New Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey House leader aims to revitalize attraction
Shawn Halifax, executive director at Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey House since October 2021, may still be getting used to the daily ins and outs of the historic and cultural attraction, which recently reopened after a winter hiatus, but he already has some clear ideas about its way forward.
As a longtime specialist in historical interpretation of marginalized populations, Halifax aims to revitalize Woodlawn and ensure that the site is reflective of its diverse history. While Woodlawn still is largely associated with George and Martha Washington’s relations, Lawrence Lewis and his wife Nelly Parke Custis, the mansion and estate have “an amazing history after that, which set it apart from other places,” said Halifax, who most recently served as the history interpretation coordinator at Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission in Charleston, South Carolina.
Halifax said he was floored to learn that anti-slavery Quakers, who purchased the Lewis plantation in 1846 and set up an agricultural cooperative society of free Blacks and immigrant farmers, still meet at the Woodlawn Meetinghouse adjacent to the Woodlawn property.
“They’ve done some incredible preservation work at the meetinghouse during COVID,” said Halifax, adding that he’s interested in collaborating with them and leaders from Gum Springs to accurately tell the stories of Woodlawn’s enslaved population and the trailblazers who sought to change the course of history.
Improving the Woodlawn visitor experience is another priority for Halifax, who said that highway changes around the property over the years have had a significant impact on it. “It needs to feel special,” he insisted.
The fact that Woodlawn was the first historic site operated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation is particularly significant to Halifax. In coming weeks and months, he will be working closely with them and other stakeholders like Fairfax County and the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture to try to reinvigorate plans announced a few years ago to develop a cultural center on the property. Those plans got delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the departure of Woodlawn’s previous executive director in late 2020. To get the project back on track, Halifax aims to restart a related advisory group, begin strategic planning and increase staffing. Woodlawn presently is hiring full- and part-time event staff to promote and manage private events at the site.
In the short term, Woodlawn’s staff is focused on the ongoing Needlework Show, now in its 59th year, and tours of Pope-Leighey House, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home located on-site. Once the needlework exhibition wraps up at the end of March, Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey House will close through April 14 to prepare for tours of both the historic mansion and Wright home.
Although Halifax is very much focused on Woodlawn’s future, certain traditions like the Needlework Show are here to stay. Nelly’s Needlers — an organization that coordinates the event and helps preserve Woodlawn through the sale of fine needlework — is a “huge support to Woodlawn,” said Halifax, adding that the exhibition is “an important part of what we do every year.”