The cloistered community of Clifton, a mere speck on Virginia maps that boasts 180 residents, 68 houses, one uninhabitable hotel and a general store, will soon be more than a hideout from city hustle and homogeneous subdivisions.
State historic landmark officials have said they expect to award Clifton a spot on the Virginia historic district register at their May 21 meeting in Richmond. "There are very few communities in the Fairfax County-Northern Virginia area that have so many structures from the late 19th and early 20th century that have so few intrusions," said Margaret T. Peters, information officer of the Virginia Division of Historic Landmarks, explaining one of the main reasons for Clifton's expected selection.
Officials say the listing will give Clifton an almost guaranteed place on the prestigious National Register for Historic Places, which is operated under the auspices of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The national ranking would make Clifton, which is only a quarter-mile square, the second such district in Fairfax County, joining Langley Fork, where Old Georgetown Pike hooks into Chain Bridge Road. The National Register is a nationwide archive of areas throughout the United States with historical and cultural significance. It provides these places with protection from federally funded projects that could adversely affect the historical sites, such as power lines and highways.
Robert A. Carter, survey and register program supervisor with the Virginia Division of Historic Landmarks, said he is certain that the state will give Clifton its historical recognition. Carter said the state register is "basically a prelude to the federal register."
Carter said the main economic benefit to the national listing is a 25 percent tax credit for people who own historic investment properties in the historic district. Federal Register guidelines require that a building must be income-producing (rental, industrial or commercial) and that repairs and renovations be parallel the architecture and theme of the historic district.
State and county officials said the tax credit incentive will probably attract investors to Clifton in search of historical houses to renovate, restore and resell at a profit.
Mary E. Lee, who has lived in Clifton for 23 years and has seen the town's residents change from rural poor to country rich, said she just sold one of her rental houses to a Realtor who "was real anxious to get right in under the tax credit."
"He'll probably put between $50,000 and $60,000 into it," Lee said. "The tax credit helped me sell the house promptly. Clifton needs a real estate office right in town now."
Lee and her late husband Earl used to own the Clifton Store on Main Street, a popular spot to gather gossip and groceries at once.
But most residents are not worried about a predicted deluge of development to their secluded corner of the county, about a 20-minute drive southwest of Fairfax City.
James J. Hricko, a 12-year resident who has the only architectural office in town, said Clifton's residents have already renovated almost every historical house in town.
"There are not really any shells left in town to be bought ," Hricko said. "And I don't know of any high-rise proposals, anyway. The national register listing is really the icing on the cake."
But one local developer, James Swing, has plans to play up Clifton's potential for country chic and open a glitzy nightspot next to the general store and the railroad tracks.
Swing, a resident and local developer who bought the old Clifton Hotel about five years ago, said he wants to renovate the rundown building and open a French restaurant and lounge as soon as he gets approval from the town's planning commission, Town Council and architectural review board. Swing also must get building permits from county officials.
"The residents here have been looking for someone to fix the building for the last 20 or 30 years. This part of the county needs a nice restaurant in a country setting," Swing said.
The hotel was built in 1869 and is somewhat of an eyesore now with its delapidated exterior and no-trespassing signs tacked to its rickety porch. Swing said he is likely to apply for the investment-tax credit for his proposed renovation project, which he estimated will cost "in excess of $400,000." He said he hopes to start construction by September.
Wayne Nickum, the town's mayor, said Clifton pushed for state and national register listings for the recognition and prestige they could bring.
Nickum said he hopes the listing will keep commercial and residential developers away from Clifton's surrounding lush forest and farm land. He said the recent growth around Centreville, which is four miles to the southwest, is spreading quickly toward town.
The register listing "is a recognition of our town . . . . It puts us on the map," Nickum said. "It recognizes our streetscapes."
Clifton's beginnings are shaded by rumor, gossip and conflicting historical documentation. Some people say the town was named for a carpetbagger from Clifton, N.J.; others are not so sure.
The close proximity of the houses to each other and to the street is more evidence of Clifton's century-old traditions. A sense of community was vital in the wilderness areas of the late 1800s, and social gatherings largely took place on the wide front porches and in the narrow streets.
About half of Clifton's 68 houses are historic, built between 1865 and 1920, and named after their builder, such as the Harris House, the Quigg House and the Ford House. Some families place painted wooden plaques on their front porches that contain a brief history of the house and its originial owner.
And about seven years ago, the Town Council declared its community an historic overlay district within Fairfax County and created an architectural review board to keep tabs on renovation projects.
Local leaders credit the 76-member Clifton Community Women's Club, which sponsors an annual home tour, as the driving force behind the state and national register list project. This year's home tour will be on May 16 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.