Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Nothing official yet, but word is that an entrepreneurial builder is bidding to purchase the coveted historic Rouse property at Wilson Blvd. and N. McKinley St.

The mid-19th century Febrey-Lothrop house, which sits on 9.5 acres, is still occupied by Michele Rouse, widow of homebuilder and equestrian Randy Rouse. This spring, news broke that the party best able to afford buying it from the Rouse trust was a private builder with plans for dozens of new homes.

I was startled by the assumption that the Febrey-Lothrop home would be demolished.

Enter Tom Dickinson, passionate preservationist and former president of the Arlington Historical Society. He had the foresight last April to file an application to designate the home a Local Historic District. Arlington’s Historic Preservation staff has deemed his application complete and sent it for review this fall by the Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board, I’m told by county communications specialist Elise Cleva. That might not block a teardown by a by-right owner, but it could complicate the sale.

The solution Dickinson favors is for Arlington to adopt a Resident Curator Program, authorized under a 2011 state law, in which a long-term tenant occupies a publicly owned property for free, in exchange for maintenance and repairs. “It’s a win-win-win proposition,” says Dickinson, who has pushed for a curator program during debates over the fate of such historic properties as the Reeves Farmhouse, the Birch Cabin, and the recently demolished home of astronaut John Glenn. The advantages include “preserving historic properties and providing residential housing at no cost to the occupant/tenant.”

Curator programs have been successful in Maryland, Massachusetts and, most locally, Fairfax County. I spoke to one of the main instigators, Ted McCord, associate professor of history at George Mason University. For 24 years, McCord has occupied Mt. Gilead, a “middling” 18th-century former tavern in Fairfax’s Historic Centerville Park.

(By coincidence, he knows the Rouse property because his father in the late 1950s was physician to Randy Rouse and his then-wife, actress Audrey Meadows.)

The reason the legislation sailed through is that the bill required no money, McCord says. Rather than a “one size fits all,” the law allows jurisdictions to “assess each property on its own merit.” Best properties are those that go back centuries, that are a rare example of architecture, or were once occupied by “someone important.”

The downside is the bureaucracy that “can be a pain,” McCord said, noting restrictions on his using his old home’s fireplaces and the parks authority’s occasional desire to tear down homes to make room for tennis courts or golf courses. The best resident curators are those with “deep pockets” (they won’t gain equity in the property), who “like to restore old properties” either themselves or by contracting. And “it’s really taking it out of the public domain” if the residents don’t allow public visits. “But if you get a builder with a little imagination to preserve an old house,” McCord says, “it can add to the identity of a neighborhood.”

Arlington is not currently entertaining the admittedly admirable idea, said spokeswoman Cleva. A curator program would “require significant planning, plus investments of staff resources and public funds,” she said. “The county would need to evaluate considerations such as initial funding, potential inventory of eligible properties, zoning amendments, tenant coordination and need for additional staff.”


The locked-down staff of the Arlington Public Library still managed during the pandemic to fulfill “holds” on books requested by 130,000 Arlington readers.

More than 175,000 print books and other materials have been checked out since June 15. Impressive.

Some of our literate patrons are miffed, no doubt, about the five-day deadline for picking up requested books at Central Library before they are returned to shelves. But under the current circumstances, that irritant, as they say, is a first-world problem.