3-14-04 Letter by Cathy Saunders Re: Dating of Dye/Burke House & Other Historic Preservation Issues


Watershed Map & Areas of Interest/Concern

Historic Watershed Maps
  • Civil War Era
  • 1902
  • 1917
  • 1956

  • Activities
  • monitoring
  • cleanups
  • letters/testimony

  • Links & Sources

    Contact/Join Us

    you are here: home > activities > letters > 3-14-04 CES letter re: dating of Dye/Burke House & other historic preservation issues
    2119 Great Falls St.
    Falls Church, VA 22043
    14 March 2004

    Planning Commissioner Nancy Hopkins
    Fairfax County Planning Commission
    Room 330
    12000 Government Center Parkway
    Fairfax, VA 22035

    Supervisor Joan DuBois
    McLean Governmental Center
    1437 Balls Hill Rd.
    McLean, VA 22101

    Dear Commissioner Hopkins and Supervisor DuBois,

    This is a follow-up to my email and letter of March 8 regarding Burke’s Spring, located on a parcel involved in RZ/FDP 2003 DR 031, scheduled for hearing on March 18. In reading the staff report on the application, I was distressed to learn that the date for construction of the Dye/Burke house, currently owned by the Frase family, is still being cited as 1935 (the verifiably incorrect date in the county’s tax database) rather than the better-supported c. 1808 date widely accepted among local historians. I am also concerned that the springhouse and house foundation are being treated in Winchester Homes’ proffers for archaeological study as isolated sites rather than parts of a larger whole: the Burke Farm site. Since such issues need to be addressed in proffers if there is to be sufficient documentation of the site, and since a planning commission hearing allows little time to present detailed evidence for the dating of a site, I’ve decided to make the argument for an antebellum date in this letter. I am also enclosing copies of the materials I have, both primary and secondary, regarding the history of the Burke farm. To make sure that everyone involved in the process is possessed of the same information, I am also sending copies of the materials to county staff, to Jim Anders of Winchester Homes, and to Winchester Homes’ archaeological consultants, Thunderbird Associates. I realize some of this information may already be familiar to you and to others receiving this letter; if so, I apologize for the repetition.

    As you will see from the enclosed materials, the most commonly-accepted date for the construction of the Dye/Burke house is 1807 or 1808, the year the Dye family bought a 200-acre parcel that had already functioned as a single farm for almost 100 years, and would continue to do so until 1902. Connie and Mayo Stuntz cite an 1808 construction date in their 1998 This Was Virginia, 1900-1927 (p. 258) and Robert Frase cited an 1807 date in a conversation with researchers at the Library of Virginia in 1996 (see enclosed letter). An article written for Falls Church, VA Historical News and Notes in Sept. 1970 (p. 7) by the Frases’ daughter Kathy names a slightly earlier date of 1803. An obituary of Ellen McConvey Burke on file at the Falls Church Library (probably the 1943 one cited by Melvin Steadman in his 1964 Falls Church, by Fence and Fireside , p. 281) mentions that brick for the house was imported by Reuben Dye in 1808. Steadman himself suggests an earlier construction date, with a renovation in 1808. He bases this conjecture on a neighborhood tradition that the house dated to colonial times, having served as a hunting lodge for a royal governor of Virginia. This oral tradition, which gave the house the nickname “Royal Lodge,” appears to be incorrect; however, it does confirm that the house has been known for some time to be one of the oldest in the neighborhood. Though oral tradition is not always reliable, it can provide, as researchers of Thomas Jefferson’s rumored relationship with Sally Hemings have recently shown, valuable leads for investigation of physical evidence. In this case, such evidence is available in the materials and methods of construction of the house itself. Further documentary evidence for the house’s existence at particular dates might be found in the sources mentioned in the report of research done for Robert Frase at the Library of Virginia, including 1809-1819 Fairfax County Personal Property Tax and Land Tax Lists, the 1810 census, Reuben Dye’s 1815 will, and the 1832 deed for the sale of the house and farm.

