Where We Live: Clifton, in Virginia's Fairfax County

By Amy Reinink
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 3, 2010

The small-town charm that defines the tiny Fairfax County town of Clifton becomes apparent even before a stroll down the town's historic Main Street.

Leafy, winding Clifton Road is lined with rural horse farms and residences with white picket fences. The Big Red Barn, literally a restored barn that serves as a community center for town events, sits near the entrance to town.

On Main Street itself, the row of impeccably restored historic buildings includes Peterson's Ice Cream Depot, owned by Mayor Tom Peterson; the Clifton General Store, housed in a green block building that also holds a florist and the Main Street Pub; and Clifton Baptist Church, with its steeple and gothic windows.

It's little wonder that when a house goes on the market in Clifton, which has about 200 residents and occupies a quarter-mile square in southwestern Fairfax County, it doesn't stay there for long.

Clifton, about 25 miles west of downtown Washington near the Prince William County line, oozes with history. In its early days, it served as an Orange and Alexandria Railroad depot called Devereux Station, and as a southern outpost for the Union Army during the Civil War. Its historic district was added to the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

Many houses in downtown Clifton bear their own historic markers, such as the Mayhugh Tavern, once a one-room pub and now a two-story house occupied by Steve and Kim Bittner and their two sons.

The Bittners had first moved to a newer house on the outskirts of Clifton in 1990 and spent years watching the historic district's real estate market before buying the Mayhugh Tavern four years ago.

"We'd had our eye on historic houses for a while, but there's not much turnover in town," said Steve Bittner, 50, who works for a software product company in Sterling. "When people move here, they generally stay."

Looking at houses like the Bittners', it's hard to imagine the town's housing stock was ever "derelict," as Donna Netschert said it was in 1964 when her family moved in.

"Most of the houses here were not habitable," said Netschert, 59, who operates a personal-concierge business. "And the nightlife here was nonexistent. After 5 p.m., Clifton would roll up its rugs."

A group of "pioneer" residents changed that by moving into and renovating prominent properties in town in the 1960s and 1970s, said Netschert, who moved back to Clifton in 1983 with her husband, Jamie, owner of the Clifton-Centreville Animal Clinic.

The improvements continued in the 1980s with new businesses such as the Heart in Hand restaurant, which opened in 1982 in the building that once housed the Buckley Brothers Store. The restaurant has since hosted a cadre of big-name diners, including Nancy Reagan and George Will.

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