Since moving to Old Greenbelt, I’ve been increasingly drawn to Mid-Century Modern architecture, especially because my townhouse in Old Greenbelt is Modernist, It was built in1937 in the International Style so rarely used in the U.S. but more common in Europe. (This explains all the home styles in our co-op.)
I’m also increasingly drawn to other planned communities, especially if their architecture and the community are unique, like Old Greenbelt’s.
So I was excited when a friend in Alexandria showed me Hollin Hills, the enclave of over 450 Mid-Century Modern homes very near her house, I wanted to see more, and learn more!. Here’s a bit about it from its website.:
Hollin Hills, winner of numerous design awards, is considered one of the most beautifully-designed and well-preserved modernist communities in the United States. Built between 1946 and 1971, it was the brainchild of developer Robert Davenport and architect Charles Goodman, visionaries who wanted to bring a bold new approach to housing in America — and who believed that modern architecture could foster both community and, as Goodman put it, “the flowering of the individual.”
As the architecture critic Michael Sorkin once put it, “Hollin Hills is one of the truly happy experiments in modernity … the kind of community so many modernists dreamed of, a beautiful place of social activism, love of nature, and potluck picnics.”
There are no traditional suburban houses here.
Pared to an elegant simplicity, the houses have wide expanses of floor-to-ceiling windows to erase the line between indoors and outdoors, while the light-filled “open-plan” interiors create a sense of freedom and space. On the exterior, Goodman’s earliest house models had a relaxed simplicity, achieved through crisp, simplified detailing, uncomplicated forms, and a reduced number of materials.
Words like “pared to elegant simplicity..” “simplified detailing” remind me of the block and brick GHI homes in Old Greenbelt .
Residents are offered at least six different models, with many variations as options. Many homes here are one-story.
I’m dying to see inside some of these homes, but I’m afraid I’ll have to wait until 2024 when the next Home and Garden Tour happens. I’m told the last one was so well attended that proceeds are paying for new pickleball courts and a park!
With lot sizes of one-third to one-half acre, they were able to give
“careful consideration to solar orientation, the necessity for maximum privacy among neighboring houses and the positioning of the house to afford its owners a view as well as full landscaping and recreational use of their lot. Provision was made for future additional structures such as breezeways, carports, workshops and rooms for living.”
Landscaping was considered essential in maintaining the overall environmental character of the community. Initially, each house was sold with an individual landscape plan for an additional $100, which included a consultation with a landscape architect. After the untimely death of its first landscape architect, the internationally known Dan Kiley took that job for some years.
There are “few fences or barriers of any kind. Original landscape architect Barney Voigt envisioned a seamless merger of neighboring properties. “I have tried to tie one lot into the other [to] make the community look as if there were no individual lots, but a beautiful park,” he said.
Hollin Hills residents manage to create a park-like openness while still providing privacy because the generous lot sizes allow large plants to do the job. What’s surprising to me is the preservation of the no-fence rule, despite dog-owners’ appeals for its removal (I imagine).
Here on my garden blog I posted lots of spring-garden photos from Hollin Hills, with close looks at two of its best.
“We need more offbeat personalities, more people strong enough to stand unafraid and be themselves.” — Charles Goodman, architect
Hollin Hills describes itself as “a vibrant, living community of creative people in almost every field, from architects and writers to lawyers and physicians, drawn by the beauty of the architecture and the imaginative freedom it seems to represent.” And mostly higher income than GHI members, given the much higher price of homes there.
Still, lower costs were targeted:
Houses had to be priced to meet varying economic needs; and sizes had to vary to accommodate family composition and living needs.Goodman was convinced that prefabrication, if intelligently applied to wood-frame buildings, could make the building process more efficient, more economical, and of higher quality.
Protecting Hollin Hills
Hollin Hills has won many architecture awards and, like Greenbelt, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But I was struck by how harmonious the whole is, even after decades of accommodating residents’ changing needs.
That success seems to start with a commitment to preservation, with their website citing the economic advantages it yields. “Our homes are skyrocketing in price, last only a few days on the market, and have attracted a new generation of Mid Century Modern aficionados.” It mentions a finding from Connecticut that “In no case was there evidence that being in a local historic district reduced property values. In fact, in three of the four communities, properties within historic districts have had an annual increase in value greater than that of properties in the community.”
From the beginning, Hollin Hills deeds have contained a restrictive covenant governing the design of all new structures, additions and alterations, including fences, sheds, and the like. Hollin Hills has maintained its contemporary design integrity through consistent, fair application of the original design philosophy and the shared vision of its residents throughout the years.
Hollin Hills empowers its Design Review Committee to review all changes to the exterior and it’s made up of “architects, design professionals, and knowledgeable laypersons.” Their charge is to “provide guidance to homeowners on proposed exterior property additions and renovations, and determine whether the plans are in harmony and conformity with the association’s Design Review Guidelines.
The extent of the review process is dependent on the impact and scale of the proposed project. There are three possible types of review: simple administrative review when the impact is minor, “standard” review for things like sheds, decks and fences, and “expanded review.” for major changes like additions.
In March of this year Hollin Hills took another step in conserving its specialness – seeking and finally being awarded “Historic Overlay District” (HOD) status with Fairfax County, which the website calls “an important move that will help preserve the community’s historic architectural heritage, stave off ‘McMansion’ style development, and help protect the financial value of our homes.
A survey conducted by the county in which 82% of households participated, showed that the community favored HOD designation by a margin of more than four to one. Historic Overlay status means that the county is “empowered to enforce design guidelines, specific to Hollin Hills, as part of the building permitting process.” The status creates “regulations over and above the regular zoning protection for such areas.”
Thoughts for GHI?
I know I’ll hear from the anti-rule among us (and it’s surprising how many adamant anti-rule folks buy into a co-op!!) but hear me out. Hollin Hills and other historically significant planned communities might just have answers for GHI members who value Old Greenbelt for its uniqueness and want to preserve it, and beautify the community, too, to everyone’s benefit.
Probably the top take-away from Hollin Hills is the need for design review, which GHI does not do and to my knowledge, has never done. That means they have determined design standards (which GHI does not) and its committee in charge of reviewing changes has actual authority. (GHI’s Architectural Review Committee is advisory only.) Its Design Review Committee also has term limits.
Hollin Hills’ processes appear to be less burdensome and more efficient because they’re tailored to the significance of the proposed changes, with extensive review for only major changes.
As I wrote in this post, Old Greenbelt was awarded new zoning protecting it from unwanted development, and it’s time for GHI to do its part – establishing design standards and a review process for all significant changes. (Currently, even additions can be built with no design review at all – no one judging its harmony or lack thereof with the community.) And GHI’s Architectural Review Committee needs to be given actual authority. (That would free up Board, staff and members from the board’s current review process that duplicates what the ARC already did.).
I’m reminded that GHI’s stated mission is to “maintain, protect and enhance the assets of our cooperative including the buildings, architectural design, open space plan (woods, walkways, playgrounds).”
And as much as I admire Hollin HIlls, I’d make the case that Old Greenbelt – with its plan, architecture, utopian aspirations and New Deal origins – is even more special and worthy of good stewardship.