Fairfax City and County, Virginia: Celebrating the Centuries

By Dorothea S. Michelman

Where would you look to find George and Martha Washington’s wills? Or the setting of one of the 19th century’s most enchanting romances? And one of the nation’s finest collections of Civil War graffiti? Come to Fairfax – both city and county – and find out!

The history of Fairfax County and Fairfax City, which celebrates its 200th birthday this year, is in many ways a journey through the unfolding chapters of American history, joining past to present.

Driven into exile in 1649 following the beheading of his father, while in France the future King Charles II granted the Northern Neck of Virginia as a proprietary to seven of his loyal supporters. By 1719, all of this land – 5 million acres and then some – came into the possession of Thomas, sixth Lord Fairfax, a grandson of one of the original owners. As for Fairfax County itself, it was carved out of Prince William County in 1742 and once encompassed what are now Loudoun and Arlington counties and the cities of Falls Church, Alexandria, and Fairfax.

Where Fairfax County has honored the Fairfax name right from the start, the city of Fairfax has taken a more roundabout route. Until 1805, the area surrounding the Northern Virginia crossroads was known as Earp’s Corner. The new county seat was established as the Town of Providence, as a nearby town was already named Fairfax. This did not prevent folks from referring to Providence as Fairfax Court House, however. All was neatly resolved when the other town abandoned the name, so that today it is the City of Fairfax and not Providence which is commemorating its first 200 years.

Just 15 miles west of Washington, D. C. and the site of one of the earliest skirmishes of the Civil War, today’s Fairfax is a fascinating blend of cosmopolitan flair and hometown flavor. Intimate restaurants, art galleries and intriguing shops line the streets, while the six blocks which mark the city’s historic district invite visitors and residents to pause and explore one or another facet of our nation’s past. There’s the Fairfax Court House, built in 1800, which still holds George and Martha Washington’s wills. And the county’s first 2-story brick schoolhouse, now the Fairfax Museum and Visitors Center. Here, the new exhibition “Raids, Romance, and Writings” reveals how Confederate Colonel John Mosby awoke slumbering Union general Edwin H. Stoughton in March 1863, capturing him, 2 officers, 30 soldiers and – to President Lincoln’s particular regret – 58 horses. And wartime romance? Meet Antonia Ford, imprisoned as a spy following Ranger Mosby’s nighttime raid, who made a noteworthy capture of her own: Major Joseph C. Willard, the Union officer who escorted her to prison, later secured her release and married her.

Admission is free, and the museum also offers seasonal walking tours through the National Register Historic District and during special events.

Not far away is Fairfax Station, the counties last operating railroad depot, and once a bustling railroad community. Closed in 1973, it is a new stop on the Virginia Civil War Trails program and as a museum it presents a rich display of Civil War and railroad memorabilia. Visitors are welcome to stop by on Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. Close by is Saint Mary’s Church where Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, cared for wounded soldiers awaiting evacuation to hospitals in Alexandria and Washington, D.C.

Less well known is the historic Blenheim Estate, dating back to around 1855, which also served as a hospital during the Civil War. A unique link to this era, it is the site of one of the nation’s largest and best preserved examples of Civil War graffiti. In particular the attic presents a kind of “diary on walls,” with more than 100 surviving inscriptions and pictographs. Eighty-eight signatures of the Union soldiers who penned them have been identified. During its multi-stage restoration, Blenheim has been open only for special occasions such as the annual Fairfax Civil War Weekend held during the first weekend each May. Completion is planned for this year.

A far more familiar point on the map is Sully Plantation, the 18th-century country home of Richard Bland Lee, Northern Virginia’s first congressman and General Robert E. Lee’s uncle. Its original structures, representative slave quarters, and gardens provide insight into the lives of Sully’s early residents. It is a particularly popular destination for special events, from the Civil War Daily Life Encampment in July and Sully Quilt Show and Sale in September to December’s candlelight tours, holiday concerts and house tours.

America’s most popular historic home and the country’s oldest historic preservation project is Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, where George Washington and his bride Martha Dandridge Custis, a widow with two young children, settled in 1759.

Washington greatly expanded the property to transform it into a flourishing plantation. More than a dozen outbuildings have been painstakingly restored, and a variety of preservation, restoration and archeological projects continue, with opportunities to watch excavation in progress – and ask a question or two.

Faithfully painted in bright colors, the beautifully restored Mansion is furnished with original heirlooms, including the key to the Bastille, a gift from Lafayette to his friend George Washington.

Mount Vernon celebrates George Washington’s birthday each February with special events and free admission. There is wine-tasting in May, an 18th-century crafts fair in September, and candlelight tours in December. Mount Vernon is open every day of the year.

