Insider's Guide - The Washington Post, 25 February 2001«back | home
Photo by Barry Stahl.
Courtesy of the American Horticultural Society.
Now that we've all schlepped out-of-town guests down to Mount Vernon for the b'day festivities, next time you have tourist visitors, check out the rest of Washington's landholdings.
The first stop is the American Horticultural Society's River Farm, four miles south of Old Town Alexandria. George bought this land from a man named William Clifton, who owned and operated a busy inn and ferry landing on the property. Washington never actually lived or worked here, preferring to rent to tenant farmers. The land was sold by George's descendants in 1859 and then passed through the hands of several different owners.
Before the AHS, the most recent owner of the property was a man named Malcolm Matheson, who bought it in 1919. He reconstructed the existing circa-1760 house, built a tennis court, and put in new landscaping. In 1971, in the midst of the Cold War, he decided to sell the home, and the Soviet Embassy offered to buy it for use as a dacha for their staff. Lots of folks didn't like the idea of part of George's farm belonging to the Soviets, and he was asked by government officials to take the property off the market.
Philanthropist Enid Haupt, a member of the AHS board of directors, bought the property and gave the land and the house to the society. The house is now the headquarters of the AHS, and all membership programs, as well as the AHS magazine, the American Gardener, are administered here.
Go in and pretend you're exploring the grounds on the estate of a wealthy friend who loves to garden and just happens to own 27 acres right on the Potomac. You will find perennial and herb gardens, a picnic area, a delightful children's garden and one of the oldest Osage orange trees in the eastern United States, believed to have been a gift from Thomas Jefferson to Washington.
The house displays a continuously changing art exhibit of botanically themed works. During the recent winter holidays, the house was decorated with several trees displaying everything from miniature hand-stitched quilts to intricate origami shapes.
A mile further south is Fort Hunt Park, which used to be a part of the original River Farm. This tree-filled park has served a number of purposes since gun batteries were built for defense in 1897 during the Spanish-American War. The guns never fired against an enemy and were dismantled not long after the war ended, although the batteries still stand.
Fort Hunt was used as a War Department finance school in the early 1920s. In the 1930s, it housed Civilian Conservation Corps trainees who were then converting the park to recreational use and landscaping the Mount Vernon Highway. During World War II, Fort Hunt was again pressed into military service as an interrogation center for captured German submarine crews. The German sailors were brought here, kept in cells outfitted with listening devices, and interrogated -- only then were they transferred to a regular prison camp and reported as captured to the International Red Cross.
The fort was finally converted to permanent recreational use and given over to the National Park Service in 1948. In warm weather, you'll find cyclists, walkers and the occasional rollerblader doing loops on the road that encircles the park. Fort Hunt also features several picnic groves and a large covered pavilion. On Sunday nights during the summer the park service sponsors a concert series featuring local folk and ethnic artists. You can take a picnic and lounge on the grass, letting the music wash over you with the summer breezes.
Both facilities are easily accessible from the Mount Vernon Parkway or the adjacent bike path. The American Horticultural Society's River Farm is at 7931 East Boulevard Drive. Winter hours are 10-3:30 weekdays, the rest of the year 9-5 weekdays and some Saturday mornings. Hours can vary, so call ahead. The phone number is (703) 768-5700. More information is available at: www.ahs.org. Fort Hunt Park is a mile further south (follow the signs) and is open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to sunset. The phone number is (703) 289-2550. More information on park history and facility rental is available at www.nps.gov/gwmp/fohu.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company