Just south of Old Town Alexandria, and sandwiched in between the Potomac River and Telegraph Road, lie the hills of Southeast Fairfax County. Dotting these wooded heights overlooking the historic seaport, the District of Columbia and parts of Maryland, are neighborhoods and bedroom communities such as Huntington, Belle Haven, Penn-Daw and Groveton. Splitting the middle and winding its way from Great Hunting Creek to the top of Beacon Hill runs Historic Route 1/Richmond Highway Corridor.
Needless to say, there is not as much history in these parts as are found in Alexandria and the nation’s capital, but there are certainly stories to be told. Although I have not conducted a full scale search as I did for my book on historical markers in Old Town Alexandria, it is my impression this two miles by two miles portion of Fairfax County is underserved in the way of historical marking.
Deciding which aspects of an area’s history to commemorate is an immense challenge. Perhaps some day such an effort will be made for this part of Southeast Fairfax County, but for here and now, here is a humble attempt to get the ball rolling.
Let’s start with three historic manors and their occupants. Grab a tissue folks, because each of these places, as well as other almost all of the older dwellings between Groveton and Alexandria, has been wiped off the face of the earth. No historic markers exist, nor any physical reminders.
Most fortunately we have the work of some historians who cared deeply about Fairfax County. One shining beacon is the late Edith Moore Sprouse, who spent countless hours researching and wrote many a fine article. We owe much to Nan Netherton and her book on Mount Eagle. I supplemented my own research with a conversation with Harry and Anna Marie Lehman, who lived in City View. Charlotte Brown, author of Groveton, provided great information on Spring Bank, and Ed Hines gave rich insight on the Quander family.
City View I and II
Location: Beacon Center, 6600 Richmond Highway
Currently There: Beacon Center
Precise Location: Historic Aerials indicate City View’s modern day equivalent was in front of the Panera and steps south of Famous Dave’s Restaurant.
We start at the top of Beacon Hill in Groveton, the tallest point around these parts at about 250 feet, and about halfway between Alexandria and Mount Vernon. Some Alexandrians who made their money in the seaport retreated to the quiet and solitude of the hills south of the city. One such man was Benjamin Barton (1820-1897), who built his county home on land we now know as the Beacon Center in Groveton.
From his shop on King Street, just a few blocks from the waterfront, Barton earned a sterling reputation as a master clock and watchmaker. He learned the trade from his father, as did his brother Thomas. Barton, Eliza and their three children lived at 31 South Royal Street. He maintained the City Clock at City Hall and became President of the Hydraulicon Steam Fire Company, a position he held for 42 years.
After he retired, Barton purchased a 74-acre farm. In his book, “Dixie Clockmakers,” author James W. Gibbs notes the location was three miles south of Alexandria on the Mount Vernon Road. A cottage was located there during the Civil War. In 1868, Barton built a country house and named it “City View.” He died there in 1887. The Alexandria Gazette wrote that an overflow crowd of mourners poured into 2nd Presbyterian Church. Barton was laid to rest at Ivy Hill Cemetery on upper King Street, a high spot itself overlooking the city where Barton was revered.
After City View burned down in 1918, W.F.P Reid Sr. (married to Sallie K. Pickett) built City View II on the same high ground. The history of this beautiful home is covered like a blanket at Friends of Beacon Field Airport. Harry and Anna Marie Lehman tell us the four-story Greek dwelling with 25 rooms and four front columns was, “visually massive and a prominent landmark on Route 1.” In 1954, the Alexandria Gazette called it “one of the area’s finest homes.”
(Note: Photo of City View courtesy Harry Lehman, Anna Marie Hicks. Be sure and check out their wonderful website).
In the early 1930s, the City View tract became home to Beacon Field Airport, named after the country’s navigational beacon program. During different periods of time, entertainment events were held there, including horse shows, carnivals and air shows. After World War II, commercial airline pilots received their aviation training at Beacon Field.
Beacon Field had two runways. The south-north footprint survives on the straight line of landscape running behind the Beacon Center from the Giant to the Target store. The east-west runway ended at about where Chipotle now stands and at the intersection of Southgate and King’s Highway.