    While I have not yet found primary sources supporting the 1807/1808 construction date, I am quite certain, based on maps, surveys, and other documents, that a house was extant on the site of what we now know as the Frase house, or very nearby, by the time of the Civil War. The house, accompanied by a barn, shows up in approximately its present position on a number of Civil War-era topographic maps, including one held by the Library of Congress and excerpted here, as well as on a diagram drawn by John Burke to accompany his mother’s claim for damages after the Civil War. Testimony for this claim also makes mention of the springhouse, and of the presence on the Burke farm of Union troops during the winter of 1861-62 (see enclosed excerpts). The locations of the house, barn, and spring are duplicated, in turn, on a survey, recorded in Fairfax County Deed Book K6, pp. 614 & 615, depicting the division of the Burke farm among the Burke heirs in 1902 . On a 1917 topographic map, the house again shows up in its present location. Of course, periodic evidence of a house in a particular location does not necessarily confirm that the same house stood there throughout the period covered by the evidence. However, neighbors and residents of the Dye/Burke house with memories stretching back to the 19th century have believed that the house currently present on the site is the house originally built there.

    Whether or not the 1808 date is accurate, the 1935 one unquestionably is not. Evidence for an earlier date includes the Stoddard’s account of their 1925 renovation in an interview with Kathy Frase; the notes on file at the Falls Church library about John Stoddard’s and Ada Walker’s 1920s and 1890s memories of the house; the pre-1925 photograph published in the Stuntz’s history, which the photographer, J. Harry Shannon, identified by both owner and location (and which matches both the Stoddard’s description of the house prior to renovation and a 2nd pre-renovation photograph on file at the Falls Church library); and the reference in Ellen McConvey’s obituary to the continued existence of the house in which she was born (although it is unlikely that, as the obituary states, she died there, since at the time of her death the house had long passed from Burke family ownership, and the Frases were in residence). This information also confirms that the historic front section of the house retains to a considerable extent (though not entirely) its original materials and proportions, and to the need for a thorough study of the house, as well as its accompanying outbuildings, by experts well-versed in the dating of construction methods and materials, including the imported bricks and locally-produced bricks and beams mentioned in the obituary and by Kathy Frase, and the mortar binding the local quartz visible in the remains of the springhouse foundation.

    The evidence presented here – including Kathy Frase’s article, the Burkes’ southern claim, and the 1902 survey – also makes a strong case for treating the Burke farm as a single historical/archaeological site. The house, now-demolished barn (the site of which has not yet been pinpointed, but can certainly be found using information in the southern claim, the 1902 survey, and Kathy Frase’s article), and springhouse were all part of a single working farm, each building supporting activities performed in the other. For instance, it seems likely that the springhouse was built in part to preserve dairy products, including the 200 lbs. of butter mentioned on an 1860 agricultural census, which would have been produced in the barn and processed either there or in the house. If any documentation of the site is to be complete, these interrelationships, and the likely resulting interrelationships between objects found on the site, need to be taken into account.

    The complex also included a family cemetery, which, according to Kathy Frase’s article, may still contain the remains of at least one slave. This is another bit of oral tradition, but, like the dating of the house, a plausible one, since the failure to recognize African Americans as persons during the first 250 years of American history often led to their graves being poorly marked and ultimately abandoned when members of their owners’ families were moved to more formal graveyards. Investigation of the cemetery and possible slave grave(s), in addition to providing a fuller picture of the Burke Farm site, would prevent this series of indignities from culminating in accidental exhumation by bulldozer. Since such an event, handled appropriately, would result in a costly interruption of work, and a considerable amount of legal paperwork, for Winchester Homes, it would behoove them, for financial reasons as well as for the sake of human decency, to use an archaeological study of the property as an opportunity to rule out the possibility of remaining graves on the site.

