|MOUNT ZEPHYR AND GEORGE
The neighborhood of Mount Zephyr is uniquely
connected to the extraordinary beginnings of our nation. In 1674 Lord
Culpeper granted 5,000 acres along the Potomac river, including Mt.
Zephyr to Nicholas Spencer and John Washington, the great, great grandfather
of George Washington. The 2,500 acres belonging to the Washington family
were passed from father to son until George took possession in 1752.
Mt. Zephyr farm existed at that time and when Washington re-surveyed the
land, he included portions of Mt. Zephyr Farm in the Muddy Hole Farm lands
and a portion in Union Farm. The Mt. Zephyr Farm became a segment between
these two creations of Washington but always remained autonomous. Mt. Zephyr
Farm contained 648 acres with boundaries from Old Mill Road to the south,
to Buckman Road to the west, east to Mt. Vernon Highway and north to Gum
George Washington began his farming career on land
that was in poor condition thanks to years of nutrient-depleting tobacco crops. He revived
the soil using the
After Washington’s death in 1799, his holdings
passed to his wife, Martha. After her death in 1802, Washington’s nephew,
Bushrod Washington, Sr, inherited much of his uncle’s land, including
the Mansion House and Union Farm including Mt. Zephyr. Bushrod was an
intellectual with little interest or time for farming. He had been appointed
to the Supreme Court by Thomas Jefferson in 1798 and spent most of his time in Philadelphia. Bushrod also
suffered from conflicting sympathies about the necessity of slave labor
to maintain his farms. During his ownership of Mount Vernon, he emancipated
a number of slaves. Unrest and jealousy among the poor souls who remained
in bondage made it virtually impossible to manage a productive and
The time that Bushrod spent at Mt. Vernon was quiet,
interrupted just once during the war of 1812. The Mansion House
stood completely exposed to a fleet of passing warships when it was
shaken by the firing of ammunition. No damage was done and the home’s
occupants soon learned that the guns had not been pointed in their direction.
The ship’s Captain had ordered a volley of cannon fire as a salutation
to George Washington when passing Mount Vernon. The impromptu ceremony
concluded and the fleet continued its journey to wreck havoc on Fort Washington
and later, the City of Alexandria.
In 1829 Bushrod and his wife died within days of each
other. The couple had no children, so the Mount Vernon Estate was passed
down to his adult nephews and a niece. Union Farm was divided between
brothers, George C. and Bushrod Jr, Washington. By this time, the lands
that were once the pride of America’s first president had fallen into a
sorry state. Fields were overgrown and saplings were quickly making new
forests of the original owner’s pastures and fields. Older brother, George
C., enjoyed a comfortable life in Georgetown as an agriculturist and politician.
Bushrod Jr. and his large family lived on Mount Zephyr Farm in a house that
was located in the area of Washington Avenue and Woodley Drive near Little
Dogue Creek. Court records show that Bushrod Jr. was often in debt
and had to be bailed out by his uncle on different occasions. His financial
woes may be the reason that his more responsible brother, George C., was
appointed trustee for the Mount Zephyr tract that Bushrod Jr. had inherited.
Bushrod Jr's debt might have been the result of poor growing conditions or
simply poor judgment and skill. The soil of Mount Vernon and its surrounding
area is marine clay, created eons ago when the area was completely submerged
under a body of water. Soil improvement was a major concern for George
Washington and it remains the same way today. Ask any good gardener today
what his or her secrets are and you'll likely get a lesson in soil amendment
George C. apparently felt no sentimental
attachments about owning a piece of the first president's land because
he unloaded his portion of Union Farm within two years to a Georgetown
neighbor named Samuel Whiteall for $3,000. Bushrod Jr. continued farming
Mt. Zephyr until 1840 when a lawsuit forced him to sell his portion.
