Answer Man Unearths Architectural Nostalgia
T oday, Answer Man dips into his mailbag to pluck out reader comments on some of his recent columns.
The March 4 column about Johnston Auto Body, a gewgaw-encrusted building in Merrifield, prompted a memory from Oakton’s Ken Kloman. In the early 1960s, when Ken was 16, he bought his first car, a “not too damaged” 1955 Chevy sedan.
Ken fixed up the car himself, and when it was ready for body work and paint, he searched for the least expensive place he could find. He decided on the original Johnston Auto Body, which sat on a small piece of land at Routes 123 and 7, near where the Hechinger at Tysons Corner used to be.
Larger paint jobs, Ken remembered, were done outside. “You had to schedule your paint job based on the weather,” he said. “Since [Mr. Johnston] sprayed in an open field next to a building, he had to wait if it was too windy, since grass and other debris would stick to the wet paint!”
On March 11, Answer Man wrote about the bubble houses that architect Wallace Neff built during World War II in Falls Church. Many readers recall the distinctive, igloo-like structures.
Dick Bolt grew up not far away from one. “My parents passed that domed house — I thought it was a geodesic dome! — many times, and it was one of few memories that stuck in my mind,” wrote Dick, who lives in Bowie.
Sisters Kathy Miles and Mary Mayhew grew up in one of the double igloos. Mary said what she remembers most isn’t the house but the woods around the house. She and Kathy would spend hours scampering around them.
As for the house, “it was different,” Mary said. The curved walls meant that pictures couldn’t be hung. Instead, they were propped against the walls. The house was often damp and moldy, like an unfinished basement.
She said, “I remember in school being asked to draw a picture of a house, drawing the curves and being told, ‘No honey, you’re supposed to draw your house.’ ”
The family moved when she was 13, an age when she was glad to live in a “normal” house. “I think I wanted to be ordinary at that point,” she said. Hans Schultz wrote about another distinctive concrete building in Northern Virginia. In 1967, he was in charge of construction for Robert E. Simon, the founder of Reston and a man always interested in innovative design.
When he learned of a technique invented by Italian architect Dante Bini, Robert decided to build something called a “Binishell” in Reston. Neff’s igloo houses were constructed by spraying concrete over a huge inflated balloon, and Bini’s technique involved casting concrete at ground level and inflating the structure to form the bubble-shaped building.
“We actually poured concrete flat on the ground, then inflated the neoprene skin after the concrete was down,” Hans said.
Fairfax County officials and HUD dignitaries attended. “I have photographs and even a Super 8 home movie somewhere in my ‘archives,’ ” Hans wrote. It was up for two or three months before it was demolished.
Lee Hooks of Purcellville was no stranger to the World War I-era tank that Answer Man wrote about last Sunday. It once sat in front of Alexandria’s railroad station.
“It was always known just as The Tank,” Lee wrote. “I grew up there and spent countless hours crawling all over The Tank. My 10-year-old imagination would take me all over the world with that fighting machine.”
“It was different,” says a woman who lived in one of the World War II-era bubble houses in Falls Church designed by Wallace Neff.