The first person to own the land that is now the City of Fairfax was Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron, who was awarded five million acres in land located in Northern Virginia by King Charles. When it came time for actually form a town the owner was Richard Ratcliffe who had begun acquiring land around the headwaters of Accotink Creek in 1786. Over the next decade he had grown his Mount Vineyard plantation to about 3,000 acres.
In the meantime the new federal government was moving to the banks of the Potomac and chief executive George Washington brought his hometown of Alexandria into the jurisdiction of the newly created District of Columbia. This moved Alexandria, the county seat of Fairfax County since its inception in 1752, out of the legal boundaries of its Virginia home county. With a mandate to find a centrally convenient new location for its county seat, Fairfax County Court officials accepted Richard Ratcliffe’s offer of four acres to build a courthouse upon. The price - a single dollar.
The courthouse was completed in 1800 and it became a prototype for many Virginia courthouses built until 1850. Ratcliffe busied himself with laying out a town and selling lots for a town he called Providence. Most people called it Fairfax Court House, however, and the name would be officially changed in 1874 to the Town of Fairfax. Despite Ratcliffe’s efforts the town was still little more than a collection of houses scattered around that courthouse when the Civil War arrived in the 1860s. Skirmishing in the streets of Fairfax resulted in the first Confederate battle casualty seven weeks before the first major battle of the conflict, the First Battle of Manassas.
Through the early 20th century, the Town of Fairfax remained a community of farms and small estates, with a tiny core of commerce, government and society in the few blocks surrounding the courthouse. In recent times Fairfax has grown to over six square miles but our explorations will concentrate on that historic core and we will begin with a building that was long the center of that core, next to which is a conveniently located parking lot...
Old Town Hall
3999 University Street at northeast corner of Main Street
Joseph E. Willard was the product of a 19th century mixed marriage - his mother was a Confederate spy and his father a Union officer. Antonia Ford was anointed as an “honorary” aide-de-camp for Southern general J.E.B. Stuart with the rank of major and after she was arrested for passing information to the Confederates met her future husband, Joseph C. Willard, in prison. Willard was the co-owner of one of Washington D.C.’s poshest hotels. Joseph E. Willard was the couple’s only child and became the most influential political figure in Fairfax County which he used as a springboard to stints as lieutenant governor of Virginia and minister of Spain. He built the graceful hall, which blends Federal-style fenestration behind Tuscan order columns, in 1900 and presented it to the Town of Fairfax in 1902. In addition to housing the local government the hall became a social hub as well, screening the town’s first motion pictures in 1911. Restored in the 1990s, the richly appointed Town Hall hosts functions, displays art and contains the Huddleson Library.
FROM THE CORNER OF MAIN STREET AND UNIVERSITY STREET, WALK EAST, OLD TOWN HALL WILL BE ON YOUR LEFT.
10386 Main Street
Some town founders just happened to come early to a place that developed long after they were gone while others energetically build a community. In a career of public service that would swallow 54 years of his life Richard Ratcliffe would serve Fairfax County as sheriff, coroner, justice, patroller, overseer of the poor, constable, commissioner of the revenue, jail inspector, and superintendent of elections among others. Sandwiched in there was the design and development of Fairfax, which he called Providence. The eastern portion of this house is the oldest in the city, built by Ratcliffe around 1812 on one of the lots he laid out for rental property. In 1973 it became the first city-owned building to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
10364 Main Street
Although much-altered, you can still see the Federal form of this two-story brick house constructed around 1820 by Dr. Samuel Draper, probably as his office and examining rooms. For many years it sported a front porch that disappeared when the corner building was spruced up to house local businesses. Many of the property’s original out-buildings have been converted into shops.
TURN AND RETRACE YOUR STEPS ON MAIN STREET, WALKING WEST BACK TO UNIVERSITY STREET AND CROSS.
