With the opening of The Shelby last month, a mid-rise luxury apartments building at 6200 North Kings Highway, a new day dawns in the Penn-Daw neighborhood. Coming on the heels of the opening of The Beacon of Groveton at 6870 Richmond Highway, and other transit-oriented development around the nearby Huntington Metro station, The Shelby’s arrival is another sign that this part of Fairfax County is changing from a suburban bedroom community to one with more of an urban lifestyle.
To the casual observer, Penn-Daw, which lies one mile south of Alexandria along Route 1, is a place with little or no history. While the neighborhood is certainly no match for Alexandria and some other parts of Fairfax County in this regard, there are some stories to be told.
Long before it got its current nickname, the area just north of Penn-Daw was inhabited by Native Americans. Free to roam the fertile land, they fished and hunted along a tributary flowing into the Potomac River we know today as Hunting Creek. As pointed out by an historical marker in Alexandria, the three tribes south of Alexandria were the Assaomeck, Namassingakent and Tauxenent.
Then came the Virginia colonists and their tobacco plantations. A map drawn by Beth Mitchell of the area in 1760 shows Col. John West (1701-1776) and a James Turley owning the land that would become Penn-Daw.
According to research by Jim Bish, Col. West distinguished himself, serving as Fairfax County Burgess in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War. A member of the influential West family, he was a friend of George Washington and served with the General during the French and Indian War. The West family played key roles in developing the town of Alexandria and owned 28 of the 84 one half acre lots sold in 1749. Col. West lived at West’s Grove, a plantation he built in 1748 at present day Belle Haven Golf Course. Union soldiers destroyed West’s Grove during the Civil War.
Not much is known about Turley, but Mitchell’s research indicated he was the rare land owner in this part of Fairfax County that did not own enslaved humans.
The 1760 map shows a lone road running through West’s hill top spread. Built by the tobacco planters for closer access to the Potomac River, the modern day equivalent for this road is more or less Route 1, but with one major exception. As you can see on the map, in those days, the road did not curve to the right as it does now at Penn-Daw. Instead it ran along what we know today as N. King’s Highway, which runs past the Huntington Metro and then down the steep hill to Telegraph Road.
Why did the road take this course and not the northeasterly track we know today as Route 1 to the Beltway?
In those days, Great Hunting Creek was wide until it reached about two miles inland, a point we know today as where Telegraph Road crosses under the Beltway. There stood Cameron, a village that predates Alexandria. Cameron was a small crossroads port. The road out west to the piedmont is what we know as Duke Street/Little River Turnpike. The road southward was the King’s Highway, a way first cut out by the Native Americans, and then used by the mail riders and colonial travelers from Boston to Charleston. We know this way as Telegraph Road.
The road from Penn Daw to Alexandria (future Route 1) came along around 1810. A new wooden bridge was built at the end of Henry Street, one that offered a second way in and out of Alexandria. They called this road the Hunting Creek Turnpike. At some point, it’s continuation past Penn-Daw was laid out to Telegraph Road. We know this road today as S. King’s Highway.
(For a full explanation, see Mike Bohn’s series at Scott Surovell’s blog, Dixie Pig).
Founded in 1749, Alexandria predates both Georgetown and Washington, D.C. Soon enough, the thriving seaport boomed with activity. Wealthy businessmen built retirement homes on the heights west and south of the city. Once such magnate was ship-builder Robert Patton. In 1809, he built Spring Bank, a mansion that eventually bulged to 25 rooms. If you’ve shopped at the Wal-Mart (6303 Richmond Highway) at King’s Crossing, you’ve stepped on this historic site. Sadly, like most of the historic homes that once dotted these hills, the mansion was torn down in 1970.
Jumping ahead to the end of World War II, American families began to hit the road in record numbers. Penn-Daw became a popular stop along Route 1 for travelers wanting a good night’s sleep in air-conditioned cottages such as the Penn-Daw Hotel (“Hey Dad, can we stop at the Dixie Pig?”).
Named after two businessmen, the suburban neighborhood divided by Route 1 got its name in the late 1920s. Samuel Cooper Dawson Jr. (1909-1957) was a native of Alexandria and rose to become a model citizen and president of the Penn-Daw Motor Hotel and Restaurant. Edward Pennell, an hotelier from Detroit, partnered with Dawson to create a motor lodge mecca where S. Kings Highway meets Richmond Highway. The two put Penn-Daw on the map.
