Home to JFK and RFK, Ethel Kennedy’s McLean house has been the stuff of American legend. Joan Tupponce takes readers into the history behind the legendary residence.
Robert and Ethel with children, left to right, Joe, 4, David, 1, Bobby Jr., 3, Kathleen, 5, and baby Courtney in 1957.
Robert McNamara, Edward R. Murrow, John Glenn, Sir Laurence Olivier, Gene Kelly. All familiar names, especially at Hickory Hill, the Virginia home of the Kennedy family for more than 50 years. Since 1955, a virtual who’s who of politicians, celebrities and corporate leaders has passed through the apple-red door of this McLean landmark. It’s difficult to fathom the conversations, the parties, the heartbreak, the joy that’s passed through the 19th-century home since its origin. Now, for the tidy sum of $20 million, someone could buy this legendary property—the home has been on the market since 2003—and become part of the allure.
An elegant 18-room white brick Georgian mansion, Hickory Hill presides over 5.6 acres dotted with massive oak and hickory trees and draped in lush rolling lawns. Visible from the road, the house has 13 bedrooms and 12 fireplaces. The property also houses a pool, children’s pool, pool house, movie theatre, paddocks and tennis court, all additions to the original property.
The first Kennedy to own the estate was the late President John F. Kennedy, with his wife, Jacqueline. The couple purchased Hickory Hill on Oct. 15, 1955 for $125,000. At the time, Kennedy was a young senator and traveled quite frequently. While living at Hickory Hill, he authored the Pulitzer-prize winning Profiles in Courage. Robert F. Kennedy and his wife, Ethel, moved into the home in 1957 after Jackie Kennedy suffered a miscarriage and the couple returned to Georgetown to live.
Knowing that the house would one day be sold, Ethel Kennedy recently hired Sioux Harvey to act as the Kennedys’ project historian, collecting data and cataloguing the many historic documents in the famous home. Harvey had the unique opportunity to live with Mrs. Kennedy while conducting her research.
She recalls the first time she walked through the front door. “When you enter the house, you are immediately confronted by an astonishing display of historically significant documents and artifacts,” she explains. Along the first floor entry and hallway are dozens of framed presidential letters, documents and photographs. “They include President John F. Kennedy’s autographed notes from his last cabinet meeting, an original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation—one of only 40 in existence, a broadside Inaugural Address of President Kennedy, Lincoln’s first court case written in his own hand, and letters from Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Hancock, Andrew Jackson and John Tyler. The effect of the collection is nothing short of awe-inspiring.”
Harvey was able to trace the history of Hickory Hill back to 1812, when a Rev. Maffitt purchased 466 acres of land in Northern Virginia, including the Hickory Hill acreage. Eighty-eight of the acres, among them Hickory Hill, were sold to George F. M. Walters, a Quaker, in 1846.
“In 1963, Mrs. Rosemary Goodman, a great-great-granddaughter of Walters, wrote a brief history and sent it to Mrs. Kennedy,” Harvey says. “She reported that when Walters bought the property in 1830, there was an old frame house on the site. The house burned in 1862 by a servant knocking a lighted candle over. Mrs. Goodman also reports that the new house was completed in the early 1870s, and ‘all the bricks were handmade from clay dug from the property. Every door, window frame and molding was handmade on the place.’ Walters named his new home Hickory Hill.”
Many accountings of the home suggest that Hickory Hill once served as the headquarters of General McClellan in the Civil War. Harvey disputes that rumor, noting that McClellan wasn’t in the area at the time he was supposed to have occupied the home.
According to Harvey, the home may have burned again in the early 1900s based on an insurance claim she found that was filed in 1907. In 1916, the property was improved with a large brick building and barn. Harvey goes on to tell that in 1924 Petersburg native Frank Lyon purchased 169 acres, including Hickory Hill. His business partner C. Walton Fitch lived in Hickory Hill until Lyon sold his home across the street and moved in. “It was Lyon who remodeled the house from its French mansard style to the Georgian style that remains today,” Harvey says.
The home and property were once again sold in January, 1944, to Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson and his wife—Jackson served on the Supreme Court from 1941 until 1954. The couple lived at Hickory Hill until Jackson’s death that year.
In 1963, six years after moving in, Ethel and Robert Kennedy made improvements to the property, adding a formal drawing room, four more bedrooms, a pool house, a regular pool and a children’s pool.
Harold L. Adams, retired chair of RTKL Associates, Inc., was working with John Carl Warnecke & Assoc., an architectural consulting firm, in the early 1960s when Robert and Ethel Kennedy asked if someone from the company could take a look at their house. “They needed to do an addition,” Adams recalls. “I was a young architect working on other Kennedy projects and was assigned to Bobby and Ethel.”
The addition consisted of a huge drawing room, new living room, second floor master bedroom suite, extra bedrooms for the kids and a patio. The work took one year to complete. Adams remembers being at the house every day, supervising construction. Because of that, he developed a close relationship with the Kennedys.
“When Bobby came home from work as Attorney General, he would greet me and go in to have dinner with the kids and engage them in conversation,” Adams remembers. “They would talk about world affairs and their lives. Then he would come back and focus on the house.”
