Go to Main Fairfax Page

Fairlington:
At 50, a Mature
‘Little Town’

By Linda Wheeler
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 29, 1993

Residents of Fairlington marked the 50th anniversary of their World War II development last week with gardening seminars, home tours, a potluck luncheon, sock hop and the publication of their own history.

The community in the southernmost part of Arlington County began as a rental development built specifically for those who had come to Washington for the war effort. Thirty years later, the solidly built attached brick homes, still occupied by some of the original tenants, were converted into condominium units.

Author and Fairlington resident Catherine D. Fellows wrote a chronicle of the community, tracing the history of the original landowners, the Civil War fortifications in the area, the purchase of the land by the federal government, the architect’s plans for the sprawling community and the eventual condominium conversion.

“Sometimes a place derives a special dimension, not only from the land but from the history that claimed and later changed it,” she wrote in the opening of her 100-page book filled with historic pictures and early maps.

“This place has always held a special attraction for me,” said Fellows, 61, a retired government publication writer who moved to the community in 1957. “Even now, after 50 years, it still has the ambiance of a little town.”

The little-town quality was intentional on the part of Houston architect Kenneth Franzheim, according to Fellows’s book. He was hired to plan a community to house about 10,000 people in accordance with an executive order by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, operating as the country’s military commander, who directed that the country’s largest defense office—the Pentagon—and the largest defense community housing—Fairlington—be built as America went to war.

Franzheim also designed Hampshire Hills, McLean Gardens and Naylor Gardens in the District as part of the same defense housing project. All four communities have the same colonial style.

By February 1942, less than two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the newly formed Defense Homes Corp. had purchased 322 acres of mostly farmland and woods on which to build Fairlington.

Fellows wrote that Fairlington was originally called Seminary Heights but it was changed after area residents protested that the name was too easily confused with the existing Seminary Drive, Seminary Road, Seminary View, Seminary Post Office and Alexandria’s Episcopal Seminary. The new name was chosen to honor the two counties in which it was situated: Fairfax and Arlington.

Although Franzheim was hampered by wartime shortages, he was able to build more than 3,400 units with 27 different interior designs and a variety of exterior features in less than two years. Early residents moved into just-completed homes that rented for $58.50 a month for one-bedroom units and up to $89.50 for three-bedroom duplexes. The wartime housing crisis in the Washington area was so severe that the lack of schools, streets and trees did not deter tenants from moving in as quickly as buildings were completed.

Today, Fairlington has matured into a community shaded by laurel and willow oaks planted along its winding roadways during and after the war. Neighborhood children, as well as those who live beyond the boundaries of Fairlington, walk or take the bus to Abingdon Elementary School. Nearby, the recently renovated Shirlington shopping center draws residents on foot, bicycle and by car to a variety of restaurants, speciality stores and a multi-screen movie theater.

To buy in Fairlington costs considerably more than what the first residents paid a half-century ago. Realtor Don Cooper of Fairlington and Barcroft Properties said 45 of the community’s 3,437 units are on the market ranging in price from about $95,000 for a one-bedroom unit up to about $225,000 for a three-bedroom, three-bathroom town house.

The complex is divided into two sections by Interstate 395, also known as Shirley Highway. Cooper said the division in terms of unit numbers is close, with South Fairlington having a slightly higher number.

Although Cooper said the two sections have the same models, look very much alike and sell at the same rate, residents draw a distinction between the north and the south.

Fairlington Citizens Association President Steve Lower has lived on each side of the divide, first in South Fairlington as a renter and later as an owner, and then more recently as an owner on the north side.

“On the north side, the units seem a little more compact,” he said. “We have balconies here but there are none on the south side. The north side seems to attract professional singles and the south side attracts more families.”

Whichever side, Lower said Fairlington is the most attractive place to live in Northern Virginia. He said he and his wife considered moving outside the Beltway, where houses are larger, when their child was born six years ago but they finally decided they liked Fairlington best.

“The location can’t be beat,” he said. “It is a lovely community.”

Linda Allen is another resident who had children and then had to weigh the advantages of staying in Fairlington or leaving. She said that in 1983, she and her husband had one child and were living in an “itty-bitty house” in South Fairlington. Then they had two more children.

“Think about this,” she said. “We had three children in one 10-foot-by-17-foot bedroom. This place was built in the 1940s so there were no bathrooms on the main floor. We had potty seats in the living room. But we put up with all of that because of the neighborhood.”

The neighborhood that continues to delight her is one with children and senior citizens, big trees, playgrounds and thoughtful neighbors, Allen said.

“There seems to be a focus here on quality of neighborhood ... and an emphasis on balance of life,” she said. “Many women stay home for awhile and many work part-time. Children are important.”

Allen said she and her neighbors have been through a lot together and their shared personal history has made for close bonds.

“We have a standing joke here,” she said. “This is the best place to go through a crisis: the death of a spouse, the death of a child, divorces, cancer, whatever. People seem to know when there is trouble and they just show up and take over the children or the cooking or the shopping. There is always someone willing to organize.

“We just realize life can get pretty tough and we live in a close environment,” Allen said. “When I had my third child, my husband was overseas. People just gave me food. They rallied. They were there for me.”

Allen has since divorced and remarried, and lives in a much larger condominium where she runs a day-care center for neighborhood children.

Mary Beth Arnett and her family moved to Fairlington from Chevy Chase just in time for the 50th anniversary celebration. She said they were drawn to the neighborhood by the community atmosphere, reasonable rents and nearby elementary school.

“This is a very friendly place,” she said. “Chevy Chase was kind of cold. People seemed to be into themselves. Here, everyone comes over and welcomes us.”

Arnett, like others interviewed, said she thought the apartments were small.

“These are kind of close quarters but the trade-off of a pool right outside our back door and a tennis court nearby makes it worth it,” she said. Fellows said she has found Fairlington neighbors to be equally helpful and thoughtful. The community, she said, has a sense of hometown.

“There is a continuity here, a past, present and future,” she said. “I don’t really think about it but it’s there. For a lot of Americans who have moved often, Fairlington offers a sense of belonging and a feeling that it will go on.”

The book Fellows wrote over the past two years is her contribution to that sense of community. She volunteered her time, research and professional skills. She said she thought having a history of the community was important for residents.

“I did it out of affection,” she said.

© Copyright The Washington Post

Back to the top