An observation room on top of City View provided a “magnificent panoramic view” of Alexandria, Washington, Fort Washington in Maryland and the Potomac River. Reid no doubt showed off this view to guests such as Ulysses S. Grant II and Arthur Godfrey.
City View II, once surrounded by dairy farms, gained many neighbors in the middle of the 20th-century as the population in Fairfax County grew from 40,000 in 1940 to 275,000 in 1960. Down the hill towards Alexandria, Penn-Daw had become a motor inn mecca for travelers along Route 1. Some of the visitors and many of the locals ate at the Dixie Pig Restaurant, a culinary landmark that stood for many years across the street from City View II.
City View’s long run ended in 1959 when it was torn down. The Giant grocery store rose up on the historic footprint (Lehman recalled the front door was located on the south side facing Memorial Street and the Groveton High School). Other stores at the Beacon Mall followed, which rebranded its name to the “Beacon Center” several years ago.
Thanks to the efforts of the Lehman’s, a Fairfax County historical marker for Beacon Field was erected in 2010 and stands near the corner of Route 1 and Memorial Avenue. A new restaurant at 6900 Richmond Highway (about 1/3 mile to the south), on tap to open in 2015, will pay homage to this lost landmark with its name – City View Restaurant.
Location: Top of Mount Eagle Drive near Huntington Metro
Built: 1790, Torn Down: 1968
Now: Montebello Condominium
City View stood at the highest point in this portion of Fairfax County, but bragging rights for best views might have gone to Mount Eagle. Its lofty perch was less than a mile from the southern edge of Alexandria and about a mile closer than City View. This proximity to Great Hunting Creek, the Potomac River, and the bustling seaport of Alexandria made it a witness to a lot of history.
Native Americans who fished and lived on the banks of Great Hunting Creek might have caught their first glimpse of the approaching colonial ships from the future site of Mount Eagle. Some of those pioneers from Europe who settled here were land speculators and tobacco planters who arrived in the latter part of the 17th-century. One such colonial was John Colville, who owned a large tract between Alexandria and the future site of Mount Eagle. His plantation was called Cleesh. The modern day equivalent for Cleesh is Huntington and the surrounding neighborhoods.
Colville is an overlooked early player who provides us with one of the greatest “what if’s” in these parts. In the 1730s, the Virginia House of Burgess wanted to establish a tobacco inspection station somewhere on or near Great Hunting Creek. Colville, along with John Minor and Philip Alexander, competed against a group featuring Hugh West, John Carlyle, Lawrence Washington and William Ramsay. The Colville group wanted the location to be the village of Cameron, modern day Eisenhower Avenue metro station and the surrounding area east of Telegraph Road. The West group won, and Alexandria was founded along the Potomac in 1749.
Of all the dwellings in this area, Mount Eagle has perhaps the best case for bragging rights in terms of the historical stature of its builder and first occupant. Bryan Fairfax, 8th Lord Fairfax (1736-1802), lived there from 1790 to his death in 1802.
Born in Westmoreland County, Bryan was the first child of Colonel William Fairfax (1691-1757) and his second wife Deborah Clark (1707-1747). The power couple built Belvoir Manor (burned in 1783 and destroyed by the British in 1814), overlooking the Potomac and a few miles from Mount Vernon. Bryan spent some of his early years there, seeing first hand a life of privilege and high-society balls. It was at Belvoir that Bryan met George Washington. Theirs would become a life-long, close friendship.
The cousin of Bryan’s father’s (Colonel William), Thomas, Sixth Lord of Fairfax, owned over 5,000,000 acres of Northern Neck land between the Potomac and the Rappahannock Rivers. Thomas appointed William his agent around 1733.
The power and influence of the Fairfax family in these parts cannot be understated. As Robert Madison points out in “Walking with Washington,” five of the original trustees of Alexandria were members of Lord Fairfax’s family by birth or marriage - Thomas Lord Fairfax, Col. William Fairfax, George William Fairfax, and William Fairfax’s two sons-in-law, Lawrence Washington (George’s half brother), and John Carlyle.
As a Fairfax, Bryan saw many doors open for him. His brother-in-law, John Carlyle, the famed merchant of Alexandria, appointed him as a deputy clerk for the county. Washington mentored him as a lieutenant in the militia regiment.
