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Know the Greenway: Green Spring Gardens (February 2, 2022)

As those who follow generally know by this point, the proposed Annandale Greenway will slice through Annandale, Virginia, touching six (soon seven) separate Fairfax County parks (among other community features). Over the next few weeks, I will highlight all the different sections of the trail and share some of the more interesting details that I have gleaned. We’ll start with Green Spring Gardens – the eastern starting point for the trail.

Strolling in an early morning iciness through Green Spring Gardens park this morning I deviated from my usual path and took a look at the formal garden at the back of the 1784 farmhouse. The flat, grassy area stretches from the rear of the house to a semi-circular bed. Occupying the bed are over 30 boxwoods in an almost complete arc of this traditionally aromatic plant; behind the boxwoods stands a dry-stone wall. The granite and quartz wall separate this formal planting from the sloping area beyond that drops quickly to the reaches of Turkeycock Creek. This landscape is the simple yet elegant design of Beatrix Ferrand, a remarkable woman whose accomplishments are just beginning to be appreciated.

Green Spring Gardens is one of Fairfax’s very special places – an intensely gardened horticultural center that sees around 250,000 visitors a year. The park has dozens of different gardens and planting areas: many beautiful flower gardens, a large native plant display, demonstration gardens, and a children’s garden, among others. It also has a small but visually varied series of paths that wind throughout the park, bringing visitors to every possible corner. The park has a large horticultural center with a hothouse and an extensive library and the beautiful historic mansion, the 1784 farm, at its heart.

The historical marker outside the park locates the significance of the park in the creations of Ferrand and architect Walter Macomber, who added the wings to the original farmhouse. While these both are indeed worthy of historical remembrance, there is something to be said for Michael Straight, the owner of Green Spring during this period of renovation, a man who qualifies as a most interesting personage. He is a very Washington-type person, someone who in a time when the DC area was significantly smaller, was perhaps more common. The fact that he lived far out in the rural outskirts known as Annandale, makes the story more intriguing. In a way, Annandale was the Fauquier horse country of Michael Straight’s time.

So what is so interesting about Michael Straight? What I have discovered (mostly from the web and “Green Spring Farm” written by Ross and Nan Netherton) is an almost unbelievable confluence of American and European culture in our little hamlet. Straight was a gentrified New Englander who did government service in Washington, eventually serving as editor of the New Republic. His wife, Belinda Straight, was surely equal in accomplishment and wealth; her mother joined the couple in Washington at a modern house that was to the east of the farmhouse and is, alas, no longer. (Unbelievably cool, the old swimming pool for the Tobey House still exists (!) deep in the woods in the Turkeycock stream valley; one day, I went off trail at Green Spring Gardens and wandered through the thick brush along the creek and came upon the decayed remnants – tiled poolside, brush-filled basin, and even a ladder or two – of what must have been a wonderful spot for family and friends. It is still there!) Because of who he was, Straight had any number of famous visitors because who wouldn’t want to join a major publisher at his quaint and beautiful farm just down the road from the White House?

Who were these visitors? Imagine that late summer dinner party, with the Straight family entertaining the cognoscenti who drove out on a lark. Julian Huxley, famous British zoologist , head of UNESCO, founding member of the World Wildlife Foundation, brother of Aldous Huxley and son of a friend of Charles Darwin – he was there, probably sipping a gin and watching the bats stream out of the pines near the creek. Maybe Leo Szilard was there as well, a man who conceived the idea of nuclear chain reactions and who worked with Albert Einstein on the Manhattan Project. Maybe they were exchanging rude jokes with Saul Bellow, while enjoying that very American treat of hot dogs and ice tea. Off in the corner was Dylan Thomas, reciting poetry to Ms. Straight’s mother who swooned at his rolling Welsh accent. Surely other literary figures were driven out to partake in this Annandale life; Straight was a leading publisher and many would have made the trek.

The Straights also met with politicians and other Washington-type figures. They must surely have been comfortable hosting these events, proud of their American life and eager to show off their young family. Hubert Humphrey was said to have visited, and even Russian dignitaries were known to the Straights. (This tradition continued after the Straights moved out of the farm, for they rented the property to Leonard Garment, Richard Nixon’s special counsel during the Watergate crisis.)

What I found the most interesting about Michael Straight however (and not to take away from his careful management of the farm, his stream of guests, literary and political, and his apparent friendly approach to his neighbors) is something that doesn’t get mentioned quite enough. Michael Straight was an admitted Soviet spy! And not just any spy in any spy ring. Straight was recruited while studying at Cambridge – and was an acolyte of the Cambridge Five. We are talking about Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt – the classic upper crusty spies that fed information to the USSR for decades after the 1930s. By the 1960s, Straight had confessed his involvement as part of a background check and, curiously, didn’t face any sort of legal or civil penalties. Some spying was considered okay, I guess. It does bring an added tint to his success in bringing famous people out to Annandale.

I like to keep all these facts and suppositions in mind while I wander through the park. The Straights had the foresight to fix up the farmhouse, spring house, and grounds of this gem during their tenure. Much of what we have at Green Spring Gardens park today exists only because Michael and Belinda Straight gave the County the parkland; from their original donation of 17 acres, the park has doubled in size. One outcome of that deal was that the Straights were allowed to split the property and sell the portion facing Little River Turnpike to various car dealers. Either way, the residents of our community and visitors from further away get this very special spot to enjoy, redolent of history and a little bit of wry charm.

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