Vinson Hall Retirement Community
Vinson Hall Retirement Community near the intersection of Kirby Road and Old Dominion Drive is hard to miss if you live in McLean. But few people are aware of its unique role in history. “Vinson Hall is a Northern Virginia treasure, and a cornerstone of the McLean community,” said Rip Sullivan, Delegate from the 48th district in the Virginia House of Delegates who also serves on the Board of Trustees of Vinson Hall Retirement Community. “It has quite a story.”
The story of Vinson Hall goes back more than half a century – and began as the labor of love of some very determined women. In the 1950s, when a military officer died, his pension benefits died with him. In many cases, servicemen’s wives were left virtually penniless, the forgotten widows of men who had served their country for decades. The plight of these women was brought to national attention in 1951 when the Chief of Naval Operations – the Navy’s highest ranking officer – died of a sudden heart attack, leaving his wife in desperate financial straits.
The Naval Officers’ Wives (NOW) Club of Washington, D.C. made it their mission to right this wrong. Their concerns about what their fellow Navy wives faced in retirement was captured in an early report: “Behind these gallant officers are the equally gallant ladies who share the fortunes and misfortunes, the dangers and hardships of a military career. These ladies should not have to face the twilight of their late years alone and adrift.”
The Club began their campaign in 1959 by sending thousands of questionnaires to Navy wives all across the country to gauge interest in the project, assess need and feasibility. The response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Some 200 Naval officers’ wives clubs in the U.S. and overseas – joined by the officers’ wives clubs of the Marine Corps and Coast Guard – launched into fundraising efforts large and small to build Carl Vinson Hall. Teas, dinners, benefits and bazaars were held from coast to coast in support of the cause – from a benefit performance of the musical Mame put together by the New York Council Navy League that raised $9,500, to the sale of embroidered pillowcases by the officers’ wives at the Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay that netted $3,121. Although the original concept was to build a residence solely for widows – much like Army Distaff Hall in Washington, D.C., which had opened in 1962 – it turned out that Navy wives were overwhelmingly in favor of admitting male officers and couples, so the project broadened to include men.
While they were raising money, the sea service wives clubs were also publicizing the project, which captured the attention of powerful military and government leaders. Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in World War II, stepped in as Honorary Chairman of the fundraising drive for Carl Vinson Hall. Soon, everyone from the Secretary of the Navy and the Chief of Naval Operations to the smallest of the NOW clubs was going all out to sell the concept and raise money. In 1961, the Foundation that would become the Navy Marine Coast Guard Residence Foundation (NMCGRF) was formed so that financial support could be provided to future residents who might need it. Ultimately, NMCGRF was certified as a tax exempt, non-profit organization, the first retirement community in Virginia, other than church-affiliated retirement residences, to be granted this status.
At the same time, the officers’ wives were laser-focused on finding a site for Carl Vinson Hall. “Many, many women literally ‘walked the streets’ visiting homes, buildings and sites,” according to a Foundation report. Sixteen potential sites were identified in the Washington, D.C. area, including the Naval Observatory, the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, the former Naval Air Station in Anacostia, and the site where National Presbyterian Church now stands. One by one, these were all rejected, primarily because of high cost.
In 1965, a 13-acre parcel in the Chesterbook area of McLean, eight miles from Washington, D.C, came on the market. The land, which had once had a farmhouse and been farmed for generations, now had a manor house, two small guest cottages, and a summerhouse with tennis court and swimming pool. Now up for sale, the property had fallen into disrepair.
The price was $300,000, a sum beyond the new Foundation’s means. So in 1965, Admiral Arleigh Burke, a staunch advocate of the project, stepped in and personally borrowed the money to buy the property in the Foundation’s name. By the time ground was broken two years later, the ladies of NOW had raised $660,000, a loan of $2 million had been secured from the Navy Relief Society, and Admiral Burke was repaid in full. Construction began in 1967 with a windfall: The contractor building Chesterbrook Shopping Center across the street offered to do the excavating for Vinson Hall at their expense, in exchange for the fill dirt that the shopping center now rests upon.
In June 1969, Vinson Hall opened its doors and 256 residents – sea service officers and their wives and widows – moved in. The dream of the very determined wives of America’s sea service officers had been realized.
A lot has changed at Carl Vinson Hall since its earliest days 54 years ago. Over the years, Vinson Hall Retirement Community (VHRC) – later renamed and now home to 400 individuals – has expanded to serve the greater community through the higher levels of care it offers. In addition to independent living, VHRC offers assisted living and skilled nursing care at Arleigh Burke Pavilion, which opened in 1991; memory care at The Sylvestery, built in 2003; and short-term rehabilitation at the Kathy Martin Community Building, added in 2014. Residents of VHRC’s independent living apartments are former military officers from all branches of service and their immediate family members, as well as federal employees from any agency at the GS-14 level or higher. The other levels of care do not have residency requirements.
One thing that has not changed is the fact that Vinson Hall Retirement Community remains a historic gem – founded by women and home to generations of leaders who served our nation – tucked away on 23 wooded acres in the heart of McLean. To learn how Vinson Hall Retirement Community can serve you or a loved one, please call 703-936-6501 to learn more.