And yet, it seems Bryan had a restless soul. Susan Cochrane (Great Falls Historical Society) points out he was a “complex man who had a very different personality from George Washington. He was introspective, and spent his lifetime trying to, as we would say, "find himself."
In his book on Carlyle, James D. Munson writes that Bryan Fairfax resigned his commission in 1757. Rejected by a Miss Turberville of Westmoreland County, he fell into a funk and essentially ran away from home. Authorities arrested him in Annapolis for lacking the proper travel documents. Carlyle rescued him and brought him back to Belvoir.
In 1759, Fairfax settled down and married Elizabeth Cary, the sister of Sally Cary Fairfax, wife of George William Fairfax, his half-brother. First living at Belvoir, they had three children, William (died as an infant), Thomas (1762-1846) and Ferdinando (1766-1820). Thomas would become ninth Lord Fairfax and lived at 607 Cameron Street in Alexandria. Ferdinando lived at N. Royal for a while.
When William passed away, Bryan inherited Towlston Grange, a plantation home still standing in Great Falls. He lived there from 1768 to 1789. In 1790, Fairfax sold Towlston Grange to George Washington and moved to a 329-acre spread on that plateau overlooking Alexandria. He built a country home there and called it Mount Eagle. Fairfax was appointed as Rector of Fairfax Parish around this time, ministering at Christ Church in Alexandria and Falls Church.
As a Tory, Fairfax remained loyal to the Crown. As Nan Netherton and her co-writers (“Fairfax County, Virginia, A History”) point out, Fairfax disagreed with George Washington and George Mason regarding their revolutionary nature of the “Fairfax Resolves.” But Fairfax held “neither an American or British position, but an attempt to be as conciliatory as possible.”
Despite their ideological differences, Washington and Fairfax remained best of friends. The two would write more than 200 letters of correspondence over the course of 41 years. In one of the last, Washington closed by saying:
Mrs Washington unites in best wishes for your restored health—and in respects to your Lady and family with Your Lordships most Obedt and affectionate Hble Servant.
A week later, Washington dined at Mount Eagle with Fairfax. This was the President’s last meal away from Mount Vernon. Four days later, Fairfax dined at Mount Vernon. Three days later, on December 1799, Washington slipped away in his upstairs bed.
Bryan Fairfax died at Mount Eagle three years later. An obelisk to honor his memory was erected at Ivy Hill Cemetery in Alexandria. Some sources say it is unknown where he was buried. In their book, The Fairfax Family in Fairfax County, Kilmer and Sweig write that Fairfax was laid to rest at Ivy Hill. A representative from Ivy Hill told me they have no record of his burial.
With his father gone, Thomas Fairfax inherited and leased Mount Eagle, which included a smoke house, stable and carriage house and gardens. George Mason VI, another grandson of the Virginia patriot, lived there for a while around 1825. In 1845, Courtland Johnson, a farmer from New York, bought the property and settled down for several decades.
An article in the Washington Post (July 30, 1916) noted Mount Eagle was, with the exception of Mount Vernon, “perhaps the most historic and best known estate in northern Virginia.” The original structure was still in an excellent state of preservation. Improvements had been made to “provide more modern home conveniences, always preserving the quaint original architecture.”
In 1936, local businessmen and preservationists put forth an effort to save Mount Eagle. They formed the Lord Fairfax Country Club, which featured tennis courts and jousting tournaments. Their source of income was slot machines, which the state of Virginia banned around 1940. One of their trustees, Dr. Carson Lee Fifer, purchased Mount Eagle in 1941. For the next 20 years, the large family lived and frolicked on the property. The place was abuzz in 1949 when Thomas McKelvie, 13th Lord Fairfax, paid a visit from Scotland. He helped dedicate Mount Comfort Cemetery, which lies less than a mile to the south on S. Kings Highway.
In 1966, the Fifers sold Mount Eagle to developers, Winston Virginia Corporation. As Sprouse points out, a verbal agreement was made to ensure the preservation of the historic home. Sadly, those plans fell through. In November 1968, the Fairfax County fire department arrived. They set fire to Mount Eagle and down in flames it went.