    I am not well-versed in the process of determining whether a site meets the criteria for listing on county, state, or national heritage resources lists. However, the Burke Farm site seems to meet several of the criteria listed in Objective 2 of the Heritage Resources section of the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan, including “be[ing] associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history” (the Civil War, as well as the early settlement and agricultural history of Fairfax County), and “embody[ing] the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction” (the combination of imported and local, handworked materials, as well as the overall size and design of the house). It also seems to meet several of the public significance criteria listed in policy b, including “possess[ing] information on or represent[ing] any aspect of heritage considered important by a discrete population, ethnic group, or community” (in this case, both African-Americans whose ancestors were held as slaves, and Irish Catholic immigrants exemplified by the Burkes), “retaining characteristics that are potentially useful in educating the public about the past and how it is studied” (the size of the original farmhouse, which still makes up the most visible, front, part of the house, illustrates the scale on which a farmer with 200 acres and 5 slaves lived, and the location near the spring and the overall layout of buildings on the site illustrate the necessities and routines of 19th-century agricultural life) and “enabl[ing] the exhibit and display of objects, ruins, or stabilized restored structures for public education and enjoyment” (as already noted in reference to the springhouse, this site provides an opportunity for education on a number of subjects, from the county’s early history to the significance of water and watersheds in past and present human life in the county; the location of two schools and a great many residences with half a mile of the site make it particularly well suited to widely and efficiently disseminating such information).

    At the very least, this site needs to be thoroughly investigated and documented before any part of it is disturbed or destroyed. Such investigation and documentation should include at least an area encompassing the northern end of the springhouse foundation, the full perimeter of the Dye/Burke house, and 30-40 feet in front of the house (the site of the cemetery, according to Kathy Frase). As Anne Morrison, a resident of Fairfax County and an employee of the Arlington County Historic Preservation Program, pointed out in a Feb. 16, 2004 letter to Supervisor DuBois, Commissioner Hopkins, and other members of the Planning Commission, it is especially important that the materials and proportions of the house itself (not just the foundation, as currently proffered by Winchester) be thoroughly documented. The historic core of the house and the site of the now-removed kitchen extension (visible in the photographs preserved in the Falls Church library and published by the Stuntzes) are certainly of historical value, and, at this point, even the 1925 addition has some interest.

    There is also an argument for investigating and documenting some heritage resources on the farm beyond the immediate area of the farmhouse, barn, spring, and cemetery. John Burke, James Kirby, and former slave Daniel Walker all make mention, in the Burke’s southern claim, of the fact that Union troops established a picket line along the road in front of the farm, in the area that is now the front lawns of 2117 and 2119 Great Falls St., during the winter of 1861-62. The smudged lines on either side of Great Falls St. on the enclosed Civil War-era map may be indications of this activity. Although these areas were disturbed by ploughing in the 19th century and by the construction of the Great Falls St. trail in recent years (the fill from which, but not the less-disturbed area immediately behind, was sampled by Thunderbird Associates during their Phase I study), there may still be evidence to be found in these areas (I know that Civil War relic-hunters are not deterred by ploughed fields, though I realize that such disturbance can make formal archaeological investigation more difficult). We also know from the Burke’s southern claim that Union officers used the Dye/Burke house as a headquarters, that Union soldiers stole potatoes from the Burke fields and washed them at the springhouse, and that up to 1000 Union soldiers at a time were present on the farm in locations including the picket line and the orchard depicted on the Civil War-era map.

    The c. 1910 McConvey house, located at 2119 Great Falls St., should also be measured and documented as part of the historical record. Because this house was built by Burke heirs on a subdivided portion of the original Burke farm, it provides an interesting index of how farmhouses owned or built by the same family changed over the course of a century. (The white-painted brick house at 6727 Haycock Rd., built, according to Steadman, by Thomas H. Burke , apparently forms another part of this family complex, and offers another opportunity for comparison.) The McConvey house also incorporates some of the same materials and methods of construction present in buildings elsewhere on the Burke farm, most notably a local quartz foundation. Even the c. 1925 Donovan house, located at 2117 Great Falls St., seems worthy, at the very least, of careful documentation, since it represents an early, pre-subdivision, stage of the County’s suburbanization.

