John Wells is a lawyer and minister of the Unitarian church at Reston, previously served at the Mount Vernon Unitarian Church.
The land was part of a grant that was originally owned by George Mason. As you know, George Mason was one of the significant persons in Virginia history. He was the father of the Bill of Rights in Virginia and subsequently the Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution. He lived at Gunston Hall, down below Mt. Vernon. But he also owned land north of the Mt. Vernon properties.
He had intended to build a house for his son on the highest point along the Potomac -- where the Mt. Vernon Unitarian church is now located. The name of the plantation would have been Hollin Hall. You notice that many of the areas around here come from that name George Mason was going to give to this property. They built Little Hollin Hall, which is located just off of what is now Sherwood Hall Lane. George Mason's son died and they never completed Hollin Hall.
The property was in various hands. But during World War I there was a very interesting person named Mr. Wilson. He bought the property, a mile square. It was called a section. That is, it was a mile in each section. The center of that is where the Mt. Vernon Unitarian is now located. He looked up in the Archives and determined what he thought would've been the type of house George Mason would have built. He brought in modern plumbing and electricity... it's a very interesting house.
If you go there and look, you'll see the two big chimneys on the Big House. They're H's, and it was called Hollin Hall, as it would have been had George Mason built it. The house was built in 1919.
Wilson was a very interesting person. He was head of American Mfg. Co. He also owned electric companies... that subsequently split and became PEPCO and VEPCO. He was the owner of the electric street car company that was involved in running out the tracks that came out to Mt. Vernon. They were going to sell property way out from Washington to retired people from his companies. There're a lot of those little hunks of land that still tie up the land development.
Now this property came together where GumSprings is. George Washington, as you know, owned that land, and West Ford, who was George Washington's son by a slave, inherited a lot of that property. Fordson Road which runs through there now used to be U.S. 1, and it came on the back end of the Wilson property.
Wilson traded all over the world and he had a knack for giving things to his wife. He would bring her back perfumes and trees from all over the world. That's the reason for the many varied kinds of trees that grow around the church property. Wilson brought those back from Japan, the Orient or from Europe.
The Wilsons decided they wanted to be as authentic as possible so they went all over Virginia getting brick. The brick there is all pre-Colonial, wider than bricks now. He also was a real nut about boxwood. The boxwood is the slow-growing English Boxwood, gathered from various parts of Virginia. There's no way to replace it, it's very, very old.
Wilson was known as the man in the green hat. He was also a lobbyist, had lots of friends. President Hoover came out and spent the night out there. He was a good friend of Wilson's. Also the Vice-President under Roosevelt, they called him Black Jack Garner. He was a good friend of Wilson and he used to come out frequently. Wilson died in 1934. His wife died the same year. They had no children. The property went to their nephews. It was quite a wild place from 1934 to 1941. Some of the older police officers in Fairfax County will tell you that they had some wild parties.
In 1941 President Roosevelt came out (to look at) the property, and determined that it should be purchased for the Norwegian Royal family in exile. Remember during World War II the Germans had taken over Norway? There'd been a big blitzkrieg of Oslo? Well, the property is in the flight pattern of National Airport. (The royal family) had been in the blitz and were terrified of the planes going overhead, so they asked not to live there.
There was a man by the name of Thorpe who had just bought a piece of property in Maryland called Poke's Hills, still owned by the government. Thorpe was convinced that it would be appropriate for him to buy this property, and sell to the government Poke's Hill. He moved to (Wilson) property in 1941, lived there until his death in 1954.
Thorpe's widow sold the property to the Mt. Vernon Unitarian Church in 1959. During the time the nephews were there, between 1934 and 1941, they sold a lot of property --that's the way they more or less supported themselves. It had been reduced to 80 acres from the original 1 mile. Although Hollin Hills and Hollin Hall used to belong to the same estate, it was all sold off. The church never owned all of that. They could only afford to buy 10 acres, which included the buildings that were there.
The big house, or what they call the mansion, has quite a lot of rooms in it. On the second floor alone there were five bedrooms. Next to that is what they call a carriage house. Now it was not old enough that you really had horses there but it was built in the style of a carriage house. They kept trucks in there that they used for work on the farm.
When they first dug the well there they had a windmill that pumped the water. That's why the street coming in is called Windmill Lane. The windmill isn't there now.
They did a lot of farming, and you know the big-breasted turkey, the one you buy now, was developed there on that property by Mr. Thorpe. He felt that one of his contributions to the war effort would be that type of work.
In between the Mansion and the guest house are a series of formal gardens, with brick making a circle at the end. These are used now at the church for various functions outside.
It's fascinating in that there were never any children that lived there. The Wilsons had no children, the Thorpes did not have children that ever lived there. The church has made great use of the property for children as well as for adults and everybody.
The church grounds did become quite a distribution point for illegal drugs -- primarily marijuana, though there were some cocaine busts, and some LSD. There never was any heroin up there to anyone's knowledge. I have defended a lot of kids that have been involved up there so I know a lot about the drug situation. It started back in 1967 -- you couldn't convince anybody those days that marijuana was anything other than the worst thing ever was. Anyhow, the kids used this place as a distribution corner -- even to the point where there was a notice in underground newspapers in California that the place to get your drugs, when going through this area, was the church property. This put the church in a very, very difficult position. How are you going to reach kids? How are you going to help them with these problems and at the same time call the police? It reached a point where it got totally out of hand. The church had to become very strict to call the police all the time. It reached a point where it was no longer kids in the neighborhood who were using the place to smoke pot. There were distributors coming from Philadelphia and New York and Baltimore. That were coming in selling the drugs and a shipment of cocaine would come in and this would be one of the places that it was distributed.
You hear a lot of people in the community who talk about the fact that the church was involved in this. It never, in fact it was doing everything in its power to work with the kids, work with the police, to cooperate with everyone in a helpful sort of way. Every kid going had his own separate getaway with all the bamboo and all the woods.
There have been some interesting developments there. CORE, which was one of the early civil rights organizations, needed a place to train Freedom Riders. So the church did it. They were investigated by the FBI, by the Fairfax Board of Supervisors and everything else, but they went ahead and did it.
Various places around on church property have been used for drama productions. The bowl was used first, then out in front of the church, the circular boxwood -- a stage was set up there. The church had some really big name entertainment up there to make money. They didn't make nearly as much money as they thought because of the rain and cancellations. But the idea was that a theatre should be there. Allen Stevens was really the sparkplug behind the Boxwood Theatre.
The Ft. Hunt Co-operative Preschool was established in '61 or '62. And was begun as a co-operative preschool. The mothers come in and helped the teachers on a scheduled basis. So you have had graduating classes from Groveton who graduated from the Ft. Hunt preschool.
During the winter time you could see the Potomac right over to Maryland. You could see all the way across Hybla Valley, all the way out. Now if you go out on the road you can see all the way into the District... the Washington Monument, anything from up there.
Lots of kids come out and climb the big pine trees out in front. The oak trees are harder to climb. The trees I enjoyed the most were the Indian cigar trees which most people don't know… I came into a board meeting of the church one time, got the Indian cigars, and cut 'em off just right and asked everybody to light up.