knowing the precise location, they only have a rough idea, believed to be near Route 7 and Ox Road.
Thomas, Ninth Lord Fairfax, built Ash Grove in 1790. The house burned down in 1960, but its reconstruction stayed true to the original. Two outbuildings survive, giving Ash Grove a look of authenticity.
To understand Thomas, Ninth Lord Fairfax, we need to understand the story of the Lord Fairfax’s. Their short-lived, but powerful dynasty began at the start of the 1740s. Before a fire brought most of it down, Belvoir, the family’s stately Georgian brick home stood proudly south of Mount Vernon. Its size and presence on the height of a neck overlooking the Potomac announced how far north the colony had come.
Across the span of the next one hundred years, a Lord Fairfax would build and/or live in several homes or manors, mostly in and around Alexandria.
In 1747, Thomas, Sixth Lord Fairfax, a fox hunter, lifelong bachelor and the proprietor of the land grant that encompassed five million acres in northern Virginia, built himself a hunting lodge of sorts in the mountains near Winchester. He called it Greenway Court. Only the stone Land Office survives from his country estate.
Bryan, Eighth Lord Fairfax, son of Colonial William Fairfax, grew up at Belvoir. He built Towlston Grange, a country home (extant) in Great Falls before building Mount Eagle in 1790, which overlooked Alexandria.
When Bryan passed away in 1802, his son, Thomas, became Ninth Lord Fairfax (1762-1846). Thomas, who lived to the age of 84, was perhaps the most intriguing of all the Lord Fairfax's.
The novelist Constance Cary Harrison described her grandfather as “the cold, stately old patriarch with silver locks and eyes of steel blue.” Thomas was a devout Swedenborgian and had a “vigorous personality.”
Thomas married three times. The last was to Margaret Herbert, granddaughter of John Carlyle, the famed merchant who built a stone Palladian mansion what today we call the Carlyle House.
Thomas sired seven children with Margaret. He acquired and moved the family to Vaucluse, a country home whose long lost site is near the Alexandria Inova Hospital on Seminary Hill in the West End.
The story of Vaucluse has yet to be fully told, but Dave Cavanaugh has given us a terrific and the best look so far. He tells us Thomas acquired the home and its 50 acres in 1827. The Fairfax and Cary clan members lived there until 1861.
In 1830, Thomas purchased a magnificent brick home (extant) at 607 Cameron Street. Thomas wintered there. This home swung open its doors this spring for the Alexandria Home and Garden week.
Not much information is available on Ash Grove and its area during the eighteenth Century. The late Nan Netherton tells us the area was known as “Spring Fields” (not to be confused with modern day Springfield, which is about five miles away). The springs were located on higher ground and served as the sources of Difficult Run, Accotinck Creek, Wolf Trap Run, Scott's Run and Pimmit Run.
In 1788, Bryan gave thousands of acres to Thomas. Two years later, Thomas built his country home there. According to “The Fairfax Family in Fairfax County,” an older building might have been located on the site of Ash Grove. Indications are it might have been a hunting lodge for Thomas, Sixth Lord Fairfax.
The county has erected an interpretive marker at Ash Grove. It tells us the house was two stories tall and one room deep with a center hall flanked by parlors.
With Thomas, Ninth Lord Fairfax owning two big properties (Vaucluse and the Cameron Street residence), he gave Ash Grove to his son, Henry Fairfax, in 1833. Henry and his family lived there until 1847. In her memoir, Harrison writes Captain Henry Fairfax died that year during a long hot march in the Mexican War.
Thomas had two other sons. One of them was Albert (1802-1835), who had two sons — Charles Snowden Fairfax and John Contee Fairfax.
In 1846, Thomas Ninth Lord Fairfax died. Upon his death, his son Charles Snowden Fairfax inherited the title, Tenth Lord Fairfax, Baron of Cameron. In 1849, Charles heard the siren songs emanating from a mother lode of gold west of Sacramento, California. The town of Fairfax, California is named after him. A marker there summarizes his life, which included service as an elected official.
When the Civil War arrived at the footsteps of Alexandria in May 1861, the Fairfax and Cary clans fled from Vaucluse. The home was in the Union army’s line of sight so they burned it down. Instead of returning to Alexandria, Harrison and her husband moved to New York.
Ash Grove had a second act after Henry Fairfax passed away in 1847. Three years later, James Sherman followed in the footsteps of other farmers from up north and emigrated from New York. The family farmed the Ash Grove lands. During the Civil War, they probably were pleased to see the Union Army occupying Alexandria, but Ash Grove lay in that middle ground that Union loyalists had to deal with.