    As a Fairfax County citizen with some qualifications as an historian (I hold a Ph.D. in English, but my research focuses in considerable part on the role of literature in 19th-century American history, especially the abolitionist movement, and I currently teach writing and research methods at George Mason University), I am very much concerned that the information I’ve outlined above was not uncovered, and allowed to play a part, earlier in the planning process. Since I’m new to the process, it’s hard for me to pinpoint the source of the problem, but it does seem clear that there is a problem. If people with an interest in this particular site, including Steve Dryden, Mark Zetts, and me, had not spent time in researching and disseminating the available historical information, it seems unlikely that it would have come to light during the rezoning process at all. Even with these citizen efforts, it presently seems that accurate historical information is unlikely to materially affect Winchester’s plans for the site, in part because the Phase II archaeological study that could provide a more complete picture of the heritage resources affected by the project is not proffered to be completed until after the county has approved a plan that includes a certain number of lots and houses, and leaves very little room to rearrange those features to accommodate the preservation of heritage or natural resources.

    One clear weakness in the process seems to be the timing and nature of a Phase I study, which, if Winchester’s proffers are any guide, is not typically required to be conducted or filed prior to consideration of a rezoning application, and, even when it is conducted early in the process, apparently does not include such well-accepted research methods as searches through county deed books, interviews with owners and neighbors of the subject property, consultation with local historians and local history specialists in nearby libraries, and reference to published histories of the area. Employing even one or two of these methods prior to field research would have given the field researchers an idea of where to concentrate their efforts, resulting in much earlier recognition of features such as the spring and springhouse foundation, and would have called into question at an early date the county tax database’s 1935 date for the Dye/Burke house.

    I hope this rezoning application is not becoming a case study of how Fairfax County loses not only its heritage resources themselves, but even the data available in the physical components and characteristics of those resources. As the Heritage Resources section of the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan Policy Plan notes, “unprotected heritage resources – resources whose significance has not yet been evaluated and unrecorded resources on unsurveyed lands – are particularly vulnerable to loss due to variety of factors,” including “inadequate survey or assessment of heritage resources during the earliest stages of project planning” (p. 1). So far, that observation seems to be borne out by the history of this rezoning application. It is also worth noting that the Residential Development Criteria in Appendix 9 of the policy plan call for a number of actions to be taken “in reviewing rezoning applications for applications for properties on which known or potential heritage resources are located” (p. 28, emphasis mine). These include “conduct archaeological, architectural, and/or historical research to determine the presence, extent, and significance of heritage resources”; “submit proposals for archaeological work to the County for review and approval and, unless otherwise agreed, conduct such work in accordance with state standards”; “preserve and rehabilitate heritage resources for continued or adaptive use where feasible”; “submit proposals to change the exterior appearance of, relocate, or demolish historic structures to the Fairfax County Architectural Review Board for review and approval”; “document heritage resources to be demolished or relocated”; “design new structures and site improvements, including clearing and grading, to enhance rather than harm heritage resources”; and “establish easements that will assure continued preservation of heritage resources with an appropriate entity such as the County’s Open Space and Historic Preservation Easement Program” (p. 29, items b-h). Admittedly, not all of these tasks can be completed during the application review process, as the criteria direct, but many, including identifying and evaluating heritage resources through archaeological, architectural, and/or historic research and designing new structures, site improvements, and clearing and grading to enhance rather than harm heritage resources, must be accomplished prior to approval of rezoning and the cdp/fdp if they are to have any real effect.