Not far from Mount Vernon lies Gunston Hall, a stunning example of Georgian architecture built in 1755 and the home of George Mason, author of the Virginia Constitution, a framer of the U.S. Constitution and whose Virginia Declaration of Rights served as the model for the U.S. Bill of Rights.

Fairfax County’s most recent and most prominent resident can be visited at Dulles Airport: the National Air and Space Museum’s imposing Steven F. Udvar -Hazy Center. A companion facility to the original Museum building on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. , it opened on December 15, 2003 in celebration of the centenary of powered flight by the Wright brothers.

The Smithsonian Institution started its first collection of flight items in 1876 with a small selection of kites donated by the Chinese Imperial Commission. With the Mall building only able to display about 10 percent of the Smithsonian’s extensive flight collection, the new center, which will ultimately measure 760,000 square feet, already boasts the world’s largest collection of such artifacts.

The aviation hangar is three football fields long and ten stories high. At present it houses 82 aircraft. Two of them include the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, still the world’s fastest jet, and the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, which dropped the first atomic bomb used in combat on Hiroshima in 1945. The space hangar offers a spectacular view of the space shuttle Enterprise. A third hanger where visitors will be able to observe restoration projects at work is planned.

There’s no shortage of entertainment to be found in Fairfax, whether it’s opera you crave or traditional country music, hard-to-find foreign films or experimental theater. A good place to start: George Mason University’s Center for the Arts and Patriot Center, offering a scintillating range of internationally recognized cultural and sports events.

And there’s no shortage of festivals to savor, either. The Fairfax festival season has a sweet introduction with February’s three-day Chocolate Festival. When flowers begin to blossom, so does Spotlight on the Arts, ten days highlighting the work of young, emerging, and established artists. Civil War Weekend is held the first weekend in May, the Independence Day celebration presents the region’s largest and longest parade in the metropolitan area and features bands from across the country, and the first Saturday in December is dedicated to the City of Fairfax Festival of Lights and Carols.

Indeed, whatever time you choose to visit Fairfax will be just the right time. I know I’ll be back, and soon.

IF YOU GO:

Destination Fairfax
P.O. Box 1549
Fairfax, VA 22038-1549
Toll-free: 1-800-572-8666
www.visitfairfax.com

SIGHTS/ACTIVITIES:

City of Fairfax
Fairfax Museum and Visitor Center
10209 Main Street, Fairfax, VA 22030
Tel.: 703-385-8415; E-mail: sgray@fairfaxva.gov
Bicentennial events web site:
www.fairfaxva.gov/bicentennial/bicentennialcalendar.asp

*Fairfax Museum & Visitor Center
10209 Main Street
Fairfax, VA 22030
Tel.: 703-385-8415
www.ci.fairfax.va.us

*Saint Mary’s Church
Fairfax Station Road & Rte. 123
www.stmaryofsorrows.org

*Gunston Hall Plantation
10709 Gunston Road
Mason Neck, VA 22079
Tel.: 703-550-9220
Toll-free 1-800-811-6966
E-mail: Historic@GunstonHall.org

*The National Air and Space Museum, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
Washington Dulles International Airport
14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway
Chantilly, VA 20151
www.nasm.si.edu

*Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens
George Washington Parkway
Mount Vernon, VA 22121
Tel.: 703-780-2000
www.mountvernon.org

*Historic Blenheim Estate
3610 Old Lee Highway
Fairfax, VA 22030
Tel.: 703-273-5452
www.ci.fairfax.va.us

*Fairfax Station Railroad Museum
11200 Fairfax Station Road
P.O. Box 7
Fairfax Station, VA 22039
Tel.: 703-425-9225
www.fairfax-station.org

*The Center for the Arts
George Mason University
400 University Drive
Fairfax, VA 22030
Tel.: 703-993-8888
www.gmu.edu/cfa/

*Sully Historic Site
3601 Sully Road
Chantilly, VA 20151
Tel.: 703-437-1794

LODGINGS (a selection)

*Comfort Inn University Center
11180 Main Street
Fairfax, VA 22030
Tel.: 703-591-5900
www.comfortinn.com/hotel/va073

*Hampton Inn Fairfax City
10860 Lee Highway
Fairfax, VA 22030
Tel.: 703-385-2600

DINING (a selection)

*Cattleya Thai Restaurant
3981 Chain Bridge Road
Fairfax, VA 22030
Tel.: 703-934-8880
www.cattleyathairestaurant.com

*T.T. Reynolds
10414 Main Street
Fairfax, VA 22030
Tel.: 703-591-9292

*The Bailiwick Inn
4023 Chain Bridge Road
Fairfax, VA 22030
Tel.: 703-691-2266
theinn@bailiwickinn.com
www.bailiwick.inn.com

*Cho’s Garden
9940 Lee Highway
Fairfax, VA 22030
Tel.: 703-625-9107

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