The Long Road Home

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It has, indeed, been a long road home.  I first toured the Sevareid House in the Fall of 2012.  The house became mine in the fall of 2013.  All in, the process of designing, permitting, deconstructing and constructing the revival of the house has taken more than 3 years.   On December 28th, after several months of packing up a house where I lived and raised my children for more than 24 years, I moved most of my belongings to the house on the hill.  The house was not 100% finished but I wanted to have the bulk of the moving project done before I left for my annual sojourn south of the border. It was a great plan because when I returned, the house was ready for me to begin to sort out my life.  The following 3 months have been consumed with almost daily unpacking, organizing and overseeing the final pieces needed to complete the project.   I am 99% THERE!

There have been some distractions.  I discovered my inner activist following the election on 11/8.  I have spent part of every week since my return calling, writing, marching, organizing, sharing and advocating.  This is what I do to keep my sanity.  I’ve welcomed a roommate, weathered the first snow event, hosted houseguests and fellow activists, and have begun to put the next chapter into motion.  I’ve scheduled my first live music events and am working on the “Concerts at the Sevareid House” website.  This will be my avocation.

I’m looking forward to working with a professional photographer to showcase Michael Cook’s creative vision and interpretation of Charles Goodman’s intent and my brother Dave’s craftsmanship.  The rebirth of the Sevareid House would never have become a reality without the foresight and persistence of these two artist/artisans.  But I can’t wait nor should I make you, my patient readers, wait.  So please enjoy these un-staged, unscripted pictures taken by my first house guest and college housemate Ken Goldman.  This is the Sevareid House in it’s magnificent, daffodil blooming, soaring redwood, art-filled, mid-century modern glory.




Valley Lane

I’ve been a pretty unreliable documentarian the past few months.  It’s been a busy summer commuting back and forth from the Delaware shore to Alexandria attending to the many decisions that still need to be made as we hit the home stretch on the Sevareid House project.  The summer was capped with a 17 day trip to Scotland but progress on the house marches on.  If you follow me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram you’ve seen my update pictures on that progress.  I’ll add a few here for those that depend on the blog for news of the project.  But this post is mostly about history going back to the 1940s and 1950s when the house was new and it’s occupants were not just observers but participants in history.

UPDATES:  Click on the pictures to view captions describing each image.



Valley Lane

One of my new neighbors left a book at the house for me this summer.  It is a 1995 biography of Eric Sevareid entitled The American Journey of Eric Sevareid by Raymond A. Schroth.  A chapter called Valley Lane describes the contrast between now and then – when the house was in a “country setting” as part of the county of Fairfax.  I’m lifting his words because I can’t describe it any better.

The first impression today’s visitor gets as he peers up from the street at the almost fifty year old modern house barely visible through the trees is that whoever lives here wants to be left alone. Old or former neighbors, who talk about what has happened to Alexandria, Virginia’s Seminary Hill in the last half century, say yes, the corner of Pegram Street and Polk Street, which fifty years ago were dirt roads, now seems in some ways as cut off from it’s larger suburban context as it was when Eric and Lois Sevareid drove by in 1946 and saw horses grazing below by the road and a lush meadow spreading out through the valley, reaching up a steep slope to a modernistic house on the top of the ridge.  Here, they decided, was where they wanted to live.

Fifty years ago (sic. now SEVENTY!), before the woods grew up to their present wild domination, the excitement of the place must have been, along with the house’s modern design, the height, the combination of distance and disengagement: the freedom to sit on the veranda and gaze upon the world below.

The author goes on to describe the neighbors as “a handful of families working at the heart of the New Deal and planning for the new nation being shaped out of the World War.”  There are 3 Goodman houses currently in the area — there may have been more.  But I understand that modernist sensibility influenced quite a few of the houses on Valley Lane.  And that continued through the 60s and 70s. That street, Valley Lane, doesn’t exist anymore but a former resident, David Eddy, who grew up in a house on the hill behind the Sevareid house shared a picture of the expansive view that he enjoyed as child from the top of hill.


View from the top of Seminary Hill Circa 1942 photo:David Eddy

I had the pleasure of meeting David about a year ago when he came back to Alexandria to attend his high school reunion at Episcopal.  He shared a lot of fascinating stories involving the economists in the neighborhood (including his father) and McCarthy’s Red Scare of the late 1940s and 1950s.

The neighbors on and around Valley Lane were an interesting group.  David Eddy’s father was a Harvard economist and he believes the best friend of Emil Despres, the Harvard economist who built the Sevareid House.  David was great in filling in the blanks on the economists and their trouble with the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities.  He knows a lot about it because his dad, George Eddy spent a good part of the latter portion of his life clearing his name.

In the Valley Lane chapter of Schroth’s book, he mentions other residents and their connections to the Sevareid family.