Each morning Kennedy would play tennis with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. “Then he would come see how things were going [on the house], and he’d be off to work,” Adams says, noting that it was Ethel Kennedy who coordinated most of the project with him.
Working on the historic home was difficult. “It was something our firm didn’t normally do,” says Adams. “We hired a Washington architect, Walter Macomber, who did historic buildings, but Ethel always wanted to deal with me. I was the interface between the historic architects and Ethel.”
Adams remembers the day that Ethel called him to ask that he build a reptile house for her young son Bobby Jr. “We put it in the basement,” Adams says. “It was a birthday present for him.”
Snakes weren’t the only animals represented at Hickory Hill. There was a menagerie, ranging from dogs and horses to geese, chickens and rabbits. There was even a sea lion at one time. “It was like a three-ring circus,” says C. David Heymann, author of RFK and A Woman Named Jackie. “It was constant mayhem—kids, pets, parties.” In his book Heymann goes on to say that “by the time Bobby left his job at the Senate, the Kennedys of McLean had amassed a zoo that exceeded even the collection at Rambleside during Ethel’s childhood.”
For several years, the family hosted a Children’s Pet Show at Hickory Hill to benefit charity. In 1967, filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker, now of Pennebaker Hegedus Films, made a documentary on the annual event. The film, narrated by George Plimpton, showed sweeping views of the home bright with blooming azaleas and manicured lawns. Hundreds of children filled the expansive lawn with all types of pets, from parrots and ducks to snakes. All the children who attended the show with their pets would receive some sort of prize, many categories created right on the spot.
The Kennedy clan was on hand for the festivities. A young Caroline Kennedy paraded around in a Mickey Mouse short set while young Christopher Kennedy looked dapper in his chef outfit. During the course of the afternoon, young Bobby Jr. accepted a prize for his pet hawk. The grand finale of the evening was a pet trick event. Plimpton noted in the film that Kennedy’s favorite canine, a Newfoundland named Brumus, was banned from the activities as the huge animal had a reputation for being quite uncouth.
Adams, who later added a bath/pool house, movie theatre, changing rooms and kitchen to the pool area, says there was always activity going on in the house—not unusual when you have 11 children roaming around. “There was a large staff and the children and their friends,” he recalls. “And Bobby and Ethel were always hosting receptions.”
“Those were the halcyon days,” Heymann remarks. “During parties Ethel would sneak up behind fully clothed guests and toss them into the pool.”
Heymann details the parties in RFK. “While state dinners and gala concerts took place at the White House, the true social center of the Kennedy administration was Hickory Hill. Bobby’s parties were something else. … Ethel Kennedy made sure her guests enjoyed themselves. One evening, she had Harry Belafonte teach the twist to the revelers. When Robert Frost came for dinner, she passed out paper and pencils to his fellow guests for a poetry-writing contest. … But the highlight of Hickory Hill parties was the sight of formally attired adults, often among the most influential in the land, winding up one way or another in the estate’s swimming pool.”
Hickory Hill also served as the backdrop for the famous Kennedy touch football games and some of the “Hickory Hill Seminars.” Heymann explains in his book that “Arthur Schlesinger proposed to Bobby that high officials and their wives meet with distinguished thinkers, writers and scientists to discuss issues that transcended the ordinary doings of the government.” Thus the seminars began.
Back in the 1960s, the décor of the home was very traditional, Adams recalls. “There were lots of chintzes and beautiful historic pieces. It was fine furniture but comfortable.”
The home is still traditionally decorated, Harvey says. “There are many antiques. Mrs. Kennedy is an avid reader, so there are lots of wonderful books in the home along with photographs and beautiful paintings. The home is formal but in a family way. There’s constant activity.”
Dozens of windows bring light into the house, she adds. “There is one large formal room on the main floor to the left, and the rest of the rooms are very cozy,” Harvey says. “There is a large playroom downstairs for the kids. The house is very comfortable.”
Harvey believes that all of the people who have owned Hickory Hill over the years have made a direct contribution to our society. “When I tell people of my project, they usually ask me what was the most important thing I found while I was at Hickory Hill,” she says. “My relationship and experience with Ethel was obviously the most important part of my experience. In many ways, this sharing of the house’s importance is a letter of appreciation to her and her family.
“Every day I worked at Hickory Hill brought new discoveries. I would open a drawer to uncover letters, notes and photographs that were important and interesting. For example, in my scrapbook cataloging I found a book of memorial letters from Christmas 1968, Ethel’s first Christmas without her husband. In this book Ethel saved some of the most moving condolence letters. She received over 350,000 letters when her husband died. Inside was a handwritten letter from Henry Kissinger to Mrs. Kennedy that was extraordinary. It read, ‘It took me some years to realize that he was a rare and gallant human being; with perhaps more compassion than could be stilled in a lifetime; a man who truly suffered from injustice and could not rest while there was inequality.’
“That was my favorite sentence in all the letters, because it captured the essence of the man I had come to know a little while living at Hickory Hill.”
More information on Robert Kennedy’s life is at RFKMemorial.org. To buy the DVD of the documentary, look up the film at phfilms.com.
Hickory Hill was sold to an unidentified entity or individual for $8.25 million in December 2009.