July-August 2010 | Bethesda HOME

The House at Woodend

Marion Wells was a woman who knew what she wanted:?an elegant Georgian Revival manor house, and a legacy of environmentalism.

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He was a Navy man, graduating from the United States Naval Academy in 1893, sailing to exotic ports, serving in the Spanish-American War, rising through the ranks. She was the daughter of Australian tobacco magnate Hugh Dixson—“a typically charming Australian girl,” The New York Times called her.

They met in 1905 in Sydney, where Chester Wells was stationed at the time. “It was love at first sight,” a friend remarked. And even though he was 35 and Marion just 18, they soon were engaged, to the displeasure of her parents, who “objected to their daughter marrying a naval man,” the Times said.

Undeterred, the two wed in 1907, and Marion followed her husband to his new station in Washington, D.C. This is where they would settle, in a farmhouse along the road to Jones’ mill, in the untamed countryside north of the nascent Chevy Chase.

Today, the remaining 40 acres of their sanctuary is an island of natural grandeur in a sea of suburbia, not far from the Capital Beltway. And at the center of the property, overlooking field and forest, the old manor house they eventually built still stands—the work of an architectural master and the legacy of a woman devoted to nature.

Indeed, urban living was not for Marion. She was “a nature girl,” growing up amid verdant splendor (her father was an ardent horticulturalist, internationally known for his giant orchids). She sought a country setting for their new home, near—but outside—the city. She found it in a heavily forested, 10-acre plot just beyond Chevy Chase, and christened the property “Woodend,” after the Australian mountain resort where she and Chester became engaged.

Gradually, the couple expanded their holdings, assembling more than 100 acres along the Rock Creek valley. But the call of duty would continually pull them away from their country home until 1924, when Chester retired with the rank of captain. Two years later, Hugh Dixson died, leaving his daughter a sizable inheritance—and the wherewithal to build a handsome new house on the Woodend estate.

Marion retained John Russell Pope in 1927 to design the new home. One of the preeminent American architects of the day, Pope was a New Yorker by birth and a graduate of what is now Columbia University in New York City. He spent his formative years in Europe, studying at the American Academy in Rome, attending the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and traveling through Greece and Italy, making measured drawings of Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance structures. Back home, he applied his studies to the creation of an eclectic collection of residences that quickly captured the attention of America’s wealthy set. He became a favored architect of the Vanderbilts and their ilk.

Pope’s public buildings would make his genius even more conspicuous—and his classically inspired works would define Washington architecture in the 20th century. Among his designs: the Jefferson Memorial, the National Gallery of Art, the National Archives, DAR Constitution Hall, the graceful National City Christian Church on Thomas Circle and the massive Masonic House of the Temple on 16th Street. The Architectural Review in London noted in 1916 that that last was “a monumental composition that may surely be said to have reached the high-water mark of achievement in that newer interpretation of the Classic style with which modern American architecture is closely identified.”

Pope could be truculent about requested changes to his designs. “He is so firm a believer in the highest standards of architecture,” C. Matlack Price wrote in the magazine Arts and Decoration in 1911, “that he has the courage to force these ideals upon his clients.” In Marion Wells, however, Pope met a strong-minded client with her own ideas about what constituted good architecture—and what was right for her new manor house. Despite Pope’s illustrious reputation, Marion wasn’t sure he could construct the house to her satisfaction. She had him first design and build a five-stall garage, and only after it passed inspection did she allow him to proceed with the house.

A half-mile of paved driveway, bordered by maple trees, trained honeysuckle, climbing roses and rock gardens, led up the hill to the 2½-story, I-shaped brick house, which was completed in 1928. A study in elegant simplicity, Georgian Revival in style, classic and restrained in its ornamentation, the house was deemed “a handsome architectural achievement” by The Washington Post.

Visitors arrived at the northern end of the “I,” where the wood-panel front door was topped with a fanlight and flanked by two stone columns. The entire arrangement was surmounted by a rounded pediment. Above the second-floor windows, the cornice line was accented by dentils and egg-and-dart molding. Running around the perimeter of the low, hipped roof was a stone balustrade.

Inside, a small, octagonal vestibule featured a marble tile floor with cloakrooms to the side. Beyond this was the centerpiece of the house,Photo credit: Janice Browne the “great hall,” an elegant and expansive room, 35 feet long and nearly as wide. Fluted pilasters stood beside openings both arched and squared; an intricately carved mantelpiece sat below a carved pediment nearly at ceiling height; painted, paneled wainscoting rose from the random-width, pegged hardwood floor. All gave the room a decidedly 18th -century feel.

Against the eastern wall, an open staircase with a finely turned balustrade led to the second floor, with a Palladian window lighting the landing between floors. On the western wall, French doors led to a large, curved stone terrace connecting the north and south wings and offering a broad view of the Kentucky bluegrass lawn that fell away from the house down a gentle slope.

Everything radiated from the great hall: The dining room to the north connected to a service wing, with the 30-foot-long living room to the south. A commodious study opened onto a rounded portico extending from the southern façade, supported by scroll-capped columns and ornamented with dentilated molding. It was a graceful, shaded place where Marion, Chester and their two daughters could enjoy what the Post in 1932 called “one of the most magnificent estates in this vicinity, 110 acres of lawn and trees, shrubbery and flower beds.”

Japanese horticulture was of particular interest to Marion, and the estate featured Japanese maples, Japanese cherry trees and Japanese azaleas. Many of the other plants that decorated the grounds issued from the estate’s greenhouses.

Rhododendrons, azaleas and mountain laurel grew along the edge of the forest, and a pleasure trail was cleared through the woods, leading to Rock Creek. “Its clear waters trickled along for a thousand feet,” the Post noted, “where it ended in a lovely natural pond” surrounded by weeping willows, wild ferns and blue Japanese irises. A rustic bridge crossed the creek, leading to a clearing in the woods where Marion created a secret garden of columbine and a variety of American ferns, with birdhouses placed in the surrounding trees.

Preserving and protecting the natural beauty of their estate and the community was a passion of the Wellses. He was a member of the American Planning and Civic Association, which was dedicated to “the cultivation of higher ideals of civic life and beauty.” He also was a member of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, safeguarding Washington’s historic and natural landscapes, and was on the board that created the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission in 1927. He and Marion gave a portion of their land to help create the Montgomery County section of Rock Creek Park.

Chester died in 1948. Marion carried on at Woodend, but soon began to worry about the disposition of her beloved estate at her own passing. As early as the 1950s, she began making plans to leave the house and 40 surrounding acres to the Audubon Naturalist Society of the Central Atlantic States, to which she belonged. She bequeathed the property to the society with the proviso that it be preserved as a wildlife sanctuary.

Marion died in 1967, and two years later the society moved its headquarters to the old house and undertook a gentle transformation of the estate into a center for the study of nature. The garage was converted into a classroom laboratory. Trails led visitors through the towering pines and hardwoods. And, to help finance the programs, the society made the house and grounds available for social and business functions.

Today, a host of educational programs for adults, children and school groups is offered by the society, which was founded in 1897 and not to be confused with the National Audubon Society, a later and still separate organization. Birding remains a central activity, with a variety of environmental classes helping the community to “go green.” And the old manor house has become one of the area’s most gracious settings for weddings, receptions and all manner of gatherings.

The Audubon Naturalist Society offers tours of Woodend that last about one hour and 15 minutes. They may be booked by contacting Liz Jones at 301-652-9188, ext.30, or volunteer@audubonnaturalist.org. Suggested donation is $50 for a group tour.

Mark Walston is an author and historian raised in Bethesda and now living in Olney.