Samuel Whiteall won the final bid at $3 per acre when that second auction
took place on the courthouse steps. Samuel Whiteall's family consisted of
fourteen family members and three servants. He rented a luxurious mansion
house in Georgetown with land for farming and gardening but still needed
more to support them all. He sent his oldest daughter, her husband and five
young children to live at Union Farm and start a dairy business. They occupied
a house once owned by George Washington's overseer, the Overlooker's House
and a brick barn located to the south of Mt. Zephyr Farm. The two family
units were never able to make ends meet and accrued an impressive list of
debts that included food merchants, lumber and hardware dealers and loans
at two banks. Eight creditors filed a joint lawsuit against him in 1848.
A portion of Union Farm was placed on the auction block. The Alexandria
Gazette advertised the sale to be held August 21st. 1848 at the Fairfax Courthouse
and described the property "of good quality and well located."
Aaron Leggett, a Quaker from New York
City, bought the 603 acre tract for only $2 an acre. The sale brought
only temporary relief to the financially strapped Whiteall. A second
lawsuit resulted in a court order to sell the remainder of Union Farm
in 1852 that now included the rest of Mt. Zephyr. Aaron Leggett once again
snapped up the property but this time paid considerably more at $16.56 per
acre for the remaining 107 acre tract. Leggett was a New York city businessman
who longed to escape the "rat race" and retreat to the peace and quiet
of country living. He was acquainted with the area through the network of
Quakers who were already in the area west of Union Farm. Northern Quakers
saw rural Virginia as a profitable site for harvesting second-growth timbers
for the shipbuilding boom. Accotink Creek was the site of a number of
Quaker businesses including a saw mill, gristmill and a shipbuilding yard.
The Friends Meeting House was the center of their community and still
stands today at Fort Belvoir. Leggett, a die-hard bachelor, came from
a successful family that owned businesses ranging from dry goods stores
to a company that brought gas lighting to New York City.
The civil War found Mt. Zephyr in a state of uneasy quiet.
The area was a "no man's land" between Federal troops that
occupied Alexandria City and Confederate Armies gathered near Mt. Zephyr.
The Quaker families living in this buffer zone became targets of hostility
from their neighbors who had loyalties to the slaveholding South. Soldiers
from both sides often swooped in to ransack the farms and homes for food
and supplies. After Leggett's death, the Mount Zephyr land was sold to Hugh
Whitton, a Delaware resident who never lived on the land, but mysteriously
disappeared behind Confederate lines during the war. The land passed to
his daughter, Elizabeth Briscoe of Philadelphia. After the Briscoes moved
to Mount Zephyr, they petitioned to restore an old road that had been closed
by George Washington. That road is known today as the Mount Vernon
Highway. The Briscoes farmed their land and prospered until 1875 when Mrs.
Briscoe sold the farm and moved back to Philadelphia.
The eleven years that followed saw a whirlwind
of various owners until it was finally bought in 1886 by Circuit Court
Judge, the Honorable Park Agnew. He and his wife, Matilda, lived in
the Mount Zephyr house with their three children. Unfortunately, only
one son survived childhood. He inherited the land from his father and sold
it to developer, George Beach, in 1938.
As a Washingtonian, Beach had a front row seat
to observe the area's tremendous growth during the time between World
Wars I and II. rural areas like Mount Zephyr were perfect for the kind
of development he envisioned. He pictured a development of sturdy, modest,
cape cod structures that would be economically viable to returning
WWII veterans. A few modern homes already existed in the area of Halfe
Street and Agnew Avenue in a gated community called Mt. Zephyr Park.
The current child care center at the northern tip of Washington Avenue
was the office of Houston and Associates, an architectural and surveying
firm. Beach contracted the firm to lay out a subdivision plan of half-acre
lots and filed it with Fairfax County in December,1940.
