Bringing modernism to the masses.
Hollin Hills is unlike any other American suburb. Developed over a roughly twenty year span between 1949 and 1971, Hollin Hills is a modernist utopia, a progressive residential laboratory nestled unexpectedly within the leafy confines of Northern Virginia. As one of the state's most valuable contributions to modern architecture, Hollin Hills developed as an innovative solution to standardized tract housing- its minimal, open-plan homes a forward-looking alternative to the area's traditional Colonial Revival housing stock. Fueled by the boundless optimism of the postwar era, a booming economy, and the American dream of home ownership, the developers of Hollin Hills sought to create a new kind of community- a community that offered a better life through enlightened planning and modern design.
Here are 10 things to know about Hollin Hills.
1. Located just south of Alexandria, Virginia.
Set within a 326-acre wooded tract of land overlooking the Potomac River, Hollin Hills (made up of more than 450 homes) sits just ten miles from the nation's capital. An ideal retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city, the subdivision merges architecture and landscape, its irregular terrain and natural vegetation an ideal backdrop for a dramatic collection of modernist homes.
2. The brainchild of developer Robert C. Davenport...
Arriving in Washington D.C. at the height of the New Deal, Robert Davenport worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture before becoming one of the area's most successful merchant-builders. In 1946, Davenport and his partners purchased the land that would become Hollin Hills and hired architect Charles Goodman to give the subdivision a modern look.
3. ...and architect Charles Goodman.
Born in New York, Charles ("Chuck") Goodman grew up outside of Chicago and studied architecture at the Armour Institute of Technology (now the Illinois Institute of Technology). After relocating to Washington, D.C. to work as an architect for the Public Buildings Branch of the U.S. Department of Treasury (where he was known for fighting "stubbornly to banish ‘post-office Federal’ architecture”), Goodman left the government to establish his own practice in 1939 and soon began designing the type of modern housing that would come to define his career. The partnership between Goodman and Davenport was an ideal one- their collaborative interpretation of large-scale tract housing resulting in a suburb like no other.
4. Goodman designed 8 house types with several variations.
Abandoning traditional design principles for modern, modular construction, Goodman's stripped-down, geometric houses stood as an outlier in a real estate market dominated by brick-clad Colonial Revival-style homes. When it came to designing Hollin Hills, Goodman used standardized modules, prefabrication, minimal carpentry, and extensive glazing to create adaptable residences that were not only affordable but also modern and open to the landscape. The architect began with three "unit types"- a split level that fit sloping terrain, a one-story rectangular slab-on-grade house for flat ground, and a two-story version of the slab-on-grade design. Eventually, Goodman would develop eight "unit types," each with several variations based on siting, scale, and the needs of homebuyers. Hollin Hills was Goodman's laboratory, a place where he could experiment with evolving architectural concepts and refine his modern ideal. And with seemingly endless variations, Hollin Hills was no cookie cutter community.
5. Here the landscape is as important as the architecture.
Built on a "rough" tract of land that most developers would have avoided, Hollin Hills emerged as a harmonious and innovative community- the rare postwar suburb that openly embraced the existing terrain. In fact, preservation of the natural landscape proved integral to the subdivision's progressive plan- winding streets mirrored the contours of the land, lot lines followed grade instead of being defined by the street, houses were oriented to maximize views on irregular lots, and communal parks and pedestrian paths linked the private homes. From the beginning, Davenport, Goodman, and landscape architect Lou Bernard Voigt (Dan Kiley and Eric Paepcke would take over landscape duties after Voigt's death in 1953) approached the development of Hollin Hills from the perspective of land planning (so radical!), seeing its distinctive site as having properties of great value for a residential community (especially one inspired by Modernism).
6. Floor-to-ceiling windows are a neighborhood hallmark.
Using a 3-foot-wide standardized window module, Goodman created expanses of glass (the architect called them "view walls") that have become synomous with Hollin Hills housing. With fixed panes above and operable sashes below, the windows unite the interior with the outdoors, maximizing views and unifying Goodman's architecture.
7. The houses were always meant to be affordable.
Inspired to build modestly priced, well-designed homes, Goodman and Davenport (both are often described as "left-leaning" in terms of political affiliation) utilized standardization plans, simple materials, and on-site assembly to keep construction costs low. In 1949, Unit No. 2 sold for $10,000, a relatively inexpensive home that could be marketed to D.C.'s expanding middle class.
8. The design garnered national attention.
In December 1949, Architectural Forum profiled the remote suburb, noting how Goodman's use of standardization made for affordable modern housing. Next came glowing profiles in House Beautiful and Life, followed by a slew of national awards and prizes.
9. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.
You can read the nomination here.
10. The neighborhood's modernist aesthetic and strong sense of community survives today.
Surprisingly intact for a neighborhood developed more than sixty years ago, Hollin Hills remains a masterpiece of American postwar architecture. Though many of the houses (relatively small by today's standards) have been altered to accommodate more square footage, most additions have been carefully designed to fit with Goodman's original architectural vision.
Hollin Hills might be my favorite suburb (I promise, it's that good), so the next time you're in D.C., make sure to make a quick detour. It's well worth the trip.
You can read more Charles Goodman on claass HAUS here.
Photograph at top:
Robert C. Lautman, National Building Museum.
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