Being Stormwater-Wise to Protect the Flow of History

Published on May 22, 2017

The oldest structure in the County had a problem that can bedevil the most modern home: a damp foundation.

Although the Ball-Sellers House has stood in the Glencarlyn neighborhood since the 1740s, the Arlington Historical Society was looking for a 21st century solution to issues related to stormwater as well as the moist soil around Four Mile Run. The AHS owns and operates the expanded farm cabin as a free museum, telling the rich story of Arlington's rustic colonial roots.

Last year historian and Ball-Sellers director Annette Benbow made her way to Jen McDonnell, the County's stormwater outreach specialist. "She was so clearly knowledgeable," Benbow remembers.

McDonnell conducted a full assessment of the property and drew up a list of StormwaterWise Landscapes program options and priorities. Most attractive: applying for partial funding from the County to create a sustainable conservation landscape to address the flow and buildup of rainwater.

Besides keeping a downpour from collecting at the base of the historic house, a newly designed garden and landscaping would act as a sponge to reduce potentially harmful runoff from reaching Carlin Springs, Four Mile Run and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.

Benbow also liked the idea of making some local partnership history. AHS had never worked with the County on a StormwaterWise project. She applied and was approved.

And there were more benefits inspired by the plan. Before installing the landscaping solution, Benbow and County preservation staff would take an archaeological look into the Ball-Sellers past.

Not only did the excavation recover thousands of artifacts, including a large salt-glazed ceramic jug from the late 18th century and a long-lost bottle of tooth powder, there was evidence of three discarded drainage systems, including one left by the original owners and another from the Civil War era.

Designer Ed Colahan, a veteran of previous SmartwaterWise projects, worked out the garden layout in consultation with County staff. This spring it took shape, featuring 300 square feet of native plants, from eastern beebalm and coreopsis, to liatris and a serviceberry.

Birds as well as bees and butterflies quickly took to their new home at the historic site. And in a display of long-term recycling, Colahan used stones recovered from last year's excavation to create a garden footprint of a house section removed in 1915.

More conservation landscaping is planned for the coming months and years.

The initial results will be on display Sunday, June 4, when the Ball-Sellers House is featured for the first time in the annual Arlington Green Home and Garden Tour.

McDonnell says "The Arlington Historical Society and their contractor did a great job — the landscape is quite lovely. It's a project that marries history and ecology."

Benbow is excited about drawing new visitors to the old house - to see the innovative work developed with the County's help and encouragement.

In her words, "It's great to be able to apply new methods to a historic problem."