In the beginning, it was just a yard in Barnaby Woods
by Cate Toups Atkinson
In the 1970s Anastasios Vrenios was a rising tenor on the international opera stage. His world was filled with the beautiful melodies of Puccini, Mozart and Verdi. But his peripatetic singing career meant that his wife, a soprano who was head of the American University voice department, was raising their two sons alone. He was barely 32 when he gave it up.
Today, a different symphony accompanies him. It rises from fanciful stones that swirl underfoot in the front and back gardens of his brick colonial on 32nd Street NW in Barnaby Woods. In an alternate firmament, his yard could be home to fairies, with its gentle gurgling waterfalls and undulating walls, all softness and curves, without a sharp edge in sight.
But the creation outside — a work in progress that has bewildered more than one stone mason he has hired to carry out his designs — came later. First he reshaped his career as a voice instructor at American and Howard universities, among others. He performed locally. He and his wife Elizabeth raised their two sons on a diet rich in art and music.
When tragedy struck, it came from above. In 1988, their oldest son Nicolas, then 19, was studying photography at Syracuse University in London. While he was flying home for Christmas, a bomb planted in the luggage compartment of Pan Am Flight 103 detonated over Lockerbie, Scotland, trailing debris for 70 miles. Nicolas – whose guitar, camera, and skateboard were prize possessions — was gone.
Vrenios sees poetry even in tragedy. So many memories of Nick were in the house, and he relished being there. His wife couldn’t bear to live among them. “I had to stay in the house. She had to get out,” he says. So, while they remain married and spend holidays and other times together, she lives happily in California and he has his life in D.C. Their son, Chris, a successful reggae artist, “Cristos DC,” recently married and lives in the area.
Vrenios, a youthful 79 who goes by the Greek nickname “Taso,” has lived in the house 51 years. In its 83 years of existence, the house has had only two owners. It was constructed in 1937 in a group of three homes in the 6600 block of 32nd Street Northwest by Muhleman & Kayhoe, a Richmond builder of “early American and Williamsburg type” houses. The first owners were Herbert L. Wooten, a controller at the Federal Public Housing Authority, and wife Elizabeth “Betty” Wooten. Like Taso and Elizabeth after them, they too raised two boys in the house. When the Wootens retired and put it on the market in 1969 to move to Myrtle Beach, the Vrenioses moved in.
It was a normal suburban yard in those early days. The Greek tenor in him saw a back deck as a delightful place to one day hold concerts for friends, so that was added. Then, after Nick’s death, he began longing for a waterfall. “My wife would say, why don’t you do it?” Finally, in recent years he started building. “I did not necessarily have a plan,” he said. “I had creative impulses. The next thing I knew I was caught up in this … in a way, it’s an indication of where I would have gone with my music had I continued with my career. I’m still trying to reach my audience!”
When asked how he describes the whimsical work, he says he does not have a word for it, but that his inspiration comes from harmonies in nature, and from the architect Antoni Gaudi. When workers are translating his designs into the landscape, he sometimes sees them employ hard edges. But he wants curves — such as the rhythmic swells of a brick retaining wall around an enormous poplar tree in the backyard. The copper-green art deco railing on the front walk is more like a sleek, stylized encircling of arms than a barrier.
“With a curve, the line doesn’t have an end. I will say, no! Do it this way. And they say, but that’s twice as hard!” he laughed. “Eventually, they bend to what I say and after it’s complete they are so pleased.”
He said the place is a balm for the tragedy that befell him 32 years ago, and is one way to combat the continuing hurt. After Nick’s death, they learned their son had a foreboding of his destiny. They found a note written the summer before the bombing that said “I’m going to die very soon. I’m going to hit a hard surface and perish.” Another time, he had written a poem that “basically describes a plane falling from the sky.” And when the Vrenioses flew to Scotland to collect their son’s belongings, lying on a box waiting for them was a picture of Nick sitting on a Swiss mountaintop, appearing as if in the clouds. A man had found it while out walking in a forest some 70 miles from the wreckage. Nick’s remains were found in a field with at least 100 other bodies near Lockerbie.
In the yard, the spring planting is like a strings section, sending lovely notes of fragrance in the air. The colored stones of a serpentine walkway beguile like flutes. And the twinkling of cascading water adds rhythm to Taso’s foundling orchestra. One might expect the Greek tenor’s soulful aria to be one of tragic pain. But instead, its meaning is best revealed by a quote from him in a story in the Washington Post in August 2009 about the international uproar over Scotland’s decision to release, on compassionate grounds, the only man ever convicted of the Pan Am bombing. Abdel Basset Ali a-Megrahi of Libya was dying of prostate cancer and Scotland set him free.
“I am thinking as a decent human being. Let the man go and die in his own country — he’s dying anyhow. Keeping him in prison is not going to cure the illness that this whole thing is an example of, the killings and murders and the things that go on in mankind.”
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