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Family Matters: 215 Jefferson Street on Old Town Garden Tour

Home was on 1955 Virginia Garden Week tour.

For more than a decade, Gene Jankowski, the former president of CBS Broadcasting Corp., lived in Connecticut but spent a lot of time visiting family in Old Town Alexandria.

In 2005, Jankowski decided it was time to move closer to his children and grandkids, and make Old Town his home, too. “I would walk around Old Town and I loved it,” he noted. “But when I looked at the houses, I’d get depressed about their size… so many were just too small.”

When Jankowski’s real estate agent called to say the house at 215 Jefferson St. was available, he remembered the property from his walks. “I said, ‘You mean the brick one with the white fence? I’ll be right down.’” The home was his within a week.

“This house is very special for Old Town,” Jankowski says of the Federal-style home. “Since it’s free-standing instead of a townhome, you get light in all directions. It also has great street presence, as well as a two-car garage.”

More importantly, the house has a long history that appealed to Jankowski, who has lived in reproductions of period homes in Connecticut. It was built in 1782 by John Alexander, an ancestor of the family for whom Alexandria was named; the living and dining rooms remain as originally configured, and with the original plank flooring. The living room has 10.5-foot ceilings, paneled walls, and a formal fireplace; the dining room features a wood-burning fireplace and crown molding in the Greek key style. The home is included in the book, “Alexandria Houses, 1750-1830.”

While Jankowski loved the old house, he did not care for its 1966 addition. “Some people thought it was a library,” Jankowski noted. “My goal was to tie it into the old part of the house architecturally.”

He hired architect Bud Adams to redesign the addition, which was comprised mainly of a large, first-floor family room. Jankowski gutted the main level of the addition, eliminating the cathedral ceiling in the family room to create a second-floor master bedroom suite above it. He changed the addition’s roofline from an oddly angled hip roof to a more harmonious gambrel style.  

Jankowski reconfigured the family room by building half-walls as room dividers to create two rooms. “It would have been boring if the new space was all one room,” he maintained. Now, a smaller family room with gas fireplace and a bay window sits in the front of the house, while a game room with French doors opening to a brick patio and pergola is in the back. Both rooms have reclaimed heart pine floors and reclaimed barn wood beams.

The kitchen was renovated to include heart pine floors, granite countertops, and upscale appliances. Getting the gas cook top that Jankowski wanted was complicated, though: a trench had to be dug around the entire perimeter of his property in order to have a safe but circuitous path to the original part of the house. A screened porch off the kitchen was enclosed and converted to a brick-walled, informal dining area with travertine floors and arched windows overlooking the back yard. The remodeled home has four bedrooms, five fireplaces, and nearly 5,000 square feet of space.

The quarter-acre yard has had a few updates as well. Last year, garden designer Jane MacLeish helped Jankowski fine-tune the gardens. One important change was to move a bench away from the tall, brick side wall and plant cedars there instead. MacLeish placed the garden bench beside the brick patio, added a second bench diagonally across the yard from it, and grouped variegated boxwoods around both benches. “It made a big difference,” Jankowski noted. “Moving the bench softened that brick barrier.”

MacLeish moved many of the property’s mature azaleas into groupings to add more mass. She also suggested Jankowski extend the line of boxwoods across the front of the original house to include the addition, and to add a splash of color—tulips were chosen—to the formal Parterre garden Jankowski had previously created from a muddy spot in the side yard. The yard is filled with a variety of plants, shrubs and trees, from crape myrtle and river birch to the gumpo azaleas and fragrant sarcococca plants that sit beneath the windows of the informal dining room.

The house and its gardens, which were showcased in the 1955 Virginia Garden Tour, will be featured this year on Saturday, April 21, during Historic Garden Week, as part of the Old Town House and Garden Tour sponsored by The Garden Club of Alexandria and The Hunting Creek Garden Club.

Jankowski and his wife, Lisa, have enjoyed using the house for entertaining, especially on "music nights" with their children and grandchildren gathering around the Steinway piano in the original living room. “This is not a complicated house,” Jankowski pointed out. “It offers ease and convenience of living.”

It also stimulates his curiosity. “There’s such a real sense of history here,” he added. “I’d love to know what it was like during historical times. Every time I look at the old fireplace mantels, I wish they could talk.” 

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