Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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Think globally, swim Overlee. That’s the slogan heard round the Lee Highway bathhouse of our region’s perennial youth swim-league powerhouse. But lately some in Arlington are wishing the watchwords were “think historically, preserve Overlee.” Not likely.

The private Overlee Community Association (to which I’ve paid good money to get wet for 15 summers) is preparing to demolish, this year, its storybook Victorian house as part of a $3.1 million renovation of the three-pool facility to better serve its 800 exuberant members.

One might expect some grousing about the augmented dues ($500 extra for two years-ouch!), but it’s the plan to take down the Febrey-Kincheloe House that frosts some historic preservationists.

The Arlington Historical Society in its March newsletter published Sara Collins’ fine compilation of the structure’s pedigree. She details how its original owners came from the distinguished 19th-century Febrey family of landowners, who later sold the home built in the 1890s to a prominent physician named Kincheloe, who made it a sanitarium before it was sold to the pioneers of Overlee pool in 1957.

Nancy Etkin, an Overlee stalwart who lives nearby in another of the Febrey homes-hers was damaged by bullets during a Civil War skirmish-told me she protested the demolition to Overlee’s long-range planners. “Everyone was polite,” she said, but proposals to preserve even a portion of the house were rejected as expensive.

Most disappointed is Michael Leventhal, Alington County’s historic preservation program coordinator, who, before blasting Overlee’s priorities, acknowledged that the “great pool club and community” can renovate as it pleases “by right.”

But Leventhal wonders how people building a modern facility “likely to be utilitarian and pragmatic” can justify not using “the jewel of the property.” Planners taking down “an architectural landmark are obligated to put up another cultural landmark,” he says, “not to fill it with something like Velveeta Cheese.” It doesn’t seem right for people with responsibility of ownership to “take something that cries out for sustainability, cultural responsibility and preservation and simply say, ‘I want to go the cheapest way.'”

Leventhal thinks Overlee rushed to get the pool fixes moving, noting that only 59 members participated in the plan referendum (it passed 55-4). If he were king, he’d have Overlee develop a comprehensive design incorporating themes of the old house in the façade-which might mean borrowing more money.

Overlee is run, I can vouch, by competent and overworked volunteers. Past-president Pat Shapiro said the house, which was rejected for listing under National Register of Historic Places, is hardly the one the Febrey family knew, having been added onto extensively. Citing roof leaks, decayed mortar, high utility bills and challenges to staying within code as the house is used for parties and a manager’s residence, she calls the cost of restoring it prohibitive. Much more would have been done along the way if Overlee folks in 1957 had felt preservation was a priority, she says. “People’s tastes change, and we have lots of younger members for whom the whole historic aspect means nothing.”

Preservation is pricey. The silver lining for swimmers who think historically is that the architecture firm now at work on Overlee, RKtects Studio, specializes in historic properties. I challenge them to recreate a theme from the old house that affordably honors continuity on a site that spans three centuries of Arlington community.

 


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at cclarkjedd@aol.com

 

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