Among their neighbors was a man who talked to the trees, a family who didn’t believe in eating cooked food, an old Englishman who was convinced that the invention of the automobile had put the world on the road to hell, Thurmond Arnold, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, a congressman from Massachusetts, the BBC’s Washington correspondent, and John Kenneth Galbraith; and good Virginia manners presumed that they visited one another in the afternoon and everyone was supposed to have tea and cookies ready.  On the periphery of that elite circle, where people lived in older, larger homes, were the Sevareids.

The road from Washington to Alexandria was paved, and the one from Alexandria to the Hill was gravel.  The bus ran twice a day; so during the war years – with air-raid drills and car-pooling – everyone learned to depend on and care for everyone else.  They rode their car pools to work – Virginia would sit on Galbraith’s boney knees – and argue politics and economics fiercely; and evenings and weekends the neighbors helped each other with household chores and cared for one another’s children.

The Sevareid’s nearest neighbors included the Douglass Caters, who moved in the 1950s; he was the Washington editor of the Reporter magazine.  And the next door neighbors, with  whom the Sevareids shared a driveway, were Philip and Adele Brown, who also lived in a house designed by Goodman.

The book goes on to describe the Sevareid’s (especially Lois’) role in founding the Burgundy Farm School in Alexandria and Lois increasing struggles with bi-polar disorder during their time in the house.  He also talks about the horses that Eric kept on the property – a tradition that was kept up by Bob Syme as reported to me by friends who remember them still being there in the 1960s and 1970s.

I need to study up on the material that David Eddy provided to me about the economists and the Red Scare.  That’s another fascinating chapter in the history of the Sevareid House and Seminary Hill.




June 15, 2016

It’s hard to believe that almost 3 months have passed since the retaining walls began to go up.  Tons of progress on all fronts — inside and outside.

The roof is going up on the second floor of the garage building.  It should be completely under roof by this weekend. It’s been relatively quick process compared to other parts of the project despite a fairly sophisticated framing system including steel holding up cantilevers,window boxes and a balcony.  It definitely changed the feel of the whole site.

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The brick planter boxes that line the entry way courtyard have been completed and the entryway fountain is roughed in.  Today we met with a window fabricator who will manufacture and install the windows in the garage building including the 12 foot tall slabs of glass for the stair tower in the back.


Garage building stair tower

Inside the original house the new sauna is installed, first coats of primer and paint are going on and the kitchen has been delivered (80+ boxes!) awaiting installation.  There is so much beautiful custom woodwork made with Douglas fir, new knotty pine and ash. I’m unbelievably fortunate to have talented people working on this house who really care about preserving Charles Goodman’s original intent with both the original and new finishes.  I’m also excited about the arrival of the master bathtub!!


The backyard has taken shape and we’re expecting the pool installation to begin within the next few weeks.  There is a lot of exciting landscape planning taking place  right now – but that’s a WHOLE other post.  The rear walls have created a generous yard in the back to host the pool, patio, fire pit and outdoor kitchen.  It’s like a completely different place out back.

There are still a thousand details and decisions yet to be made but compared to what’s behind us it’s a piece of cake!


Hey! That’s My Log!

Here is the log that some guy apparently chased down a river in Oregon for 2 days.  Yep — this one wasn’t just laying on the forest floor waiting to be reclaimed.  It was moving.  I like that – it’s my log.

After he caught it, it was milled into boards for my siding and kiln dried.


Then it made its way across the country bound for Alexandria, VA.  Only it got here a day early immediately after last night’s soaking rains.  It traveled in a giant tractor-trailer.  Did I mention my driveway is steep?

After a last-minute diversion, it now rests in West River, MD in my brother’s yard.


It will be transferred bit by bit over to the Sevareid House.  Yet, again Dave goes above and beyond.  It looks a lot nicer sitting on his nice grass rather than in my muddy dirt pile of a yard.



Outside and Inside

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Did I mention the driveway is steep?  Building these walls has been an education and is,  in fact, an engineering marvel.  They are finished for all intents and purposes.  We are developing a planting plan to minimize the height and soften the profile.  After we are completely finished moving the dirt, we can install trees and shrubbery.


The completion of the upper wall means that we can begin building the garage building.  The permits are ready and now we just need the weather to cooperate so that we can dig footers and pour the concrete slab.  Within the next two weeks I hope we can begin to frame the new structure.

The lower wall is holding most of the site’s excavated dirt.  It will also extend the usable yard and allow for a pool to be built nearer to the house.  The old pool has been filled in and that site may make a good future location for a sports court.  There are still a good number of dirt piles around the site but they are substantially diminished.  And a good thing because the new California Redwood shingle is scheduled to arrive from Oregon next week.  We really wanted to preserve the original shingle because redwood is rare especially on the East Coast.  Unfortunately over the years repairs had been made to the wood on the house using pressure treated pine.  We made the discovery after stripping several layers of paint from portions of the exterior.  So the exterior has to be dismantled and replaced.  One advantage is that the crew is able to add insulation on several places that were previously uninsulated.