    At this point, it seems unwise to proceed with rezoning, or with approval of a cdp/fdp, until the heritage resources present on the Burke Farm site are more thoroughly understood. If Winchester Homes wants to proceed quickly with the majority of the development, one possibility, clearly in keeping with the Comprehensive Plan Residential Development Criteria, would be for them to section off an area encompassing the core of the Burke farm site, including the spring and springhouse foundation, the barn site, the Dye/Burke house, and the possible cemetery site, make a commitment that the area will eventually constitute a single lot and/or a combination of a lot and open space, and proffer a conservation and/or historic preservation easement on the area. They could then proceed to determine whether the house is appropriate for continued residential use (given the fact that it was inhabited until Dec. 2002, and that it seems to suffer more from encroaching bamboo and trash in the yard – both solvable problems -- than from more serious structural problems, it probably is), and, if so, design appropriate renovations before marketing it as an historic property. If the house were determined to be unsavable, a carefully-worded easement could leave open the option of thoroughly documenting the house and outbuildings prior to demolition, placing the spring and springhouse on common land, and constructing a single house on the less environmentally-sensitive portion of the site. Since preservation of the site might require a less thorough archaeological study than would be required prior to demolition, clearing, and grading, an easement allowing access for archaeological investigation by county staff, trained volunteers, and/or scholars or advanced students in archaeology during a specified period might also be included in proffers.

    The c. 1910 McConvey house also seems well-suited to continued use as a residence. Admittedly, I have a particular attachment to this house, since it is my home of 40 years, but my familiarity with the house also puts me in a good position to report that it is structurally sound and well laid out, and could easily be transformed, with minor alterations, into a residence that would be attractive in the current market (which does, after all, include buyers who value older homes). Its location in a corner of the proposed development, fronting Great Falls St., also makes it well suited to serve as a publicly-visible reminder of the county’s past without causing undue disturbance to Winchester Homes’ plans for the majority of the surrounding land.

    I realize that not every potential heritage resource can be saved or even investigated, and that early-20th-century houses may not yet seem like significant heritage resources. There is no question that the Dye/Burke house is far more worthy of preservation and/or documentation than the McConvey house. However, a look at the enclosed detail from a 1917 topographic map tells a story that we might regret, in future years, not paying closer attention to as it was enfolding. The detail, which centers on the Burke’s Spring Branch watershed, pictures 14 houses. Three of them (the Dye/Burke house; the Smith/Walker house, which stood at the point where Crutchfield St. deadends into Great Falls St., the present location of Ada Grove; and one of the Kirby homesteads on the northeast corner of Kirby and Great Falls St.) were built before the Civil War. Of these three, the now-threatened Dye/Burke house is apparently the only one still standing (there is presently an older house on the northeast corner of Kirby and Great Falls, and its outward appearance seems in keeping with the county tax database’s construction date of 1910, but this could, of course, be another mistake). The other eleven houses were built in the late 19th or early 20th century; of these, only six are still standing, and one, the McConvey house, is threatened with demolition.

    A look at a wider area confirms that this is not an isolated problem. The historical record along the stretch of Haycock Road between Great Falls St. and route 7 has been entirely erased over the past fifty years as a result of the construction of the George Mason Middle/High school, I-66, the Dulles Access Rd., the Metro, the UVA/Virginia Tech campus, and condominiums adjacent to the Metro – all worthwhile projects in themselves, but cumulatively resulting in the loss of another seven houses pictured on the 1917 topographic map, including the Haycock homestead. The 2-mile stretch of Great Falls St. between Kirby and route 123 is now almost entirely devoid of visible reminders of our past (the few exceptions include a farmhouse, the preserved Lewinsville post office, and the Lewinsville Presbyterian Church cemetery, all clustered near the historic Lewinsville crossroads at Chain Bridge Rd.). Preserving a dwelling situated as close to the road as the McConvey house does not require a lot of land, and does serve as visible reminder of the agricultural past. At the very least, the McConvey house needs to be carefully documented. As we all know, one of the keys to conducting valid research is obtaining an adequate sample. If over 50% of the late 19th/early 20th-century houses built in an area have already vanished, then the data necessary to produce a valid description of the ordinary domestic architecture of that period in that area are rapidly vanishing.