Fairfax Herald & Print Shop
10400 Main Street
Stephen Roszel Donohoe put out the first edition of the the Fairfax Herald in 1882 after arriving in the town from Alexandria. Later he would serve in the state Senate and in the Spanish-American War he was captain of the Fairfax Company. In 1904 he moved the paper to this small, one-story frame structure. The Herald remained in operation until 1966 and a collection of its original printing equipment is now located at the Smithsonian.
10412 Main Street
W.T. Ralston opened a market in this vernacular commercial building in 1895.
Nickell’s Hardware Store
10414 Main Street
This is an example of vernacular commercial architecture, a popular construction type at the turn of the 20th century. West Virginia-born James Elliott Nickel operated a hardware store here from 1920 until his death at the age of 74 in 1955.
Fairfax Hay & Grain Store
10416 Main Street
This trio of century-old vernacular frame buildings is completed by this two-story, three-bay gabled structure that did duty as a granary in its youth.
TURN LEFT ON CHAIN BRIDGE ROAD
Joshua Gunnell House
4023 Chain Bridge Road
On June 1, 1861, seven weeks before the First Battle of Bull Run, Civil War skirmishing took place on Main Street. Ex-Governor, “Extra Billy” Smith, a civilian, ran from this house to take charge of the Warrenton Rifles. Their commanding officer, Captain John Quincy Marr, had been killed, the first Confederate officer killed during the Civil War in a military engagement between opposing forces.
CROSS THE STREET (CAREFULLY) AND NEGOTIATE YOUR WAY ON TO THE COURTHOUSE GROUNDS.
Fairfax County Historic Courthouse
4000 Chain Bridge Road
George Mason petitioned the General Assembly in 1790 to move the courthouse from Alexandria to “such a place as should be found most convenient near the center of the County.” Designed by James Wren and centrally located at the crossroads of Little River Turnpike and Ox Road, Fairfax County Courthouse was completed in 1800. The wills of George and Martha Washington were probated at the courthouse and are on display in the Judicial Center. During the Civil War, the building was occupied by both Union and Confederate troops. Afterwards the courthouse was repaired and restored and over the years followed refurbishments and additions until the 1960s when the court was restored as closely as possibleto its original appearance.
4000 Chain Bridge Road
The monument in front of the courthouse honors John Quincy Marr, the first confederate officer to die in battle in the Civil War. Marr commanded the Warrenton Rifles during a Union cavalry attack at 3:00 a.m. on June 1, 1861. His body was found in a clover field 800 feet southwest of he courthouse when dawn broke. Marr was killed by the impact of a minie ball in the chest - without spilling blood. The cannons at the site face north, as do all Confederate cannon monuments. Mathew Brady made this a widely recognized site by using it in many photographic studies.
MAKE YOUR WAY BACK TO MAIN STREET AND TURN LEFT, WALKING WEST.
Old Fairfax Jail
southeast corner of Main Street and West Street
The first “gaol” in town appeared in 1802, used mostly for the usual sins against the Sabbath, public drunkenness and swearing and so on. That jail burned in 1884 and was replaced by this two-story brick building. The jailer and his family lived in the front quarters with the cells in the back. It was an active jail until the 1950s and now houses the Administrative Services Division of the Sheriff’s Office. The Italianate-influenced building features decorative brick work at the cornice and stone window lintels.
TURN RIGHT AFTER CAREFULLY CROSSINGS MAIN STREET ONTO TRURO LANE.
10520 Main Street
The original Truro Parish was created by the General Assembly of Virginia on November 1, 1732 and included a large swath of Northern Virginia. Augustine Washington was a vestry for a few years beginning in 1735 and his son, George, was appointed to the Truro Parish vestry on October 25, 1762. There was no official Episcopal Church in City of Fairfax until the Rev. Richard Templeton Brown, rector of The Falls Church, organized a congregation in 1843. The congregation first met at the historic Fairfax Courthouse and then moved to the private home of Mrs. William Rumsey, a Baptist from New York. There were fourteen communicants. A year later, a plain white frame church was built on the present site of the Truro Chapel and was consecrated as Zion Church in 1845. As Union troops advanced into Virginia at the outset of the Civil War, the congregation was forced to abandon Zion Church. During the Civil War, Zion Church was first used as a storehouse for munitions and then was destroyed. At the close of the Civil War, the congregation of Zion Church re-formed and began to meet in the Fairfax Courthouse. Zion Church was rebuilt and consecrated in 1878. Zion Church remained in active use from 1875 through 1933, when a new church (now the Chapel) was built to serve the growing congregation of 100 parishioners.
