Answer Man: A Starbucks, a Safeway - and a cemetery

The parking lot of the Pan Am Shopping Center in Fairfax abuts the Thompson family cemetery, which could date to the War of 1812.
The parking lot of the Pan Am Shopping Center in Fairfax abuts the Thompson family cemetery, which could date to the War of 1812. (The Washington Post)

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Sunday, March 13, 2011; 9:27 PM

I'd like to know more about the person(s) buried at the Pan Am Shopping Center at Lee Highway and Nutley Street in Fairfax County. I sometimes see a Confederate flag placed near one of the headstones. What's the story of that property and people?

- Eric Sennett, Chantilly

That relatively small parcel - near a Starbucks and a Safeway, across from a Citgo - has been the subject of some of the biggest battles over road improvements in Fairfax County. But before we get to them, accompany Answer Man back to 1863 and another battle: Gettysburg.

It was there that a Confederate soldier from Fairfax County named Armistead T. Thompson had the misfortune of being captured. He spent 17 months at the Union prison camp at Point Lookout, Md., before contracting typhoid and dying there, one of nearly 4,000 prisoners who perished at the abysmal facility. Armistead was buried on the campgrounds. In the 1880s, his father, Lawson Turner Thompson, went to Point Lookout and collected Armistead's remains for burial in the family graveyard.

We can't say for sure when the first body went into the ground at the Thompson family cemetery. It might have been a veteran of the War of 1812 named Ethan Allen (not that Ethan Allen). What's clear is that when Lawson Turner Thompson died in 1886, his will left a half-acre of land to his heirs for use as a cemetery.

After that, it's a familiar story: What had been rural slowly became anything but. Various members of the Thompson clan sold bits of their land to developers. In the 1920s and 1930s, Lee Highway was widened, nibbling away at the cemetery. In 1973, construction started on the Pan Am Shopping Center. Developers wanted to disinter all the remains and move them to another cemetery to make way for the parking lot.

The Thompsons fought back, persuading a judge to block the shopping center's action. Twice since then, the Virginia Department of Transportation has wanted to encroach on the graveyard to add lanes to Lee Highway. In 1979, 63-year-old Alfred Thompson was arrested after sitting in a lawn chair in the cemetery to block a bulldozer. He vowed to be buried there when his time came.

In 1989, VDOT threatened again. "Now, what is more important?" the Rev. Ronald Clark asked at a family protest held that year at the graveyard. "Getting to the shopping center or considering where we will be when we, too, have gone the way of the earth?"

After determining that it could not be sure that a set of plans prepared in 1937 were accurate, VDOT backed off.

No one knows for sure how many bodies are buried there. Sources mention anywhere from nine to 70. Today, there are only two headstones visible, one for three members of a branch of the family known as the Tobins, the other for Armistead, the Civil War veteran. Other graves might have been marked with simple fieldstones that were taken by vandals or used to fill depressions in the road.

The last recorded burial was in July 1918. That means the lawn chair-sitting, bulldozer-defying Alfred Thompson must be buried somewhere else, right? Nope. He isn't buried anywhere. He is 95 years old and living in Falls Church.

"I did want to be buried there," Alfred told Answer Man. But he changed his mind. "I just thought it would be kind of lonesome down there." Most of Alfred's contemporaries are buried at Fairfax City Cemetery. That's where Audrey, his wife of 68 years, was buried just last year. And that's where he'll go.

Alfred said he knows some might wonder why his family has gone to so much trouble over a bunch of dead relatives, but he likes the result. "What it is is a little green oasis floating in a sea of asphalt," Alfred says of the graveyard in a shopping center.

Numbers game

Answer Man apologizes for his creeping innumeracy. Last week in this space, he said that Alexander Shepherd's summer mansion, Bleak House, was in the area that is now bounded by Alaska Avenue, Holly Street, Geranium Street and 13th Street NW. What he meant to say was that most history buffs think it was east of 14th Street, not 13th.

And although Answer Man put Tally's Corner at 11th and M streets NW two weeks ago, last week he moved it to 10th and M. The D.C. street corner made famous by anthropologist Elliot Liebow was 11th and M streets NW.


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