Montebello, a four mid-rise condo complex, went up on the site in the early 80s. The street leading up to the gated property was named Mount Eagle Drive. The footprint of Mount Eagle was paved over as part of the parking for residents. The county established Mount Eagle Park to the west, but a fence surrounds the Montebello property and large trees obstruct the views.
Location: East side of Richmond Highway at King’s Crossing
Currently There: King’s Crossing, Retail and Restaurants, Wal Mart
Torn Down: 1972
Unlike City View and Mount Eagle, Spring Bank did not sit on a commanding height. There must have been, however, something special about the place, for several famous men called it home.
Spring Bank’s origins go back to the beginnings of Alexandria in middle of the 18th-century and the West family, who owned a lot of property in and around Alexandria. Col. John West owned land we now know as Belle Haven Golf Course, the Belle Haven neighborhood and some residential areas east of Route 1. In 1748, one year before the founding of Alexandria, he built a manor for his plantation called “West Grove. The modern day equivalent is the Belle Haven Golf Course.
(Note: 1760 composite map by Beth Mitchell).
Robert Patton, a raw goods merchant in Alexandria who owned a three-story dwelling at 218 N. Royal Street, bought 128 acres from Roger West in 1805. The land was fertile and held a peach and apple orchard. A creek ran from Great Hunting Creek and spawned several springs. Patton raised Merino sheep and married Ann Clifton Reeder, who traced her roots back to the Brent family. Alexandria night have been called Brentsville, for it was they who owned a large swath of land on this side of the Potomac.
Patton built his plantation manor in 1809. We’re not sure it if was coincidence or not, but it was around this time that ads began to appear in the Alexandria Gazette announcing the construction of a bridge crossing Great Hunting Creek. As Mike Bohn points out in his article on Route 1:
The first half of the 1800s saw a marked upsurge in road building, especially turnpikes. Financed by tolls, the roads featured a horizontally rotating wooden shaft or timber—a pike that turned, which kept non-paying travelers off the road. Entrepreneurs built the Hunting Creek Turnpike about 1810. It crossed Great Hunting Creek on a new bridge from south Henry Street in Alexandria to what is now the Fort Hunt Road and Route One intersection. The turnpike established a new route from Hunting Creek to Penn-Daw, then continued south on what is now King’s Highway South to its intersection with the back road to Occoquan.
The ad does not mention Spring Bank, but one mile south of the creek is where the manor sprung up. Prior to this, all horses and foot traffic had to cross the creek into Alexandria at Cameron. The modern day equivalent of this would be N. King’s Higway past the Huntington Metro, down the hill to Telegraph Road, and crossing Great Hunting Creek at that point.
After he passed away in 1826, Patton’s heirs rented Spring Bank to John Armfield, a coach driver from North Carolina who became co-owner of a slave pen in Alexandria. 1315 Duke Street was the city’s most infamous address. From this location, Armfield and his uncle, Isaac Franklin, teamed up to run a business that sold over 5,000 enslaved humans from 1828-1835. It was the largest such firm in the United States. (The Alexandria Gazette-Packett is publishing a four-part series on this topic, written by Dr. Donald M. Sweig).
Spring Bank’s next owner was George W. Mason, a grandson of George Mason, the famous patriot who lived at Gunston Hall (George W. Mason should not be confused with George Mason VI). George W. inherited Hollin Hall from his father Thomson Mason. A fire burned down the main house in 1824. In 1844, George W. bought Spring Bank and lived there the rest of his life. As Potomac Connections points out, Spring Bank at that time “consisted of a twenty-five-room mansion, a three-story brick barn, stables, and other outbuildings.”
Just as Bryan Fairfax had to worry about being on the opposite side of the local military forces, so too did George W. Mason. During the Civil War, many Virginians in Alexandria and south of Great Hunting Creek worried about their homes. In need of supplies, Union forces often confiscated homeowner’s property.
A couple of books touch on the occupation of Spring Bank by the 2nd Vermont Brigade. 5,000 soldiers were stationed there and used the mansion for their headquarters. Sprouse notes, the 63rd Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers, were quartered at Spring Bank from October 14, 1861 to March 17, 1862. Their duties included building Fort Lyon.
