Monthly Archives: March 2020

Green Spring’s History and Beginnings

HandoverOn October 27, 1970, The Washington Post reported:

Green Spring Farm, a “miniature colonial” estate near Annandale, was given to Fairfax County yesterday for use as a museum and arboretum. The property was the gift of Michael W. Straight, deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and his former wife, Dr. Belinda Crompton Straight, a Washington psychiatrist.

The Straights’ gift to the county marked the end of almost 200 years of private ownership of the estate and the beginning of its transformation into Green Spring Gardens.

In 1942, the young newlywed power couple purchased the 1784 house, its outbuildings, and 32 acres for $32,500. He was a scion of the prominent Whitney family, she the daughter of an English businessman.

Belinda1950s

Belinda in the 1950s.

In a 2002 interview with a former Green Spring historian, Belinda spoke of their decision to make Green Spring home: “We looked at it and that same night we decided absolutely. It had an old log cabin, and the springhouse….and the wonderful old house. It was so lovely….something to fall in love with, so we did.”

The Straights lived at Green Spring until 1966. They had five children. Belinda became a psychiatrist and a civil rights activist. Michael was an editor, author and deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1963, he revealed a dark and intriguing secret from his past — his involvement, as a Cambridge undergraduate in the 1930s, with the notorious Cambridge Spy Ring, which the BBC described as “British members of a KGB spy ring that penetrated the intelligence system of the UK and passed vital information to the Soviets during World War Two and the early stages of the Cold War.”

c.1962

c.1962

This exceptional couple bestowed a legacy of historical significance on Green Spring. They brought in distinguished restoration architect Walter Macomber to enlarge and renovate the house. At the same time, trailblazing landscape designer Beatrix Farrand created their garden. Much later, their combined work earned Green Spring its Virginia Landmark status and a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Michael, a lifelong supporter of nature and wildlife conservation, took an active interest in the Green Spring landscape beyond the house. With property caretaker John Quast, he dug out the ponds into their present-day configuration and planted the area extensively. He also took pride in his flock of Canada geese, ignoring regular requests from the Department of the Interior to stop raising wild fowl on his property.

The well-connected couple rubbed shoulders with personalities and presidents and hosted many prominent guests at their “Green Spring Farm” estate. Politicians, writers, journalists and scientists visited from around the world. Michael and Belinda also opened their home to community events – skating parties, picnics and Fourth of July fireworks.

XmascardIn his 2004 memoir “On Green Spring Farm,” Michael lamented: “Sooner or later all good things come to an end.” He reflected on the disappearance of the home’s bucolic setting. “Twenty-four years had passed since Bin and I settled on Green Spring Farm. We had raised our five children there. We had been happy. By 1964, we were no longer living in the countryside…. Bulldozers were clawing at the open fields that had surrounded us. We began to look around for a new home.”

They bought a house in Washington D.C. from a family friend, Jacqueline Kennedy, who had been living in Georgetown since her husband’s assassination.

By 1970, mindful of that encroaching suburban sprawl, they’d resolved to give their Green Spring home and 18 acres to Fairfax County to be preserved as a natural and historical resource for the community. “There aren’t many places in Northern Virginia left intact,” Belinda told The Washington Post at the time. “Michael and I wanted to see it kept that way.” Michael added, “We’d much rather see this land go for a park, rather than cutting down trees for houses.”

And “go for a park” it did. But not as the couple had imagined. In 2002, Belinda said, “I never thought it would become….a horticultural center. I thought people would just stroll there and feed the geese.” No doubt, descendants of Michael’s geese are still around.

In 2020, Green Spring celebrates a half-century that’s seen the land become, in Michael’s words, “a thriving center for all who love gardening and revere our past.”

Thanks to the Straights’ generous gift, Green Spring continues to enrich lives, and in its new incarnation it has remained “something to fall in love with.”

Author Debbie Waugh is the Green Spring Historian at the Gardens.