The Fairfax County Park Authority is taking part in the National Park Service’s (NPS) Preservation 50 celebration to mark the 50th anniversary of the nation’s protection of America’s historic places by posting a series of blogs about county historic places on park land. The National Register of Historic Places, a part of NPS, was established in 1966. This series is based on information that appears in each site’s nomination to the National Register. The nomination forms give us a chance to look back and learn why the sites were considered to be significant historic places.
Fairfax County and Preservation 50
Sully Historic Site
There’s a sense of gratitude and wonderment as you hold a few pieces of paper and read the several paragraphs on it that were written just over 45 years ago. The gratitude is for the time taken to write those words. You wonder if the author had any idea that someone would read them nearly a half-century later.
The words are on a National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form that was submitted on December 18, 1970, to the National Park Service by Dr. Edward P. Alexander, the chairman of the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission. There are eight paragraphs, and the nomination form suggests they were probably written by someone on the staff of James W. Moody, Jr., the director of the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission. Along with those eight paragraphs are basic site information, latitude and longitude coordinates, notes about the significant architecture and condition of the property, a map, bibliographical references, notes on preparers and the certification that completes the six-page nomination.
The nomination submitted in December 1970 was for Sully Historic Site, the home of Richard Bland Lee, Northern Virginia’s first congressman. The site was listed on the nomination form simply as Sully. It is one of Fairfax County’s 59 properties and districts today listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Although the 1970 application is cited in National Register records, there is evidence that Eleanor Lee Templeman, the great-great granddaughter of Richard Bland Lee, wrote to the Department of the Interior in January 1961 requesting Sully be recognized as a historic site. The acting director of the Department of the Interior replied that staff was “generally familiar with Sully’s history and architecture,” adding that “the Historic American Buildings Survey…has recently completed measured drawings of the structure.” Further studies were completed later that same year.
In 1971, in a letter to Interior’s Chief of the Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, Templeman wrote, “Gentlemen: I wish to express my delight and appreciation that at long last, my great-great-grandfather’s home in Fairfax County has been approved for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.” She noted in her letter that she had not been notified, learning of the registration “only through the grapevine, followed by my personal request to your office.”
The 1970 nomination form says that Sully had public buildings with restricted access. The buildings today are open for tours, and the site has a museum. In 1936, a federal Historic American Buildings Survey was conducted at Sully. The main building, which was the house of Richard Bland Lee, was in good condition, unaltered, and stood on its original site as it does today. Upon seeing it near completion, Lee’s father-in-law said of Sully, “It is a very clever house, has an elegant hall 12 feet wide and a handsome staircase and two very pretty rooms on the first floor.”
The nomination notes that Sully was built in 1794 as “a three-part frame farmhouse set on a foundation of local brown sandstone.” It mentions a side hall plan, two brick chimneys, the gable roof, an east wing that was added in 1799, and a west wing added as a kitchen in the 1840s. Also highlighted is “the original one-story porch or ‘piazza’ on the south side, which has handsome scrolled work beneath the eaves and is supported on fluted square columns,” and the building’s center section, where “nearly all the beaded clapboarding and the window sash is original.”
Most of the original woodwork at the time was in the house’s earlier, center section, including mantels, floors, chair rails and baseboards. The handsome mantels, noted in the nomination, appeared to be adapted from a 1750 publication of Betty Langley’s The City and Country Builder’s and Workman’s Treasury of Designs. The hall retained its original staircase that rose all the way to the attic.
An assortment of outbuildings is mentioned in the nomination, including a log cabin thought to have been built in 1745 and later converted into a kitchen when the main house was built. Also listed are the site’s smokehouse and a stone building built around 1800, possibly as a home for the farm’s overseer. Through archaeological research, we now know that the 1745 cabin was actually the original kitchen, built sometime around 1794. We also now know that the stone building was the site’s dairy.
Over the past 40 years, staff also has learned much about the slaves and indentured servants who were at Sully. There are records revealing an inventory of slaves, their names and functions and, in some cases, letters referencing the sale of slaves.
Richard Bland Lee built Sully. He was a younger brother of “Light Horse” Harry Lee and an uncle of Robert E. Lee, and Richard eventually became Northern Virginia’s first congressman, a member of the First Federal congress from Northern Virginia. The congress was held at that time in Philadelphia. Though the original application says that while at Sully, Lee played host to prominent visitors such as James and Dolley Madison as well as George Washington, we’re no longer certain that Dolley Madison or Washington were there. We do know that James Madison was a visitor, as were a grandson of Benjamin Franklin and former Virginia Governor General Light Horse Harry Lee.
Lee sold Sully to a cousin in 1811, and it passed out of the Lee family at auction in 1839. After a series of private owners, the Federal Aviation Agency acquired Sully in 1957 with plans to burn it in preparation for the building of, what is now, Dulles International Airport. A special act of Congress forbade its destruction and stated it should be preserved as a museum. Sully underwent a full restoration of the main house and outbuildings in 1974-75 to bring the appearance of the buildings back to 1794, and a grand re-opening was held in September 1975.
In accordance with that act of Congress stating that Sully be preserved as a museum, it remains so today.
Sully Historic Huntley is located at 3650 Historic Sully Way in Chantilly. More information is on the Sully Historic Site website.
As part of Preservation 50, visitors to the Fairfax County Government Center at 12000 Government Center Parkway in Fairfax can see an exhibit case in the building’s lobby. The exhibit, a partnership of the Fairfax County Park Authority and the Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning (DPZ), showcases some of the 59 county properties and districts that are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The Park Authority and DPZ host two symposia this year on the impact of the National Historic Preservation Act on Fairfax County. The first, “Setting the Stage for Local Preservation,” will bring together historic preservation professionals who have played roles in the National Historic Preservation Act on a federal and/or state level. It will be held on April 16, 2016, at the James Lee Center, 2855 Annandale Road in Falls Church, Va. The second symposium will explore grassroots results of how the Act has affected local historic preservation. The date and place of that fall symposium are not yet confirmed.
Author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications for the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Resource Management Division.