Houston’s original concept was that all the Mount
Zephyr homes would look like the brick or stone cottages on Washington
Avenue. The Tennessee Crab Orchard Stone was brought in truckloads from
a quarry in Tennessee to Mount Zephyr where local stonemasons cut and
assembled the exterior walls. The earliest stone-built homes have neatly
stacked, square-cut stones, a practice that soon proved too costly and
time consuming. Beach abandoned this technique for the easier method of
puzzle-fitting rocks into place. This accounts for the two types of stone
construction on these nearly identical cape cod homes. The first cape cod
construction phase took place between 1941 and ’42 and started with the
first house at the north tip of Washington Avenue. A family named Martin
lived there and operated a hardware store that is now the NAPA parts store.
Beach continued his construction but few of his
homes were actually finished and made habitable. WWII complicated the
construction business by depleting the labor pool. Supplies were increasingly
difficult to obtain and, for a time, not even plaster could be found
to finish walls. Beach reluctantly filed bankruptcy and sold the Mount
Zephyr tract to a team of four investors in 1946.
The investment team formed a corporation and
called themselves the Veteran’s Development Corporation (VDC). Their
sales practices were unique and makes one wonder if they were trying
to instill a sense of community in their new home buyers. Instead of
providing their clients with deeds, the team issued stock shares--each
plot was equal to one hundred shares. The VDC finished what Beach had
been unable to complete. Twenty foundations had been poured before Beach
stopped construction while other homes only had exterior walls. Mount Zephyr
one again awakened to the sound of hammers and construction and by 1949,
all of the homes that George Beach had started were now complete. The four
members of the VDC eventually agreed to quit the business and divided up
their remaining interests equally. As Mount Zephyr residents themselves,
they endeavored to maintain a sense of community. Some of the VDC members
continued to build houses in the neighborhood. While the cape cod cottages
were nearly identical, the partners produced unique, custom-built homes.
This accounts for the diversity of architectural styles, such as the brick
ramblers with bay windows, split-levels and individual facades. The personal
tastes of the different families helped Mount Zephyr avoid the cookie-cutter
appearance that comes from having only one or two architectural themes.
Up until recent years, Mount Zephyr retained much
of its historic appearance. Streets were narrow and lined with giant
trees. One long-time resident remembers that a drive up Mount Zephyr
streets was like riding through a tunnel with the trees arching over the
shaded roadways. The area had its own water company near the corner of
Jackson Place and Radford Avenue with a second pumping station on Mohawk
and Richmond. The plant was in business as late as 1970 and supplied the
entire neighborhood with what some remember as the "best artisan water
you ever tasted." Even the bridge across Little Dogue Creek on Woodley
Drive wasn't built until the 1970's. Mount Zephyr today comprises 125 acres
of the original 648 acre farm and is a modern neighborhood with paved roads,
sidewalks and city water. The first citizens association was begun in 1947
and was called the Mt. Zephyr Ladies Association. They had planned to build
a clubhouse for the community in Section 1 north of the Business Park but
the plans were never finalized. The second association was the first civic
Mt. Zephyr Citizens Association established in 1953 and was active until
1960. The next generation association was begun in 1965, reorganized in
1985 and a new association was incorporated in 2005.
Traces of the past still connect the community to its historic beginnings. The close proximity to Mount Vernon is an obvious reminder of its roots. Closer to home, residents still unearth an occasional relic when digging in their gardens. The waters of Little Dogue Creek still meander quietly through Mt. Zephyr and down past George Washington's Grist Mill before spilling into the Potomac. The Mount Zephyr of today is a neighborhood that keeps pace with the times while still remembering and honoring its past.
CARLBY, Barbara J. Spann, 1976
Library of Congress
THE PAPERS OF GEORGE WASHINGTON, University of Virginia, 1996-2005
Oral history by Mt. Zephyr residents
Special thanks to Dr. Barbara McMillon, Librarian, Mount Vernon Estate
Check back often for more Mt. Zephyr history, profiles of past owners, and other interesting information in the months to come.
©2005 Mt. Zephyr Citizens Association, Inc.
No part of this may be reproduced or copied without the express written permission of the Mt. Zephyr Citizens Association, Inc.