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Preservationists mourn pending demolition of Febrey-Kincheloe house

February 22, 2011 - 12:02 PM
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The house sits on a large property that probably original served as farmland for the Febrey family. This photo was taken as part of an Arlington County survey of the house in the 1980s.15 Photos
The house sits on a large property that probably original served as farmland for the Febrey family. This photo was taken as part of an Arlington County survey of the house in the 1980s. (Photo: Courtesy Arlington County | Date: Feb. 16, 2011)

For years, the century-old Febrey-Kincheloe house has loomed over swimmers and divers at the Overlee swim club. A quiet reminder of the past that blended into the background, it easily played second fiddle to the more, perhaps, exciting features of the property: pools to cool you off, shade to block the sun, games of volleyball to be played.

Now that the house is slated to be torn down, however, some people are wishing that the 1890s structure had taken a bit more of the limelight.

The Overlee Community Association, which runs the private swim club, is undertaking a large renovation of its property that includes tearing down the house, which currently serves as a clubhouse and the club manager’s residence, and building a new one. The project also includes replacing the main pool on the property, as well as expanding the deck around the pool area.

Members present at a membership meeting Feb. 9 voted in a landslide for the plan to knock down the building to build a new community center structure, 55-4. (There are more than 700 club members, but club officials say that 60 members was actually a pretty good turnout for such a vote.)

But there are others — both in the club and the surrounding community — who are sad to see it go.

“My first impulse is to try to save it,” says Mike O’Malley, a club member and history professor at George Mason University. “There aren’t that many interesting buildings in Arlington. It’s mostly banal architecture.”

Michael Leventhal, Arlington County’s historic preservation program director, says that he would have liked to see the club reuse the house as their clubhouse. “I recognize fully that to run a pool is paramount to their thoughts,” he said of the club. "But I think they have a larger responsibility having something that old, and that important to the community."

"To tear down this historic structure, circa 1900, that’s also been part of their club for 50 years, I wish more people had paid attention maybe within the club, and were more interested in saving the house,” says Jennifer Perunko, a board member of preservation group Arlington Heritage Alliance.

The Alliance had advocated for the design scenario that involved reusing the existing building, Perunko says. But ultimately, that option wasn’t the one the club’s Long Range Planning Committee recommended.

Unfortunately for preservationists, it’s largely out of their — and Arlington County’s — hands. The Febrey-Kincheloe house was never put on any national or state registers of historic buildings, and it’s not within any Arlington-designated historic district. The county will have very little to say about the club’s plans, because the changes to the site fall within their “by-right” property development rights, and therefore won't require county board approval.

The county does have a Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board, but they are only permitted to review projects that would change buildings within existing historic preservation districts or sites.

The house is one of the last of its kind in Arlington — an old house on a much larger piece of property. A study done in the 1980s identified about 30 such properties of one acre or more, but Leventhal now estimates that there are probably closer to a dozen left.

“It’s a real sense of loss that you have the stewardship of something that’s been in existence for more than 100 years, and you couldn’t find a way to get what you need, as well as utilize the building for some of those uses," Leventhal says. "I find that very sad, that they didn’t look at their stewardship commitment as something that was stronger."

But Overlee board president Pat Shapiro says that the majority of club members — who pay between $500 and $700 per year in membership dues — were more concerned with getting the best use out of the club’s property than saving the house. In a survey filled out by more than 275 members, almost half of respondents said that saving the house wasn’t a priority for the project. Another quarter said that it was somewhat important, but not at a higher cost.

“We’re a swim club first and foremost,” Shapiro says. "Our emphasis is on the pool."

The club’s board of directors were presented with two plans, one that would have renovated and added on to the existing house for a new clubhouse and manager’s residence, and one that involved knocking down the house and building a new structure on a slightly different location. The cost estimate for the plan with the new building was $3.1 million. The estimate for the project that reused the old building was $3.5 million.

"It really came down to a matter of cost and usability," Shapiro says. Members were looking for a larger space to hold private events than the house provides, as well as more deck space around the pool areas, two things that were restricted by reusing the existing building. “The original plan was to renovate it and update it, but the more we looked into that, the more issues we had,” she adds.

Shapiro admits that when the idea to knock down the old house first surfaced roughly a decade ago, she balked, as both a member at the club and a neighbor of the property.

“It’s an absolutely charming looking house, and I was like ‘oh my God, we can’t do that, that would be a horrible thing,’” she says. “But I wasn’t on the board at the time, and I really didn’t have a huge understanding."

Now, as she walks through the old building’s winding corridors, it's clear she's become all too familiar with some of its less charming aspects. (The spot where the ceiling caved in on the club manager’s daughter, the third floor closet where bits of blue sky are visible through the roof, and the deteriorating mortar of the foundation, to name a few.)

The house, although obviously historic, has oddly incongruous features. What began as a farmhouse for the family of Ernest and Grace Febrey, later became the Kincheloe residence and then was operated as the Crestwood Sanitarium by Mrs. Kincheloe.

These previous uses bring an eerily institutional feel to much of the upper floors. Wire-filled shatter proof glass reminiscent of McMurphy’s prison in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest filters your view down the staircase. An old-fashioned sprinkler system covered in red wire cages hangs from the ceilings in every room.

It has also been changed several times over the years, Leventhal notes, pointing to areas where the porch has been turned into a side entrance, or an addition put on. But still, "there are a lot of ways it could work," he says. “They just chose not to. And I find that very sad, that they didn’t look at their stewardship commitment as something that was stronger.”

AHA is also arguing that the building could be maintained. "Most things with historic houses are fixable," says Perunko. "We’d like to see them maintain the house as the manager’s residence."

But O’Malley says he doesn’t get the sense that most of the club members were concerned about preserving the house for its historic value. “I was surprised at how uninterested they were in saving it," he says. “I did not at all get the sense that that was the sense of the community."

The Heritage Alliance is in the process of drafting a position statement asking the club to reconsider, according to Perunko. The house could remain as the manager’s residence and a new building could be built for the clubhouse, she says. At the very least, they’d like to have Historical American Buildings Survey drawings and photographs taken of the house before it is torn down, she adds.

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  1. Mike O'Malley Mike O'Malley

    Mike O'Malley

    Feb 23, 2011 - 03:58:35 PM

    I'm quoted several times in this article, but the quotes give a misleading account of what I actually said. What's missing is when I added that I didn't have strong feelings towards preservation, that preservation would be extremely expensive and problematic, and that there were good arguments both ways. In a perfect world, with unlimited resources, I might argue for saving it. But saving it in what phase of it may additions and expansions? I have no real problem with the community association's decision. The article makes it seems as If I do.

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  2. chrisbannon chrisbannon

    Chris Bannon

    Feb 23, 2011 - 09:43:31 AM

    It seems that Overlea Pool has not been a very good steward of this historic property.

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