Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Future of Salona: Preserving a Local Civil War Site

This past Thursday the Salona Task Force held a public meeting on the future of the historic Salona property in McLean, Virginia.  By my own estimate, a few hundred interested citizens came to the event at the McLean Community Center.  The meeting gave the Task Force the opportunity to showcase various proposals for the development of the site and to solicit feedback from the community.

Readers may recall that the Salona house was the site of Union General William F. "Baldy" Smith's headquarters from October 1861 to March 1862.  Regiments from the Vermont Brigade of Smith's division stayed on the surrounding land, which was part of Camp Griffin.  And the property's historic significance is not limited to the Civil War.  President James Madison likely spent the night at Salona when the British attacked and burned Washington during the War of 1812. 

Fairfax County acquired a perpetual conservation easement on a 41.5-acre section of Salona in 2005.  The easement protects the historic property, while at the same time permitting limited recreational use on ten acres.  A couple of years ago, the county released a draft master plan for Salona.  This document tried to be all things to all people.  The proposed plan called for two rectangular athletic fields, a 100-space parking lot, a dog park, a playground, a picnic area, educational and environmental features, historical interpretation, and trails.

The Salona house, adjacent to the proposed park land.  The 7.8-acre residential core of Salona is protected by a perpetual easement granted to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in 1971.  Salona is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register.
A photograph of Salona by George Houghton, taken when the house was being used as Baldy Smith's headquarters (courtesy of Vermont Historical Society).
A view of the meadowland at Salona from Rt. 123.
Not surprisingly, in 2011 Fairfax decided to kick the issue to a Task Force, which was charged with reaching out to the community and developing recommendations for the park.  The Task Force includes representatives from every conceivable interest connected with Salona.  Members hail from the McLean Citizens Associations, McLean Youth Athletics, the Greater McLean Chamber of Commerce, the Fairfax County History Commission, the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust, the conservation grantors (DuVal family), and the surrounding neighborhood.

A Fairfax County historical marker on Salona was installed in 2010.  (See here for more information.)
The Task Force has an unenviable job.  A split has developed in the community between the local youth sports movement and preservation-minded citizens.  The proponents of the athletic fields apparently have gained quite a following.  In fact, their on-line petition has garnered nearly 1,200 signatures.  At the public meeting the other day, the soccer dads and moms came out in full force with their uniform-clad children in tow.

Granted, McLean's population is growing, and kids need a place to play sports.  However, Salona is not the place for athletic fields (or dog parks, for that matter).  The property is one of the last surviving parcels of open land in McLean.  The meadows fronting Rt. 123 look much like they did 150 years ago.  The historic home sits nearby.  The conservation easement represents a tremendous opportunity for the county to prevent the disappearance of a historically significant piece of land. 

Any plans for Salona must preserve the sense of place that makes the property so special.  Walking in the new Salona park should carry visitors to another time and allow for an exploration of the site's storied past.  Two athletic fields and a large parking lot would do anything but that.  Some critics likely see no point in preserving old meadows.  But that argument misses the point.  Preservation goes beyond just protecting an important structure like the Salona house, but takes into account historic viewsheds.  The scenic features at Salona are an integral component of the property from a historical standpoint; the county's final plans should respect and maintain that landscape.

At Thursday's meeting, the Task Force took a unique approach to educating the public about the possible uses for Salona.  Each room at the community center featured exhibits on a variety of proposals for the park's development.  Task Force members and community groups were on hand to discuss these options with the public.  Attendees also had the opportunity to complete opinion forms that the Task Force will use when assessing the community's views. 

If anything, the meeting demonstrated that historic preservation goals can work hand-in-hand with some of the proposed plans for Salona.  The Fairfax County Public Schools, for example, would like to use Salona as a living classroom for science and history education.  One firm has proposed the construction of a multi-purpose building using the latest in green technology.  The small, discrete structure, which would resemble a farm outbuilding, could function like a museum on the history of Salona.  Interpretive trails installed across the property make sense, as do occasional living history encampments.  Other ideas, such as developing a self-sustaining farm at Salona, seem a bit of a stretch.  And the proposed athletic fields, although technically consistent with the terms of the easement, run counter to the spirit of properly honoring Salona's past.  Overall, however, the community's use and enjoyment of Salona need not be at odds with historic preservation.

The ball is now in the Task Force's court to make the appropriate recommendations for Salona.  Following Thursday's meeting, and months of input from community groups, the Task Force is well positioned to find a solution, however difficult that may be.  Members are well aware of the need to develop Salona in a way that comports with the property's historical significance.  Doing the right thing may not be popular with everyone, but Salona's future depends ultimately on our respect for the past.


FarmhouseFancier said...

Hi Ron,
Nice blog. I came across it in researching Salona on-line. There is a property along Hunter Mill Road, the Golf Driving Range, is currently in bankruptcy and due to be sold. The property has been a thorn in the community for years due to the owner's desire to upzone it for office buildings and dense housing. With the property in bankruptcy, might this be an ideal time for the county to consider purchasing it for soccer fields and perhaps take the pressure off of Salona? Just an idea, perhaps a crazy one, but I thought I would pass it along in case you are involved in any way in efforts to preserve Salona. Perhaps you could pass the idea along to others who are more actively involved.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks for writing, and glad you liked the post! I think your idea is not a crazy one at all! I will pass it along to those who are involved with the planning. Such creative thinking will hopefully help to break the impasse between the preservation v. recreation advocates.

Unknown said...

Cool! Keep me posted....

FarmhouseFancier said...

Hi Ron,
Looks like mission accomplished! No game fields to be constructed at Salona after all. The task force studying the development plan for the surrounding park land issued their final report in Dec. 2013. Here is a link to an article about it:

Now I want to campaign for the reconstruction of an antique barn to moved to the property and used as the visitor center. It would go great with the history of the land and the terrific old house that was recently restored by the Duval family, owners of the house and surrounding 8 acres and donors of remaining acreage to the county park system.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks for your comment! I had heard this update a few weeks ago. Great news! Of course, the Park Authority retains ultimate authority and could still nix the plan, so we all need to remain vigilant! Your barn idea is intriguing. Where is it located?