For the next 150 years, a Sherman owned the 241 acres at Ash Grove. Wells A. Sherman, a specialist in charge of fruits and vegetables at the Department of Agriculture and a son of Franklin and Caroline Sherman, surely put his knowledge to work on the farm.
W. Alvord Sherman, Vice President of Fairfax Standard and Publishing Company, also lived at Ash Grove with his wife Nellie and son William.
Ash Grove also took part in a Virginia tradition like no other, the annual Garden Week. In 1948, the Washington Post published a large photograph of it, alongside such stalwarts as Stratford Hall and Kenmore.
House situated on knoll amid towering oaks and surrounded by unbroken lawns with boxwood and holly. Northward is a dense enclosure of lilacs with terraces making garden and remnants of old planting: snowball, peonies, lillies, and roses. Nearby are the burying grounds of the Fairfax and Sherman families. Kitchen and Smokehouse still stand.
In the 1960s, a war of sorts unfolded in Fairfax County. Previously made up mostly of farms, the county’s population exploded in the 1950s, going from 98,000 to 275,000. To keep up with the demand, developers could not build roads, homes and shopping centers fast enough.
With small budgets and staffs, preservationists scrambled to come up with a comprehensive plan to try and save some of the historic homes dotted across the county. The sheer size of the county was an obstacle.
Preservationists also had to worry about fires. Sometimes the timing of the fire suggested arson. Such was the case with Ash Grove. In August 1960, the Fairfax Family Cemetery stood in the way of the Dulles Toll and Access Road. The Washington Post reported some remains were reinterred to Ivy Hill Cemetery in Alexandria.
A month later, a fire burned Ash Grove down. W. Alford Sherman was the owner. Only a partial shell was left.
The loss of the house must have saddened preservationists and history buffs. As an eighteenth century home with connections to the Lord Fairfax’s, its nomination form for the National Register for Historic Places would have flown through the approval process.
Prepared to write off Ash Grove, preservationists seemed to receive some sort of divine providence. As luck would have it, Sherman had been remodeling Ash Grove. Just a few days before the fire, a National Park Service team completed their photographs and drawings to be used for the Historic American Buildings Survey.
Sherman said previous repairs on the house had been made “patchwork-like without too much concern for matching Ash Grove’s original materials.” The owner of the house added he wanted the rebuild to be “as near the original as possible.”
Ash Grove’s rebuild was a good measure of protection, but nothing is ever guaranteed. Moving a home has been done before.
Fortunately, the tsunami-like wave of growth in the county had not yet reached Tyson’s Corner. In 1973, the county placed Ash Grove on a priority list of 14 historic districts. This also is no guarantee, but certainly served as a hands-off sign for developers.
Ash Grove had also once again been a part of the Garden Week tour, as well as one of four historic homes on display in a program (“Building a Nation, Past to Present) sponsored by the Five Hills Garden Club of Vienna. The article in The Washington Post noted a picture of Thomas Fairfax and James Sherman hanged on the wall of the parlor door.
As we are seeing more and more, preservationists and developers can work together for win-win situations. Historic homes like Fairview and Huntley sit alongside modern development. The site of Abingdon stands between two parking lots at National Airport.
Ash Grove is another shining example of how old and new co-exist just fine. In 2000, Fairfax County approved a Historic Site Plan for Ash Grove and its 12 acre wooded site. The townhouses of Tyson’s Village were built in close proximity. It is certainly a very tight situation, but a nature trail and a grove of woods to the South ease the tension.
Tysons will continue to grow with transit-oriented growth and higher density. That’s a great thing but it can also feel overwhelming in a modern sense.
If you need some solace, take a walk to and around Ash Grove, a rare place in Tysons where you can touch history.
Note: Figuring “it is what it is,” I don’t usually say anything about parking on these visits.
But the parking situation at Ash Grove is a big challenge.
I didn’t see even one visitors spot and everything around has Towing Enforce signs. I got luck and found a rare spot on a street not too far away.
Best bet is to allow time for a walk and be very careful about parking. Some of these places have predatory towing.
Ash Grove is on a quite dead end of sorts so if you wanted to stop, you cold probably get away with a few minutes in front of the house.
Metro (Spring Hill) is about a half a mile away.
I also think the Ash Grove grounds are off limits. But they are close enough to get photos.