Our Man in Arlington

January 7, 2014 11:10 AM0 comments

clark-fcnpDuring neighborhood walks, I often squint and visualize Arlington back when it was rural farmland, devoid of neon and modern suburban curbs.

This little local history game has recently centered on the extended Birch family, 18th- and 19th-century denizens who owned my East Falls Church neighborhood among other parcels.

Samuel Birch (1790-1873), a colonel in the War of 1812 who, records show, earned a veterans pension of $8 per month, rests with family and slaves at the Birch-Payne cemetery at Sycamore and North 28th streets.

One of his descendants, my high school classmate Amanda Karlson Crabtree, confirmed to me that her grandfather gave the land to Arlington in return for county upkeep of the graves, which were sometimes vandalized.

Arlington contains other Birch clan properties. Another set of Birch graves is hidden by a stand of trees on the Marymount University campus. Samuel’s brother Caleb built Birch Cabin, a reconstructed version of which still stands off Wakefield Street near Washington Golf and Country Club, and the century-plus-old home named Birchland for another branch still stands at North Glebe Road at Williamsburg Boulevard.

But a fascinating and often overlooked Birch site sits atop a hill at Powhatan and North 26th streets. Nearly 200 years ago, according to Eleanor Lee Templeman’s Arlington Heritage, Samuel Birch built his cabin there.

Today the property contains a three-story T-shaped house with white asbestos siding and blue trim that goes back to 1890, and probably even further. Called Allencrest for builder William Allen, the home with a view and boxy bay windows is owned by Jeanne Franklin and her husband. Mrs. Franklin last month kindly showed me the home’s handsomely preserved interior.

She has documents on the home’s ownership from Birch to Marcey to Allen to Morsell to Fadeley to Kleeb to Zell to the Franklin family.

Thirty years ago, Franklin recalled, the Arlington Historical Society held a daylong event showcasing the home her family bought in 1979. As reported in local newspapers, the tour cost $5 and included cider made from the home press as well as recollections from two older women named Graham who grew up as renters in the house in the 1920s.

They mentioned Sam Birch’s cabin (used as a stable until 1930) as well as open fields and pastures and a hired man who hauled crops along a dirt road that led to Lee Highway, which the girls took to school in the District. Franklin still has the society’s program.

“We’ve tried not to disturb the essential character of the house as we love the land, and respect the history and the people who came before,” she says.

The Franklins have refurbished original doors found in storage, mimicked old windows when replacing them with modern energy-efficient ones, and preserved a mantelpiece and tile surround and a cast-iron stove. A single ancient maple tree towers over the home. She has local church reference works mentioning the namesake Allen family members.

Stone vestiges of Sam Birch’s water well exist underground on the edge of the current patio, as do stones now in the garden. “It’s not lost to history,” Franklin says.

Judging by a World War II-era postcard Franklin found in the attic, Allencrest’s original address was rural Lee Highway. As I squint from high on the property’s hill, I can see that Sam Birch chose his location well.

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