While the exterior work and garage addition have been delayed due to the weather, a lot has been happening inside the house.  In fact, we should be ready for paint very soon.  In keeping with the theme of the house, all of the wood used in the house to rebuild the windows, frames, built ins and trim is either Douglas fir or ash. With some ingenious and diligent carpentry work, Kevin and Carter were able to install beautiful wood-paneled ceilings in the master bedroom and bathroom using the salvaged redwood.  Not an easy task picking the best pieces, planing down every board and making them fit in such a stunning array.  It’s really special.


Interior doors have been hung, new floors installed and things are really taking shape.  It’s beginning to look like a house again!


It’s so exciting to see how everything is coming together.  It’s going to be a busy spring and summer on Syme Hill!







We got our revised wall permits at the end of December.  A big part of revising the plans for the walls involved revising the excavation plan as well.  In fact, a big part of the revision was simplifying the excavation so that we would not have to remove more than 100 truckloads of dirt from the site.  The new wall system will use the dirt as backfill.  That made everyone happy initially — especially the city who wanted to restrict the number of truckloads we could remove to something like 4 loads PER DAY.






The plan was to do the back wall first.  That wall will use most of the dirt from the driveway and garage excavations.  Then the driveway space would be clear for the work to shore up the garage side hill and to begin to build that wall.  We can’t pour the footers for the new garage building until the garage side wall is built.  Then Mother Nature happened. After 70+ degree temperatures on Christmas eve, the weather finally got cold.  And now folks, it’s official.  According to the Capital Weather Gang, “D.C. is the only city east of the Rockies having a ‘severe’ winter.”  Apparently we can’t catch a break.  Wall building halted in the back after one week due to  cold and moisture and the focus moved to the garage side. Unfortunately there are MASSIVE piles of dirt around the site that we need to save in order to build the back walls when the weather warms up.  That’s making an already tight construction site even tighter.  It’s a logistics challenge for Dave.  Thankfully he has lots of experience to fall back on.

I wish I could have seen it but my annual Mexican birthday sojourn beckoned.  Machines rolled in when I was away and installed 27 soil screws into the side of the hill by the future garage.  These will stabilize the hill and allow the wall to be built.



Then Snowzilla happened.  So ALL exterior wall building stopped.


No matter, the action moved indoors.  Insulation and drywall went in to the newly remodeled spaces over the last few weeks.  On Monday Dave, Michael Cook and I spent 2 1/2 hours walking around the house discussing the wall, door and window trims and transitions.  It’s actually starting to look something like a house again!

Today we got the news that the wall builders are coming back this week.  After a bit of a scramble to get hauling and parking permits in order, we should be ready.  Machines will be rolling again tomorrow.






My Castle On Dirt Mountain

The big machines finally started moving this week.

We’re dropping the driveway elevation by more than 3 feet to help level out the parking situation.  That dirt is being relocated around back to fill in the old pool and to use as backfill for the new pool and retaining walls.  It’s a dirty, noisy, messy business.  And we haven’t even begun to cut into the back hill or excavate the new pool.  Yes, this took longer than we expected…like everything else.  It couldn’t be helped.

We had hoped to excavate this summer when the weather is more cooperative.  That way we could be digging the new pool and building the framing for the garage addition at the same time.  We had our plans, our permits and all we needed was to lock in our tradespeople.

The first sign of trouble was that we could not get a concrete company to provide a bid for the retaining walls.  A number of them visited the site and then either declined to provide a bid or never returned calls.  We finally got a solid quote in July.  That’s when the trouble started.  The only quote we were able to get was about 5x what we had budgeted for the work.   Between the extensive excavation, the difficult site access and the volume of concrete needed to hold up the dirt on our steep site, we were looking at costs of about 1/3 of our entire budget.  For concrete and dirt.  Then our excavator backed out.

Many kudos and blessings and thanks go to Brother Builder for never giving up.  He just kept at it, trying to figure out how to solve the problem. We would never, ever had come up with the solution without his persistence.

In the end, we are eliminating the concrete walls (and with it a lot of the dirt removal that was part of the original excavation) and we’ll use engineered walls to hold up the hill and the pool.  I’m leaving out MANY steps in this journey including hiring a geotechnical engineer, and re-permitting the grading plan and the walls.  Oh, and also hiring a new excavator. We’ll also have to redo some of our landscape plans.  While the end product may not be as dramatic, I’m confident it will do exactly what we need it to do.


The old pool


The “Money” shot


View from my castle on dirt mountain


Giant tree stump buried 8 feet in the ground

Excavation photos are about as interesting to me as infrastructure photos but it’s kind of exciting to be up on the hill watching the dirt get moved and the giant stumps removed with the machines buzzing to and fro.  The last two days of rain have turned everything into a giant mud pit.  But at least the machines are moving….