Die-Hard Preservationists?

This week I’ve been trying to allay concerns in the community that have circulated during the past year. In my previous post I talked about how nonofficial venues are not threats but complements to the formal work of the civic association and its committees. Here I want to address the misconception that advocates for stricter enforcement of the Guidelines are die-hard preservationists who want to freeze the neighborhood as it was fifty years ago. Here’s my take on this.

After we’d lived here a short while, I figured I understood Hollin Hills — as a certain kind of modernism, a particular slice of time, that moment shortly after the steel and concrete of the Bauhaus melted into the organic forms of Neutra, Schindler, and, yes, Goodman. Then on the Fourth of July two summers ago, Mary Normile invited Kelly Valceanu and me to come visit her house around the corner from the picnic. We hiked over and walked up to the second floor of her split level and I was astonished. Here was this Carribean paradise, complete with a side room full of exotic birds chirping, open cabinets revealing rustic dishes, windows that looked out on to lushness. Mary’s house had the soul of Jamaica and it was firmly planted in Hollin Hills. That’s when I realized these houses could do so many different and unexpected things. …. The Damitz’s perfect square house that now evokes Frank Lloyd Wright… The Cox’s house with a potter’s spirit, with every space a tableau of special objects. … The Cohen’s house with its icons of high modern design… The Carr’s house full of colorful contemporary art… The Polo’s house with a wall of glass in the back looking out on to an incredible vista.

But what ties these houses together are the elements, a certain proportion in the windows, a particular kind of siding, rescued brick, a rhythm of elements and proportions that repeat from one house to the other. And of course there’s the landscaping that makes Hollin Hills so utterly different from most any neighborhood anywhere else. I’ve meditated on these elements on many long morning walks.

What makes Hollin Hills Hollin Hills? Not fixed notions of 1950s modernism, but the elements of the design itself, elements that are extremely well put in the Design Review Guidelines and the little landscaping book published by the Civic Association in 1989, A House in the Woods: A Landscape Aesthetic for Hollin Hills written by Dennis Carmichael. While only the former are enforceable, both can be recommended as aesthetic, community ideals. My hope is that those are the design ideals that guide this neighborhood into the future.


One Year In

I started this blog a year ago with the rather naïve idea that this could be a space for informal, public discussion of some of the issues facing the Hollin Hills community, a space that would supplement the formal work of the civic association bodies. My idea of “informal” public deliberation was informed by many years of research into nongovernmental public deliberation, the idea being that it is not just elected governmental bodies that decide “what should be” in a community but the citizenry itself in its ongoing mullings and deliberations over matters of common concern. I tried to find free software that would allow for multiple and manifold ownership of the website. But I didn’t find any. So I tried to set up the site as a site generically owned by the informal group calling itself the House in the Woods Club. But still, ultimately, only one person could “own” the blog, even though I wanted everyone interested to feel ownership in it. Hence, I listed the byline as Hollin Hills. Later, when it was clear that it was mostly me putting things up, even if authored by other people, I switched the tag line to my own name.

I didn’t intend this site to be an experiment. But it has been one, and not an altogether successful one. The main reason for this is that the issues discussed here — involving our homes, our community, our sense of what is beautiful — touch a lot of nerves. And it’s all too easy to blog or comment when unnerved. So things can be said too forcefully, or unthinkingly. I made some mistakes along these lines – though infinitely less than others have done in recent comments to the site. (I am thinking of Rick Ward’s and David Shultz’s recent, incredibly uncivil comments, which I decided not to delete simply because they stand in testimony of how not to behave in public.) It’s best to discuss difficult things in person, when we see the face of the person being questioned or interrogated. The face of the other person is a great sobering and civilizing factor. One-on-one communication is infinitely better than electronic communication. Civility reigns in person much more than online. Yet the benefit of online communication is that it allows for much wider communication; more of us can meet online than we can in person at specified times and places. To the extent that we can engage in discussing touchy issues in an unprickly way, online communication is a plus. But when it gets touchy and personal, it’s high time to step back. That’s what I’ve learned. Never blog when perturbed.

I’ve been checking in with people to see whether this site is worth continuing, including people who don’t share all my views on things. I am still unsure what is best. Many think it’s worthwhile to have a forum where different issues can be considered and points of view can be expressed. This is a nice counter to all the criticisms I’ve heard over the past year. The criticisms, which I think are all serious misunderstandings, are these: (1) that we are subverting the usual committees and structures of the community; (2) that we are die-hard preservationists who can’t tolerate design innovation; (3) that we value design over community and neighborliness; (4) that we are denigrating the good work of volunteers; and (5) that none of this is any of our business, things were wonderful before we showed up, and now we are tearing apart the community.

In the days ahead, I am going to address these misunderstandings one by one. So please check back in. In the meantime, I continue to welcome lively and vigorous debate on the issues. (And be sure to come to the civic association and SDRC meetings June 14.) I may (or may not) continue to accept uncivil posts to the website, which, again, testify to how not to behave. But please don’t be mean-spirited about my gardening or I don’t know what I’ll do. There’s only so much a gal can take.

your neighbor,

Mies Society Tours Hollin Hills

If you saw a tour bus ambling through Hollin Hills yesterday you might have wondered what on earth was going on. In that bus were 24 members of the Chicago-based Mies van der Rohe Society in town for the weekend to visit the modern show at the Corcoran and see other modern sites in the D.C. area. Their guide was the architect Howard Decker, the former chief curator of the National Building Museum. My neighbor Ken Wilson put Howard in touch with me, and then Howard and I made plans for the Mies Society to visit the neighborhood starting with a visit to our house. It was still a bit of a shock when a tour bus pulled up in front and all these people poured out and walked up to the door. They were wonderful guests, asked lots of great questions, and seemed truly enamored. After a short visit at my house, I gave them a Hollin Hills map and some pointers, and off they went.