Mason was in his 60s during the Civil War, a tough time to be dealing with the invaders from the north. He watched Fort Lyon go up, as well as Fort Weed, Fort O’Rourke, and Fort Farnsworth. We know this area as neighborhoods close to the Huntington Metro station. In their book, “Mr. Lincoln’s Forts,” Franklin Cooling III and Wally Owen point out that “trees on Mason’s property obstructed the fields of fire of the cannon in the forts.”
As well known as the Masons and Fairfax’s are in these parts, no family name is more famous than the Lee’s. At the Lee-Fendall House alone, more than three-dozen of the famous clan called home. Across the street, Robert E. Lee spent most of his childhood at 607 Oronoco, and his father, Henry “Light Horse Harry,” spent time at 607 Cameron Street.
Fitzhugh Lee, Robert E. Lee’s nephew, lived at Spring Bank as a renter. He was born at Clermont (site is two miles west of Huntington Metro in 1835). Henry was his paternal grandfather. His father was the older brother of Robert E. Lee. His mother was Ann Maria Mason Lee, the great granddaughter of George Mason. After the Civil War, he married Ellen Bernard Fowle of Alexandria. Winning by the slimmest of margins, Fitzhugh Lee was elected as the 40th Governor of Virginia in 1885. He rented Spring Bank during his campaign in 1885. Lee died in 1905.
In 1885, Johnson Downey of Frederick, MD bought Spring Bank. After he passed away, his widow, Rose E. Downey sold 88 acres to Charles Henry Quander (passed away in 1919). Paying tribute to the Quander family, Quander Road runs from Richmond Highway past East Potomac High School, which honored the family by naming one of its buildings Quander Hall.
The Quander family has a storied history, tracing its roots back to Ghana in 1684. Charles, born in Maryland, was the first African American to settle at Spring Bank. After his emancipation from the Hayfield Plantation in Fairfax County, he earned money and bought parcels of land south of the Spring Bank manor. The Quander farm sold milk to Alexandria and Mount Vernon. As Charlotte Brown points out, Charles willed portions of his land to his children.
Several Quander family descendants live in the Spring Bank Area. Among those that have left us recently is the late Gladys Quander Tancil. She was the granddaughter of Charles Henry Quander. Her father was James H. Quander. The commonwealth of Virginia honored her life and legacy with a Senate resolution in 2003. Among her many accomplishments were:
Mount Vernon's first African-American interpreter
25 years providing educaton and insight into the life of enslaved humans
Member of the Alfred Street Baptist Church for more than 70 years, with her service as an usher, Sunday school teacher, missionary worker, and trustee at the Children's Home of Virginia Baptists
Founding member of the Society for the Preservation of Black Heritage in Alexandria
In the next 40 years, Spring Bank, once described as one of the best and most extensive mansions in this part of Virginia,” went through a series of owners. During World War II, Robert Bowman converted the house into apartments and added a trailer park behind the house. In 1963, Lee Plaza, Inc bought the property. By then, the neighborhood had become known as Penn-Daw. K-Mart occupied the site for a period of time before developers built the King’s Crossing for retail and restaurants.
In one of the many articles she wrote in her prolific career (Historical Society of Fairfax County, Virginia, Inc, Volume 13 – 1973-1975), Edith Moore Sprouse writes about the inglorious end of this once proud historic home. A mural was removed from above the fireplace. Serving as its epitaph of sorts, she writes:
On Monday morning, February 7, 1972, a bulldozer turned the house at Spring Bank into a pile of rubble.
With City View and Mount Eagle, and almost all of the other older homes already gone, the destruction of Spring Bank finished off the stripping away of the past in these parts of Fairfax County. All that remains are Historic Huntley, some visible remains of Fort Willard, a hint of a parapet of Fort Lyon, the roadbeds for Route 1 and Telegraph Road, and a shrunken Great Hunting Creek. Even most of the old view sheds have vanished.
As the Richmond Corridor continues to grow and prosper, I think we owe it to the people who lived here to erect something more than just the next place to live, eat or shop. We need to commemorate this rich history of Southeast Fairfax County with the appropriate methods of public memory. In these efforts, let us not forget the Native Americans and the African Americans, both enslaved and free.
Note: Ed Hines, Charlotte Brown and myself are working on getting a Fairfax County History Commission sign for the Quander family and Spring Bank. If you have any documentation that would help us, please contact me. Thanks.