The house on the cover of Cinema Hearts' album Burned and Burnished is in Centreville, Virginia. When planning the album art, I knew I wanted it to be a photograph of a dilapidated suburban house; something to represent the decay and abandonment of nostalgia/history/romance/tradition. And since one value of Cinema Hearts is that I have a lot of hometown pride, and I try to show it in my art, it had to be a house local to me in Fairfax County, Virginia. This task proved to be a little challenging, since Fairfax County is pretty good at tearing down unsightly old homes and buildings to replace them with conventional mini-malls and offices.
After a lot of web searching on urban exploration forums and Google Maps, I scoped out some local spots and finally decided on the old Harrison House in the Mount Gilead neighborhood of Braddock Road. Mount Gilead is a historic community that was part of the old Centreville village of Newgate and was a significant area during the Civil War. Today, it's an out-of-the-way locale that is tucked behind the ramp to Route 28 from Route 29.
It's unknown when the house was built, but the general consensus from local historicans is around the 1850s. William Beckwith may have built it in 1859, when he bought the lot. Beckwith sold the house in 1866 to Confederate soldier Spotsylvania County Spindle, known as S.C. Spindle (I, too, would not want my first name to be Spotsylvania). Spindle then sold it to merchant James Buckley in 1870. Then Buckley sold it to Virginia Harrison, wife of blacksmith Thomas Harrison, in 1875. The Harrison family and their descendants owned the house and property until 1948.
The house is spooky. For one thing, it's next to a major road, so cars carelessly drive past and drivers give suspicious looks to anyone who's hanging around the neighborhood. I parked my car at the nearby church, ran across the street, and sneaked into the backyard from an open pathway between the trees. Like many abandoned places, there's trash evidence on the porches and in the backyard of vagrants and miscreants -- boxes, bottles, a sleeping bag. From the small, weedy back lawn, I stared at the house and its shattered shutters, its sinking porch. I kept looking for a face in the broken glass windows. No one lives there.
A month later, I visited with the band to take press photos. We cut through the thorny vines on the front steps. The surrounding trees, which were bare on my first visit, were now blooming with beautiful purple flowers that grew up and over the house siding. Nature was engulfing the house.
When I first visited the Harrison house, there was a real estate sign in the grass out front. The real estate website shows a photo from years ago, when the house had its shutters and the vines were just starting to suffocate the porch banister. Yesterday, I was driving, and about to head on to Route 28, when I decided to take a detour and look at the house again. The real estate sign has been replaced with a new one, a banner with a plea to save the house from demolition.
I'm not sure how strongly I feel about saving the house. It's old, it's historical, but is it remarkable? Is it necessary to keep every old bit of the past?
It's a beautiful house with the potential to be a lovely home, but it's isolated and trapped between highways. Who would want to live there? Who would want to take the time and money to restore it? And if it falls under the county's possession and becomes a sort of museum, what could possibly go on display there that isn't already in a better-funded Civil War themed gallery?
I'll probably call the numbers on the Save the Historic Harrison House sign, but I'm not sure yet if I'd be the kind of person to use my body and willpower as a barrier between the house and a wrecking ball. If I had the funds, I'd love to buy it and go all Noah-from-The-Notebook, fixing the house as a devotional act. Or maybe the county will take it, and I can become a kooky volunteer tour guide in the Historic Harrison House Museum.
More about the Centreville Harrison House
Save the Historic Harrison House from Demolition
Call Sully District Supervisor Kathy Smith at 703-814-7100.
Email Supervisor Smith's office at Sully@fairfaxcounty.gov.
Tweet at Supervisor Smith at @SullySupervisor.
Send a message to Supervisor Smith's Facebook Page.
Call the property owner, Sammy Velasquez at 703-929-2130.
I don't know who put up the banner to save the house, but if anyone has any info I'd love to know. Email me.