The windows are the first thing that attract your attention: floor-to-ceiling, 3 feet wide, 24 square feet of glass. Welcome to Hollin Hills.
My wife, Debbie, and I first discovered Hollin Hills in the Britannica Book of the Year 1952. Under the heading "Building and Construction Industry" was a photograph of three houses in a wooded setting. The caption read, "Mass-produced, low-cost housing development at Hollin Hills in Alexandria, Va., awarded first prize by the Southwest Research Institute for its good contemporary lines and excellence of site." The homes had the familiar massing of a suburban ranch house, but the designs featured a low-slope gable roof with large overhangs, a large chimney mass covering half the end elevation, and walls of glass. We could count nine floor-to-ceiling windows in a row in the photograph. Unfortunately, there were no other clues to the homes: no mention in the text of the architect or the builder. We spent several fruitless afternoons scouring Alexandria neighborhoods in search of that most elusive Northern Virginia house type--Modern.
Several years passed, as our interest was primarily academic. Renting in downtown Washington, D.C., our needs and means did not allow us to think about a single-family home. Then, one day, I noticed the word Hollin printed at the edge of a map of the District of Columbia. We set off that weekend. Five miles south of Alexandria, in Fairfax County, we found a modest wooden Hollin Hills sign and turned in. There, in a heavily wooded setting, were the houses that had intrigued us, dozens of them. Along with the ones from the Britannica photograph were Modern split-levels, and, nestled into the more steeply sloping sites, two-story houses. Some even had butterfly roofs. We promptly got turned around and lost, only later realizing that a continuous curvilinear street pattern was another of the unique and significant features of Hollin Hills. Thereafter, we visited the neighborhood on a regular basis, keeping an eye out for open houses.
We learned that architect Charles M. Goodman had designed the homes. Robert Davenport was the developer who accepted the challenge of a difficult, hilly site and brought in landscape architects Lou Bernard Voigt, Eric Paepcke, and Dan Kiley to design the community. The first house was occupied in late 1949, the last completed in 1971. Goodman became known as "the housing architect," and was elevated to Fellow in the American Institute of Architects primarily for his home designs. Kiley was to become famous as a Modern landscape architect, building on the hundred plot plans he produced for Hollin Hills residents.
The house designs were simple, spare, and economical in both function and material. Foundations were slab-on-grade with forced hot-air ducts under the slab. Brick was salvaged from nearby urban renewal projects. Prefabricated roof trusses spanned the width of the houses, allowing partitions to be non-load-bearing and thinner than a normal stud wall, thus facilitating later remodelings. Utilities were concentrated in the core of the house, a functionally efficient arrangement that separated the public and private areas. The plans were open, with one space flowing into the next, but each defined by wall planes and angles and changes in materials. Inside the houses, only the bedrooms, bathrooms, and closets had doors.
And the windows--the glorious Hollin Hills windows. Huge expanses of glass allowed natural light to flood every room. The first time we took our daughter Emily to see a Hollin Hills house, she crawled right up to a window and sat there, enjoying the outside world. In most homes, children have to be several years old to peer over a windowsill or must climb up on furniture to enjoy the simple pleasure of looking out a window. The wide roof overhangs protected the interiors from the hot summer sun but allowed the low winter sun to penetrate deep into the homes. Views from the windows crossed several adjacent yards because in Hollin Hills houses did not sit in orderly rows. Each was carefully sited to take maximum advantage of the topography, and oriented to create vistas past, not into, adjacent houses. The irregular siting worked with the curvilinear street pattern to make a cohesive whole. The homes--indeed, the whole neighborhood--seemed more spacious as a result.
Later Hollin Hills houses were constructed from prefabricated panels assembled on a large jig and trucked to each site. Each panel was 12 feet wide by 8 feet high, framed with 2x6 Douglas fir. Goodman's panels could be assembled into a wide variety of designs.
a new addition
After the birth of our son Andrew, we finally bought a house in Hollin Hills. Our particular house was five panels plus a door long, by two panels deep, roughly 63 by 24 feet, three bedrooms, two baths. We loved it.
Nine years later, we realized that teenagers need even more space than toddlers and started thinking about acquiring more space. Being prudent, we searched for larger homes in the area but none held any attraction for us and we decided to build an addition to include a family room, laundry room, and master bedroom suite.
From the beginning, the design was to be respectful of the features, finishes, and massing of Goodman's original design. Many architects believe Hollin Hills' modular geometry is limiting, but I discovered that the geometry quickly gave form to the design. We followed Goodman's designs, the Hollin Hills window, the low-slope roof with wide overhangs, and the use of T-1-11 siding, but did not adhere strictly to the 12-foot panel width of the original house.
To interfere with the original house as little as possible, the addition took the form of a capital T, requiring the removal of just one of the prefabricated wall panels. Adding the second furnace and laundry room eliminated the need to connect to the existing utilities, further limiting disruption of the original house. The only challenges were matching the eave line of the original house and accommodating the fact that the actual dimensions of 1990s 2x6s were smaller than 1950s 2x6s.
The plans were approved after the required review by the Hollin Hills design review committee. Once the addition was complete, the entire family squeezed into it to allow renovation of the original house, which included completely replacing one bathroom and installing a new kitchen.
good houses, good neighbors
After spending a decade and a half in Hollin Hills, our perspective on the neighborhood has evolved. We came for the architecture. We stayed not just for the houses and settings that Goodman, Davenport, Voigt, Paepcke, and Kiley designed, but for the wonderful sense of community built by a half-century of like-minded residents.
John A. Burns, FAIA, is a supervisory architect with the National Park Service in Washington, D.C.