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Preserving History: The Terborgh Family and the Terborgh Terrace Garden

By Aaron Kershaw

In a bustling urban environment like Arlington, Virginia, preserving green spaces with historical and natural significance can be quite a challenge. The story of the Terborgh family and their property, which has now transformed into the Terborgh Terrace Garden, is a testament to the enduring legacy of a family deeply connected to their land and a commitment to conservation.

We had the privilege of spending some time with Eliot Terborgh who grew up on the property and whose sister ultimately conserved it for all time. His family’s rich history and Anne’s vision for its future are a truly inspiring story.

A Rural Beginning

Eliot Terborgh recalled the early days when his family's property vastly differed from today's urban landscape. The Terborghs home was built in the late 1930s and stood at the end of a dirt road on 26th Street North in Arlington.

"My dad built the house in 1938, the same year that Anne was born," Eliot said.

It was a rural environment, surrounded by open spaces and fewer trees. The landscape starkly contrasted with the busy city life just a stone's throw away. The view from their back patio offered a clear sight of the Washington Monument and even the Fourth of July fireworks celebrations.

In those early years, the Terborgh family was not connected to public utilities like sewer and gas. They relied on septic tanks until the surrounding areas were developed and the property could be connected to these services. Despite the proximity to Washington, D.C., the Terborgh property remained a wooded and isolated haven.

“It wasn't until the early 50s that they started developing all the property across the street and, of course, further down,” Eliot said.

Conservationist Roots

The Terborgh family's connection to the land extended beyond their idyllic surroundings. Anne Terborgh, Eliot’s sister, was pivotal in the family's conservation efforts. Anne was a dedicated conservationist with a deep passion for preserving the environment. Her dedication to conservation was evident not only in her beliefs but also in her actions.

Anne firmly stood her ground during discussions with developers who wanted to build townhouses on the property. She was committed to conserving the land. When she settled her father's estate, she made substantial bequests to the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust, the Nature Conservancy, and to Conservation International.

Eliot's brother, John Terborgh, an emeritus Professor at Duke University and a tropical ecologist, shared his sister's passion for conservation. Growing up in their property's lush, natural environment ignited his love for biology and his expertise in studying remote tropical rainforests worldwide. John was also responsible for preserving the land of his childhood home for all time.

A Family Legacy

The Terborgh family's legacy was deeply intertwined with the land they inhabited. Their love for nature, gardening, and preserving the environment was a shared passion. Anne Terborgh maintained a beautiful garden on the property featuring various plants, including tomatoes, raspberries, black raspberries, red raspberries, gooseberries, and more.

Although the property has seen changes over the years, with the loss of some trees, the spirit of conservation and appreciation for nature lives on.

A Sustainable Vision

The Terborgh Terrace Garden now planned for the property is a realization of Anne Terborgh's dream to conserve the property and honor her family's legacy. Anne sadly passed away in 2021, but her bequest of the property to NVCT has now begun the vision of a community garden project that has the potential to impact the community significantly, bridging the gap between urban living and nature.

The project's focus on sustainable gardening and providing food for those in need aligns perfectly with Anne's commitment to conservation and family values. The garden will serve as a source of fresh produce and as a space for educational opportunities for the community. It aims to reconnect people with the earth and foster an understanding of where food comes from, breaking the common misconception our children too often have that food only comes from grocery stores. NVCT has partnered with FOUA (Friends of Urban Agriculture) to bring this program to life.

Preserving the Past, Nurturing the Future

On October 3, NVCT hosted a dedication event for the Terborgh Terrace Garden that represented a beautiful convergence of history, conservation, and community. In attendance were all five Arlington County board members and local state senator Barbara Favola. The gathering of friends and partners outlined a shared commitment to reconnecting people with nature, and what better way to accomplish that than by nourishing our community?

The late Ms. Terborgh's vision is encapsulated in this remarkable partnership, and her enduring legacy shines through the garden's beauty and the sustenance it will provide. Terborgh Terrace Garden is more than just a garden; it symbolizes hope. It stands as a testament to the potential of collective effort, a space where the community's involvement will play a crucial role in combating food scarcity in Arlington. It serves as a reminder of the incredible impact community, collaboration, and generosity can have on shaping a brighter future. It also reminds us that one generous, courageous person can truly make a difference, and we know Ms. Terborgh would be so pleased at what her generosity and courage have brought to life.

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