When Great Falls was still largely agrarian, the small red-brick building on Great Falls Pike was the social center of town.
The firemen for their annual carnival, community theater groups, the Girl Scouts--most every organization around made use of the Great Falls Grange Hall.
But over the years, as the area became home to more bureaucrats than farmers, attention drifted from the building. The Grange organization itself, a fraternal group known officially as the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, saw its membership decline and had less and less money to maintain the building. Neglect and vandals took their toll.
Today, more than half a century after it was built, the Great Falls Grange Hall once again is becoming a community gathering spot.
The Fairfax County Park Authority bought the building and its eight acres for $126,250 in June 1980. Nearly two years and $8,000 in repairs later, the historic hall's double doors have reopened.
"We're trying to turn it back into a focal point for the community, fulfilling the community's needs as they stand today," said Louis A. Cable, park authority assistant director.
The local Lutheran church meets in the hall Sunday mornings; teen-agers take over on Friday evenings for ping-pong and table games; throughout the week, Fairfax County sponsors a number of courses there, from aerobic dancing to brass rubbing.
Civic groups may meet in the Grange Hall at no charge, and county residents may lease it for weddings and other social events. The Great Falls Players, which had its start in the hall in 1965, took the Grange Hall stage in March for the first time in 14 years, drawing an audience of more than 200 to weekend performances.
And then, of course, there is the Grange organization. Chapter 738--the only Grange chapter left in the county--still meets at the hall.
Jerene Thomas, current master of the Great Falls Grange, described the group as "a fraternal organization like an adult 4-H Club, in a way." It started as a social union for farmers, but the modern-day Grange is open to "high-rise dwellers as well as bona fide farmers," she said.
The chapter's current membership of 45--about a quarter of whom are under 21--comprises, says Thomas, "teachers, farmers, a woodworker, an accountant, a real estate agent, some retired ladies--really, people from all walks of life."
They meet regularly to discuss mutual interests such as gardening, home safety or perhaps an historical topic, in meetings highlighted by time-honored rituals and complete with secret passwords.
In 1929, five years after receiving its charter, the chapter built the Great Falls Grange Hall. With its theater stage, fully equipped kitchen, library, an interior balcony area used for storage and two floors of meeting space, the hall was a hub of community activity for decades.
But in more recent times, as the character of Great Falls changed from rural to suburban, the hall had seen less use.
"Before the park authority assumed ownership, the building was not used at all except for an occasional Grange meeting," said Wayne Cottrill, superintendent of parks facilities for the park authority. "And the reason is simple: It cost too much to keep it up and the Grange did not have a lot of money."
The $8,000 the park authority spent to reopen the 53-year-old building covered what a spokesman described as "limited" repairs: fixing broken windows, applying new paint, polishing the upper-level hardwood floor and adding soccer and softball fields and a picnic pavilion to the grounds behind the building. The authority also plans to repair the roof, add a parking lot, install a new septic system and reseed the lawns.
"The reason for limited repairs is excessive cost," said Cottrill. One park official estimated it could cost as much as $200,000 to bring the building up to current county code standards. But only if the park authority uses the hall for some purpose other than its original use does it have to bring the building up to current codes, Cottrill said. To comply with the code, the park authority would need to add sprinkler systems and new exits, make modifications to accommodate the handicapped and update the electrical, heating and air conditioning systems.
"For instance, if we were to convert it and use the upstairs for an auditorium (with fixed seating), we would have to make those improvements," Cottrill said. "The building was originally used for theater performances and general meetings--which covers a lot."
Park authority officials report, however, that the building is "structurally safe and sound for public use."
One addition that will be made to the property is a temporary building to house a county library. According to Joan DuBois, administrative assistant to Fairfax County Supervisor Nancy Faulk, the library board can't approve construction of a permanent library until it verifies a need for a regional library in Great Falls, which now has no library. To determine whether that need exists, she said, the board decided to add the temporary structure to the Grange site. Ground-breaking took place earlier this spring.
Some area residents had objected to construction of the temporary library near the Grange Hall, saying they wanted to preserve the historic nature of the property. Now they are encouraging the park authority in its attempts to purchase a one-acre plot adjacent to the Grange Hall to prevent construction of an office building on the land, which is zoned for commercial development, DuBois said.
As for the future of the historic hall, Grange leader Thomas believes the park authority's plans are in keeping with its original purpose.
"It's always been the desire of the Grange organization for the building to be of service to the community," she said. "Although the building doesn't technically belong to the organization anymore, its functions are still those for which it was built. It was built to be used by members of the community, and I think it's great that it's being used now."