Home profile: A storied past

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Home profile: A storied past
The walkway leading to the John and Gwen Mullen’s home is shaded by a natural arch of holly trees. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)
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By Cody Mello-Klein | cmelloklein@alextimes.com

When the holiday season swings around, John and Gwen Mullen’s Old Town home becomes a beacon for the entire neighborhood. Snow might be falling outside, but inside their Wilkes Street home, the singing and celebrating keeps things warm.

The Mullens’ holiday party is only one day out of the year, but their home maintains the warmth of an open hearth throughout the year. Between the antique furniture, curated redesigns and items that have long-lasting familial connections, the Mullens have taken a house that was in disrepair and, with the help of a few friends, turned it into a home that has hosted 46 years’ worth of holiday parties as well as diplomats, senators and at least one prime minister.

The Mullens’ introduction to their Wilkes Street home came in 1977, when they were looking for a new house in Old Town. Gwen had just given birth to their son, Edward, and their home at the time, which was located on 427 S. Lee St., was beginning to become a little tight on space.

The house on Wilkes Street was originally part of a much larger plot of land, with a yard that stretched all the way to Fairfax Street. However, a builder had acquired the yard in order to build his dream house and, in the process, got an option on the original house as well, which “had fallen, as so many had, into disrepair,” John said. According to John and Gwen, the home had become something of a “commune,” with a motorcycle even parked in the living room.

Gwen found out the house was on the market from a friend who lived across the street from the Wilkes Street home. She leapt on it.

“I just went right over there and said, ‘Hello, Roger. I’m going to buy this house.’ And he said, ‘I want you to have it,’” Gwen said.

The builder and contractor were able to fix up much of the home, so that by the time the Mullens moved in in 1977, the house was much more livable. There were practical changes – the radiators were removed and replaced with a forced air system – but also aesthetic updates to keep the historic character of the structure. The “beautiful old floor” was sanded and finished but largely untouched, Gwen said.

According to John, many of the changes they made early on, whether to the structure or design, were “more practical than anything else.”

John and Gwen are both music lovers, so a piano was a must-have when they moved in. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

“We’re both musical, so we wanted a piano. We had a lot of hand-me-downs in the family. There was a glass front bookcase over [in the entrance hallway] and we had sleep sofas [in the living room],” John said.

Eventually, the Mullens’ son put them in touch with an antique dealer in Richmond, who helped them pinpoint the exact stylistic touches that would bring their home to life. John admitted that he and Gwen went into the process with a vague idea of what they wanted but found that the dealer, after visiting their house only once, was able to select specific pieces that ended up enhancing the space.

The antique living room couch, for example, sits against the far wall, across from the fireplace that the Mullens use throughout the winter, but it is a striking piece of eye candy with its warm pinkish hue. It contrasts the cool blues of an antique armchair and foot stool combo placed against the opposite wall, creating a blend of colors that works because of their opposition.

“Who would have thought that you would find this color [for a couch]? And we just love it,” Gwen said.

Not everything came from the antique dealer, though. A massive wooden writing desk in the living room has been in John’s family for 150 years, and a framed quilt from his family sits behind the bed in the master bedroom. Several paintings, laid in intricate golden-brown frames, portray peaceful pastoral scenes and were made by John’s great grandmother.

The living room is full of antiques and family heirlooms, including a writing desk that has been in John’s family for 150 years. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

One item in particular, which sits framed in the living room, would be enough to spark any historian’s interest.

“That was a sheath from Chief Oshkosh – Oshkosh, Wisconsin – and that was his,” Mullen noted. “My ancestor, who was an Indian agent among many other kinds of things well before Wisconsin was a state, inherited that and he got a medal from George the Third of Great Britain that is in the museum in Green Bay. They’d love this, but they aren’t gonna get it.”

Almost every item has history attached to it, whether it came from an antique warehouse in Richmond or has been passed down in John’s family for more than a century. And the books stacked on bookshelves throughout the home, some of which also date back to the Civil War, mean the Mullens’ home is overflowing with stories.

“Obviously, we wanted bookcases and we’ve got other bookcases [throughout] the house and too many books to put in the bookcases,” John laughed.

This sheath was given to John’s ancestor by Chief Oshkosh, chief of
the Menominee tribe in Wisconsin. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

The house itself has a history to match. The living room and second floor master bedroom both date back to before the Civil War. The house has been expanded several times since then: The first half of the dining room was added in the 20th century, and the Mullens doubled the size of that room and greatly enlarged the kitchen in 2003 and 2004. In order to expand the kitchen, the Mullens had part of the house attached to their neighbor’s home so that it is no longer freestanding. That particular change ended up cutting short a stone horse alley that previously ran all the way along the eastern side of the house.

Outside, the Mullens have a shockingly large back yard for a home in Old Town, due in part to the fact that it was part of a larger piece of property.

“I actually have a power mower,” John said proudly.

In the front, an extended brick walkway leading to the house through a natural bridge of holly trees makes a stylish first impression. According to Gwen, at the right time of year, the trees are full of red berries – and “voracious robins” that come to eat them, John said.

The changes that the Mullens made to the dining room and kitchen have had the most significant impact and have helped make the Mullens’ home even better for entertaining, which has been central to their lives and the life of the house. By expanding the kitchen, the heavy foot traffic that occurs during the Mullens’ holiday parties can now flow freely through the house.

The long, elegant wooden table at the center of the extended dining room has also become vital for the Mullens’ many dinner parties. After discovering the table at a furniture warehouse in South Carolina, Gwen said she ran up and jumped on the table to call “dibs.”

“I ran up to this table and I [threw myself on it], and I said, ‘Ok, John, we’re taking this,’” Gwen said.

John’s work for Department of State and involvement in the world of international diplomacy for the United States Agency for International Development and Gwen’s work for the Alexandria Tutoring Consortium and various local nonprofits has led to some notable guests sitting at that table.

Ambassadors, senators and at least one prime ministers have sat at the Mullens’ dining room table. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

“What is wonderful about this [dining room] is that we have had wonderful dinner parties here. It’s not just family,” John said. “At this table we have had a former prime minister, probably at least five ambassadors and United States senators. Mark Warner comes over sometimes.”

Between the two of them, John and Gwen have shaken a lot of hands and made a sizable impact on Alexandria and abroad, and their home is just as much a testament to those achievements. A framed photo of Gwen’s induction into Living Legends of Alexandria hangs on the wall of an upstairs bedroom-turned-office, right alongside a photo of former New Zealand Prime Minister John Key honoring John as an officer in the New Zealand Order of Merit. According to John, his work on a business council for New Zealand helped smooth over relationships between the U.S. and New Zealand at a time when the air was tense.

However, the Mullens’ dinner parties play second fiddle to their famous holiday parties.

“We love to sing, and so we decided we were going to have a participatory Christmas party and that Santa Claus would come,” John said. “We got one of the neighbors to dress up as Santa Claus. … There were puppet shows, there was singing.”

Gwen oversees the singing, which involves four-part harmonies and ranges beyond just carols, while John has taken to writing plays – many of which dip into political satire – that are performed by the children and adults.

The performances and company – not to mention the Mullens’ Peabody Punch, based on a recipe from Massachusetts – have helped fill the Mullens’ house with warmth and holiday cheer for the last 46 years. Although the pandemic put a halt to the 2020 holiday party, the feeling of that party has not left a home that is already full of stories.

“It’s been a great joy living here,” John said. “… It has been a warm and wonderful home, but it is a mix of things that are important to us.”

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