By Jay Roberts
Alexandria, VA – In December 1928, a number of distinguished guests including Vice President-elect Charles Curtis gathered on a hill-top mansion in southeast Fairfax County.
Mount Vernon? No. Gunston Hall? No. Woodlawn? No.
The glory of that day belonged to what is known today as Hollin Hall III. Harley Peyton Wilson (1873-1934) and his wife built the three-story Colonial-style structure with 18 rooms and clapboard wings, completing it in 1920.
Still purposeful as a space for weddings and receptions, Hollin Hill III sits tucked away just north of Sherwood Hall Lane and next to the Mount Vernon Unitarian Church (1099 Windmill Lane). The location is about three miles south of Alexandria and about a third of a mile north of a private home known historically as Hollin Hall I, the Spinning Room, and Little Hollin Hall (1901 Sherwood Hall Lane). The neighborhoods of Hollin Hall and Hollin Hills bookend Hollin Hall I and III.
Fairfax County residents know a thing or two about the Mason family footprints in this part of the county. Thomson Mason, a son of George Mason, and his family lived at Hollin Hall I. Hollin Hall III sits on the site of Hollin Hall II, which burned down in the 1820’s. Mason and his family were living there (Hollin Hall II), but had to move back to Hollin Hall I after the fire.
Forgotten are the Wilsons. Let’s take a brief look at their story.
Northerners had been coming to northern Virginia for many years before the Wilsons arrived in the 1910s. Before and after the Civil War, this part of the county had been influenced by Quakers. In the 1890s, magnates from Pennsylvania had helped finance the new Washington, Alexandria, and Mount Vernon Electric Railway.
Born in New York in 1873, Harley Peyton Wilson became “one of the foremost public utilities organizers and executives in the country.” He was the principal owner of the Washington Rapid Transit Co. and a director in the Washington Railway & Electric Company.
In 1913 the Wilsons acquired the Hollin Hall Farm. They stayed at Hollin Hall I until their new home, Hollin Hall III, was completed in 1920. In addition to the 16 room manor, they also built a guest house, carriage house and gardens.
Coverage of the Wilsons dotted the society sections of the papers for the next fourteen years. In April 1926, William Gibbs McAdoo (1863-1941) and his family stayed a few days. His wife Eleanor was the daughter of President Woodrow Wilson. McAdoo had served as Secretary of the Treasury (1913-1918).
When they weren’t at home, the Wilsons traveled to New York and abroad. Mrs. Wilson hosted a number of teas, including ones during the Virginia Historic Garden Week, as well as a Flower Show in May, 1933.
The Wilsons hit the big time in December, 1928. Entering their mansion was the Vice President-elect/Senator (Majority Leader) Charles Curtis, as well as two senators, and Mr. Louis Hertle of Gunston Hall. Perhaps Hertle had a moment in the sun talking about Thomson Mason, (1759-1820), who served as State Senator (1800-1804) and delegate to the General Assembly. Or maybe he pointed out that George and Martha Washington dined at Hollin Hall on March 19,1798.
In January, 1929, the Wilsons hit another milestone when they entertained about 250 guests. Green thumbers surely enjoyed the Wilson’s garden. A description given in 1941 described it as:
Wonderfully cultivated with their backgrounds of old boxwoods, clump shrubs, rose colored arbor, marble fountain and charming flower beds all surrounded by expansive lawns.
Mrs. Wilson, who was born in Portland, Oregon and grew up in Oakland, California, served in a number of leadership roles including President of the Fairfax Garden Club. She donated a rare antique bowl and a silver bowl that served as prizes for winners at the Fairfax Garden Club Show in May, 1931.
In 1934 came sad news. At age 57, Mrs. Wilson had drawn her last breath at their home. Harley joined her a few months later. They were laid to rest at the Presbyterian Cemetery in Alexandria.
In 1958, the Mount Vernon Unitarian Church bought the home, the ten acres, the guest house and greenhouse. The congregation began to meet in the main room of the guesthouse. Their new church (meeting house) arose in 1985, just steps from Hollin Hall III.
The tradition of hosting continues at the century old mansion with weekend rental events. We think the Wilsons would like knowing people still gather at the home they built and the place they nourished. The Masons, too.
Jay Roberts is the author of “River to Rails, A Guidebook to Historical Markers in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia” and “Lost Alexandria, An Illustrated History of Sixteen Destroyed Historic Homes in and Around Alexandria, Virginia.