This article is the first in a five-part series of historic homes in the Seminary Hill area of Alexandria.
Ken and Judie Elder’s long, low house on Key Drive off Quaker Lane is hidden from the surrounding roads by a wall of trees. The neighbors probably like that, they joke.
“It definitely doesn’t fit into the neighborhood,” Ken said.
Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, the two-story home was built in 1939 by one of Wright’s apprentices, Charles Callander. The first occupants were Haven Page, an aircraft company executive, and his family. “When they built it, they spent a fortune building the house, because nothing is standard in it,” Ken said. “It all had to be handmade.”
The Pages were the first to live on the street, then a dirt road that was part of Fairfax County. When it was built, the property included a well because there was no running water in the area. The home also includes a basement.
“That’s how we know that Mr. Wright himself never saw the plans for himself,” Ken said. “Because we took the plans out to Taliesin, where he had his headquarters, and we met with the head of it, and he said, ‘Mr. Wright never would have stood for one of his houses to have a basement in it. He claimed that basements just encouraged you to save stuff you should have thrown away.’ He was right.”
The house features a brick exterior and lots of windows and glass doors. Ken particularly likes the windows in the master bedroom, where two walls are made of windows, letting in plenty of light.
“We get up in the morning and we get the paper and the coffee and we read the paper here and look out, and it’s really, really a neat place to wake up,” he said. “I think there are very few houses that have as nice as a place to wake up in as this one does.”
Ken calls the home’s style Usonian. Judie calls it art deco. Neither the first nor second owners did anything to structurally change the house, and much of the furniture is original. Some furniture was designed specifically for the house, including the long sofa that twists to follow the curved windows that stretch across the living room’s south wall. The window looks upon a sweeping expanse of a front yard.
The Elders purchased the house in 1996 from the couple who bought it from the Pages, Tom and Peggy Harris. Tom Harris, an attorney, was appointed by Jimmy Carter to be one of the first commissioners of the Federal Election Commission. Peggy Harris’ books still line the living room bookshelves, Judie said, and the Harrises passed on their beloved living room rug.
The house was built at the same time that plywood was coming into style, which allowed for some of the curved wood features. The interior is lined with paneled cyprus, which was being removed from Florida at the time to make way for orange groves.
Judie likes the way the house is oriented. “It faces due south, so in the winter the sun comes streaming in here and in the summer it’s shady all the time,” she said.
The house has three bedrooms and four tiny bathrooms. The handrail to the staircase, which gives off the appearance of a flowing yet angular waterfall, is inspired by Wright’s career in Japan.
“The house has all kinds of surprises,” Ken said. Those include a nook for an old-fashioned telephone and a bell — which still works — the Pages used to summon the maid from the basement.
The kitchen, in the style of the day, is small and painted white, with dozens of tiny storage cabinets. The mahogany dining room set is original to the house. The home also features a large and secluded second-story balcony.
The gray-tiled landing platforms on the stairs are original and made from a non-toxic mixture of asbestos. The tile once covered all the floors but has largely been replaced with wood. Much of it was taken out when the Elders bought the house because, in the 1950s, women’s spiked heels had punched small holes throughout the surface.
The house features one newer element, a screened-in side porch that was built around a giant sycamore tree the Harris family planted. Both the main house and a guest house the Elders built for visiting relatives in 1998 measure about 2,900 square feet.
Another one of Wright’s apprentices, Jone Thurmond, helped build the guest house, which abuts a pool 50 feet long and 20 feet wide. The guest house incorporates some of the same design elements of the main house, including many windows, a cascading stairway handrail and a second-floor balcony.
The Elders, who founded a rental agency in Alexandria in the 1970s, are now enjoying their retirement in the unique home, Ken said. “We are really proud to live here.”