The Fairfax Room at the Penn-Daw Hotel became a civic gathering place. For example, in August, 1951, candidates for State and county offices in the Democratic primary spoke there. Citizen associations from Groveton, New Alexandria, Jefferson Manor, Belle Haven, Bucknell Manor and Marlan Forest sponsored the event.
Penn-Daw was also home to the first Fairfax City Police Sub Station (The Shelby built on the site) and the Haven Theatre (near Mt. Eagle Elementary School). (These and other great local stories can be found in Charlotte Brown’s book “Groveton, Images of America,” a wonderful new book on the history of Groveton and environs. Available at Amazon but if you purchase it at Huntley Meadows, profits go there).
After I-95 doomed the Route 1 hotel business in the late 1960s, the shopping center era arrived. Ultimately, the design proved unattractive, but oh how nice it was to ditch the trip to downtown Alexandria, and how about the plentiful parking and cheaper prices at the chains?
We’ve all heard the phrase “company town.” In the 1960s, Fairfax County could have been called a “company county.” FDR and his federal programs kicked off a boom period that brought the need for suburban neighborhoods around Washington. After World War II, federal jobs continued to bring in more and more residents. On its way to surpassing the 1M mark in 2010, the population of the county grew in leaps and bounds. What was once mostly farmland in the 1930s, the population grew from 40,000 in 1950 to 600,000 in 1980.
In the late 1990s, Penn-Daw, Groveton and other neighboring communities held on to their appeal as bedroom communities, a place with decent proximity to jobs in Washington, Alexandria, Fort Belvoir and Prince George’s County, Maryland. The appeal, however, was limited. While Old Town Alexandria flourished, the Richmond Highway Corridor remained one long, mind-numbing string of stoplights and ugly strip malls. You may not believe this, but a “Coming Soon” sign at the southwest corner of Richmond Highway and Memorial Street stood lonely in the weed-choked empty lot for almost ten years. Finally, in 2012, the Groveton at Beacon opened its doors on the site of the Groveton Elementary School, a signal that the new smart growth era had arrived in these parts.
The soul-sapping landscape along the Richmond Highway told the tale of what was happening across the country as the suburbs sagged and lost some of their appeal. To the rescue came the millennials and their desire to live where they could take Metro, a bus, a bike or their own two feet to work. Empty nesters too, traded in the long commutes for closer access.
Not everybody welcomed the option of urbanism, but the progressives had a friend. The Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation got out in front and supported the smart-growth approach. Political leaders such as Delegate Scott Surovell and Representative Jeff McKay lent their support to reduce the sprawl. Blogs such as Greater Greater Washington and organizations such as the Coalition for Smart Growth educate and advocate for the new urbanism. Even if you didn’t care to know about it all, all residents seem to enjoy places like Panera and Chipotle in Groveton. Before you knew it, Penn-Daw sported several decent food options at King’s Crossing as well as a place to get (yum, yum) fro-yo.
With 240 units in a small footprint, The Shelby offers a piece of this lifestyle. On tap to follow are the Grande at Huntington (oddly named, as it will be located in Penn Daw and not Huntington), and One Kings, a mixed use that will replace the Penn Daw Plaza.
All these places are poised to take off as mass transit is set to grow along the Richmond Highway Corridor. Coming soon is a critical decision that will help shape the future of Penn Daw and the Richmond Highway Corridor. Residents and investors eagerly await the outcome of a transportation study years in the making.
As noted by Delegate Surovell, the study comes down to two choices - dedicated bus rapid transit (BRT) system from Huntington Metro to Fort Belvoir, and a two-stop extension of the Yellow Line with a bus rapid transit system to Woodbridge.
We welcome The Shelby as a wonderful addition to the Southeast Fairfax family. Our one hope in all this is for leaders and businesses to consider the importance of public memory. Places like Alexandria have succeeded and thrived in this area by installing interpretive signage and historical markers. Along with other re-branding efforts, these markers can enhance a sense of place and community. Real estate companies have learned the value of cooperating with towns and cities by providing the funding for markers.
Not as much history in Penn-Daw as in Alexandria, you say?
How true. But some stories are there. And the timing is certainly right for the neighborhood, as it enters a new era.
Now if they could just get a Mom and Pop or two…