    Finally, I’d like to take note of a nearby positive example of historic preservation during development. In the past few years, new houses have been built surrounding two historic houses, the possibly 18th-century Hollywood Farm and the late-19th-century Highland View, in the Falls Hill section of the Providence District of Fairfax County (near the I-66 offramp leading to route 7). Like the Dye/Burke house, these two properties are within the broadly-defined Falls Church area, and are mentioned in several Falls Church histories. However, their historic significance, unlike that of the Dye/Burke house, appears to have been recognized, and taken into account, early in the development planning and review process. I have not yet seen confirmation that Highland View will be preserved, but I do know from an August 2, 2001, Washington Post article (Fairfax News, pp. 6, 7) that the developer, Brookfield Properties Corp., made substantial efforts to find a willing buyer. It seems clear from the minutes of the April 6, 2000 meeting of the Fairfax County Planning Commission that Hollywood Farm will definitely be preserved, and, in fact, it was recently offered for sale. (The major problems with this development seem to have been with stormwater rather than historic preservation; despite what were presumably good-faith efforts on the part of the developers and county staff to prevent any problems, flooding downstream has been exacerbated, leading to costly problems for individual landowners and the County. Avoiding such problems would be another good reason to reduce the density of the Stockwell Manor development). So it seems to be possible to balance historic preservation and development, if the historic qualities of a property are taken into account during the application review process. The question now at hand is why this did not happen earlier in the case of the Stockwell Manor development, and what can still be done to prevent the loss of heritage resources, or at least provide a careful record of such resources, on the Burke Farm site.

    Thank you for your attention to a long letter. If you have any questions, I can be reached at the address above, at 703-534-4494, or at catheris@capaccess.org.


    Catherine E. Saunders

    P.S. As I was writing this letter, I received word that Winchester Homes has revised their plan to move the road formerly planned to run over Burke’s Spring. Since I have not yet seen the plan, I cannot comment on it. However, I see that the revised proffers still treat the springhouse and the foundation of the Frase house as isolated sites, and call for very limited research and documentation. Therefore, my concern about the issues mentioned above continues.


    1) References to Dye/Burke house in Steadman and Stuntz; article by Kathy Frase.
    2) Contents of file in Falls Church Public Library local history room labeled “6718 Montour – Royal Lodge”
    3) Letter and notes containing results of research done at the Library of Virginia for Robert W. Frase in 1996 (passed on to me by Mr. Frase in the summer of 2002)
    4) Details from Civil-War-era and 1917 topographic maps; 1902 survey of Burke farm
    5) Claim of Mary Ann Burke to the Southern Claims Commission (excerpts of copy filed by Bradley E. Gernand at the Falls Church Public Library), including rough sketch-survey of farm
    6) Burke’s Spring Timeline (results of research by Steve Dryden and Mark Zetts at Fairfax County and Falls Church public libraries)

    Cc: Members of the Fairfax County Planning Commission
    Cathy Belgin
    Kirk Holley
    Members of the Fairfax County History Commission (via mail and email)
    James A. Anders, Jr.
    Thunderbird Associates

    Watershed Map & Areas of Interest/Concern
    Historic Watershed Maps Activities

    Links & Sources

    Contact/Join Us
    All items copyright © 2003-2005 Friends of Burke's Spring Branch unless another source is noted. Copyright for items with identified authorship remains with the author(s); historical and other documents reproduced here are, to the best knowledge of the webmaster, in the public domain. Items under Friends of Burke's Spring Branch copyright may be reproduced for nonprofit research or educational use as long as this copyright notice is included. Please direct comments and questions to Cathy Saunders.