Where We Live: Fairlington, in Northern Virginia

Colonial Revival style distinguishes Fairlington from its neighbors.
Colonial Revival style distinguishes Fairlington from its neighbors. (Amanda Abrams For The Washington Post)
By Amanda Abrams
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, August 14, 2010

It's a bit of a real estate cliche, but one that in this case is undeniably apt: Except for the vintage of the cars parked all over Fairlington, the neighborhood could easily be set in the 1950s. And that's not just because of the condominium complex's Colonial Revival architecture or the sense of peace that pervades the neighborhood, which straddles the Arlington-Alexandria boundary.

No, what's most notable about Fairlington is the area's utter lack of anything that smacks of modernity, making it a serene oasis in a rapidly shifting world. And apparently that's exactly what Fairlington residents, who have repeatedly elected to restrict changes to the area, want.

"Once you get off of 395 and enter Fairlington, with its architectural standards in place, it's a different world," said Ron Patterson, a retiree who lives there, explaining the appeal that the neighborhood holds for him.

Fairlington, immediately north and east of the intersection of Interstate 395 and King Street, has a proud history. Built in the early 1940s at the order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to house defense workers, the 322-acre, 3,400-unit complex was the largest publicly financed housing development at that time.

Despite wartime supply shortages, the buildings -- a mix of townhouses and apartments -- were made with sturdy materials: solid brick exteriors, oak floors and slate roofs. Photos from that time show steep-roofed, austere buildings clustered around central courts and surrounded by flat, largely treeless lots.

Fairlington became a conventional apartment complex after the war. In the 1970s, all of the units were fully renovated and converted into condominiums. Each unit belongs to one of seven condo associations.

Around 1990, though, homeowners began to worry about the sweeping development that was radically changing the character of other Arlington neighborhoods.

"We saw the infill that was happening all over Arlington, and saw a threat to what we value here: green space, community," explained Cynthia Kunz, a mediator who is vice president of the Fairlington Historical Society and has lived in the area for 30 years. "People who lived here realized what a jewel it is and wanted to protect it."

The community responded by seeking historic designation, a process that took a decade, including three years of particularly intensive work. Each building had to be photographed and all architectural elements documented. But the effort was fruitful: In 1998, Fairlington was certified by Virginia as a historic district, and in 1999 it received a federal designation. In 2000, the neighborhood's historic society was launched, an event whose 10-year anniversary will be celebrated in October.

The historic designation accomplishes just what the neighborhood's residents were aiming for: Homes cannot be modified externally, replacement features must match the old ones, and nothing new can be built within the area's boundaries.

"Oh, we don't do McMansions," said Sam Anthony, president of the Fairlington Citizens Association and an employee at the National Archives. "There won't be any new development." Not that there's much extra space anyway.

Whatever regulations the historic designation didn't cover, condo association rules probably do. Like many homeowners associations, the groups have chosen to limit homes' external variation: For example, American flags are the only ones allowed, and bird feeders are forbidden in common areas.

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