If you have ever driven by the Fairfax County Courthouse, you may have seen our office. But, maybe not… The location is a frenzied pocket of cars and official vehicles, high rises and concrete, one-way streets and parking-space seekers. In the midst of this busyness, there’s a small grey house with red shutters. If you missed the sign, you may wonder, “What is that little house?” That is the home of Volunteer Fairfax, which we affectionately refer to as “The Bungalow.”
The Bungalow, located at 10530 Page Avenue, is a Cape Cod style house, one of the few still remaining from back in the day when it was built, in the late 1930’s. We have learned that it was built by Miss Mary Orrell Ambler. Mary was born in Fredericksburg, VA, on December 25, 1885. She became an English teacher here in Fairfax County, ending her long career at Fairfax High School.
She built a sturdy house. Three levels of compact, cozy rooms—no open concept here: floors and doors of solid wood, narrow closets, and two really steep staircases off the main floor. At the front entrance, there’s an original wooden screen door, the kind that slams behind you on a hot summer day.
After Miss Ambler’s passing, the house was bought by Mr. and Mrs. James Case who raised their three children here. Then, according to records, the entire property was deeded to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisor on February 21, 1958. Growth and development has, as of today, spared The Bungalow and Volunteer Fairfax has occupied the house since October 1974. Originally, the volunteer center shared the space, but the center has grown to a staff of 12 and is now the sole happy and snug occupant.
You could say that Volunteer Fairfax staff has a mixed relationship with the house that Miss Ambler Built. We work three to four desks per “office.” Jeanne Sanders (executive director 2005-15) would occasionally ask if there was room for additional desks.
The staff has pet names for certain sections. There’s “the West Wing” and “the Jason closet” and the “Penthouse.” There are nooks and crannies everywhere, great for storage. There are hot spots and cold corners. And, everyone who enters the house is warned, “Be careful of the stairs!” They were built to be very steep.
Our Conference room is really the “Everything” room… The tables and chairs are opened or stacked depending on the function of the day. Sometimes it is the celebration room, the lunch room, the storage unit, project space, pre-event staging area and post-event dumping ground. Of course, we do have meetings and conferences there.
Standing outside of the house is a big oil drum. Nadia, one of our recent hires, a young Millennial, asked “What is that thing?” On occasion, that thing outside will run out of oil and you will find staff inside working in their parkas.
In the fall of 2015, it was announced that a new CEO, Elise Neil Bengtson, had been hired. VF staff asked the question, “Has she actually seen our offices?” Upon her arrival, Elise was charmed by her new surroundings and very impressed with all the good work that comes out of this little house.
Despite our challenges with space and stairs and room temps, there’s something comforting in this old house. It has character. What we do, supporting our community, is part of our character. Our community awards and county proclamations line the walls and fill the fireplace mantel. Our logo, Xman, is artistically tumbling his way throughout the building, in VF blue paint.
On any given day, you will find every bit of available floor space stacked with boxes of materials ready to go out to a community project; or project remnants that have returned from an event that did “good for the community.” These materials can include gardening equipment, emergency preparedness kits, supplies for packing projects, and paint paraphernalia. Thus, on our lunchroom refrigerator door, there is a sign that reads, “No paint brushes.” That’s so Volunteer Fairfax!
Having learned that the builder of The Bungalow was a dedicated English teacher and educator, it feels appropriate that we are occupying her home. She worked to build a better community. It is a fitting legacy for Volunteer Fairfax to fulfill.
Mary Orrell Ambler died 26 May 1944 in Alexandria Hospital. She is buried in the Confederate Cemetery in Fredericksburg. Her stone contains an error. Can you find it?