Note: This is a multi-part series on the history of roads in Southeast Fairfax County, with a concentration on Richmond Highway.
Part Ten: Suburbia Sprawls
The unattractive truth
But the suburbs have no charms
To soothe the restless dream of youth -
Subdivisions, Rush, Lyrics by Neal Peart
A 1937 aerial view of Route One south of Alexandria shows the majority of the land still farms and open fields. A sprinkling of homes, however, heralded the dawn of a new era. In the coming decades, more and more new neighborhoods would be built on both sides of the highway, as well as along and near Telegraph Road and Fort Hunt Road.
One of the first set of homes south of Alexandria popped up just south of where City View, the airport and the Dixie Pig restaurant stood. This was the beginning of Groveton as a residential place, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Fairfax County.
An article in The Washington Post (1939) had told the story of how home buyers were finding Alexandria and its suburbs as an appealing place. Southeast Fairfax county was not in the city limits of Alexandria, but the crows found the distances about the same. In fact, the city proposed annexing about two miles worth of Southeast Fairfax County, but the residents along Route One said no.
A good number of jobs were found at the Naval Torpedo Station (Torpedo Factory), which reopened in Alexandria in 1940. Some residents of southeast Fairfax County found work there making the twenty-one-foot long MK14 torpedo. As pointed out by a marker on the outside of the former factory, nearly 10,000 were manufactured there from 1939 to 1946.
The boom was on. Over the next three decades, bungalows, Cape Cods, split levels, and ramblers filled new neighborhoods on both sides of the highway.
It wasn’t all gable roofs and mass production, however. About a half mile or so to the east of the busy highway, a sanctuary community of sorts was created. The flat line roofs and lots of glass windows gave some residents a breath of fresh air in a place called Hollin Hills. Designed by Charles M. Goodman and built by Robert C. Davenport, about 450 “modern architecture” homes grace the hilly and leafy landscape.
In the early 70’s, the highway, now known as Route One and sometimes referred to as the Richmond Highway, was widened to three lanes each way. Surely there was some rejoicing, but the dichotomy was still starkly apparent. After a day’s work, residents could retreat to their bedroom community home. But awaiting them the next morning was the traffic-choked rush hour commute, strung out with a seemingly endless set of red lights.
One can certainly go overboard with the criticisms of the Richmond Highway. The landscape was unattractive, but the businesses filled a need. Mortgages in Southeast Fairfax were affordable compared to Old Town and the homes were solidly built. In some cases, no through traffic provided a quiet place to live. Some homes had a "country in the city" feel.
There was density and transit-oriented growth as early on as the early 1980s with the construction of Montebello's four mid-size towers, and Metro's Yellow Line opened at Huntington in 1983.
The sprawl of suburban homes in Southeast Fairfax County was an answer to the growing need for bedroom communities across the DC region. The population of Fairfax County, which from 1790 to 1900 remained under 20,000, exploded in the last half of the twentieth century. On its way to the one million mark in 2010, the decade numbers for 1950 onward were 98,000, 275,000, 450,000, 596,000, 818,000, and 969,000.
With the growth, there were casualties. During the Urban Renewal Movement in the 1960s, residents in Old Town fought back against the developer's initial plans to raze more than fifteen downtown blocks. In the end, a compromise of three went down.
South of Alexandria, the boxscore read -- Developers 3, Preservationists 0.
From the 1920s to the 1960s, anyone driving along Route One south of Alexandria would have noticed three landmark homes — Mount Eagle, Spring Bank and City View. Their architecture provided a pleasant break from what was being put up during the suburban boom.
William H. Snowden (“Some Old Historic Landmarks of Virginia and Maryland”) had described the setting of these three homes and others around Alexandria.
On every stream and thoroughfare, in every valley and on every hill crest, there is some memento or landmark, in whatever direction the eye may range to remind of the pioneers who transformed the wastes of wilderness, marked the bounds of the homesteads, laid the hearth stones, established the neighborhoods and set up the altars of the Virginia Commonwealth.
Preservationists in Fairfax County fought as best as they could to save some of the historical assets across the county. Their efforts are documented in “The Preservation of History in Fairfax County, Virginia.” Its two authors were a pair of distinguished historians, Ross and Nan Netherton. Others who wrote wonderfully about Fairfax County history included Edith Moore Spouse and Eleanor Lee Templeman.
We can’t save everything and we have to respond to current needs. Nevertheless, the loss of Mount Eagle, Spring Bank and City View, in a span of about ten years, left a void that is still felt today. A combined 431 years of history disappeared with the loss of those three homes.
Back on the highway, a concerted effort began in the 1980s to try and improve the seven mile long corridor. We will take a look at that and our concluding thoughts in the eleventh and final part.