Dr. William Gunnell House
10520 Main Street
On the night of March 9, 1863, Union brigadier general Edwin H. Stoughton was rudely awakened by a slap. “Get up general, and come with me,” said the intruder. “What is this? Do you know who I am?” demanded Stoughton. “I reckon I do, general. Did you ever hear of Mosby?” “Yes, have you caught him?” “No, but he has caught you.” Ranger John Singleton Mosby also captured 32 other Union soldiers and 58 horses. Upon hearing of the raid, Abraham Lincoln disgustedly observed that he could create another general with the stroke of a pen, but he surely did hate to lose those horses. One officer Lincoln did not have to replace was Colonel Johnstone; he escaped capture by hiding beneath an outhouse, wearing only his nightshirt. Dr. Gunnell’s house, built in 1835, was purchased for use as a rectory for Truro Church in 1882. At that time it was half the size it is today and was enlarged to its present form in 1911. It served as the residence of the rector of the Episcopal Church in Fairfax until 1991 when it served first as a home for single mothers and their babies (NOEL House) and then as the offices for Truro Church.
TURN RIGHT AND WALK A FEW MORE STEPS TO TH EEND OF TRURO LANE AND CONTINUE STRAIGHT ONTO NORTH STREET AND WALK TO THE INTERSECTION WITH CHAIN BRIDGE ROAD.
3950 Chain Bridge Road at North Street
Built around 1840, this house belonged to the Conrad family before the Murray family owned it until 1882 when Thomas Moore purchased the house. Moore’s only son, Robert Walton Moore, served as state senator, U.S. congressman, and assistant secretary of state under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The estate of F. Shield McCandlish conveyed the property to Fairfax City in 1979. Today it has been restored for office space. The house played a brief cameo in the Civil War. During his March 1863 raid, Ranger John S. Mosby searched here, with no success, for the Union mercenary Col. Percy Wyndham who had called Mosby a horse thief. Mosby had replied that the only horses he had ever stolen had Union troopers on their backs armed with two pistols and a saber.
TURN RIGHT ON CHAIN BRIDGE ROAD.
Efe Quality House
3970 Chain Bridge Road
In 1930 this home was built on top of the Manassas Gap Railway right-of-way. Conceived to extend the Manassas Gap Railroad to Alexandria, grading on this part of the line began in September 1854. Financial problems stopped the work in May 1857 and track was never laid. In various places the roadbed provided shelter from attack and a route for troop movements during the Civil War.
3977 Chain Bridge Road
Antonia Ford, a beguiling beauty with a knack for remembering conversations, lived in his brick building, constructed around 1835. Confederate cavalry leader J.E.B. Stuart awarded Miss Ford a written commission as “my honorary aide-de-camp” in recognition of her recollection of Union secrets. Arrested as a spy when the document was found, Antonia was escorted to a Washington prison by Union major Joseph C. Willard, who fell in love with her. He worked to secure her release seven months later, and they were married.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS BACK TO NORTH ROAD AND TURN RIGHT.
southeast corner of University Drive and North Street
This small landscaped greenspace honors Kitty Barrett Pozer, who owned the adjacent historic Ratcliffe-Allison House from 1927 until she bequeathed it to the City at her death in 1981. For many years she wrote about horticultural topics as the gardening columnist for the Washington Post.
YOU HAVE NOW RETURNED TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT THE PARKING LOT.