For the past 200 years, the Crossman farmhouse has stood on a low hill in Falls Church, overlooking the headwaters of Four Mile Run.
But now the old home's days may be numbered, because construction is scheduled to begin April 15 on 25,000 square feet of low-rise office buildings and an 85-car parking lot on the 3.2-acre site, one of the largest undeveloped parcels of commercial land in Falls Church. And there is no room in the development plan for an antique farmhouse.
If the Crossman house is bulldozed, it will not be the first old building to be destroyed in Falls Church. Of the 125 historic sites on a 1969 inventory, 19 have been lost and only a few permanently preserved. The Crossman house could be saved, but if it is, it will most likely be because someone in the private sector decided it was a good investment.
In many ways, the saga of the Crossman house highlights the problems associated with saving old homes in Falls Church, where individual property rights have been well-respected since the town was founded in 1699.
Pressures for development often stem from the locations of many of the city's historic homes--on large, open lots, the kind developers dream of, particularly in densely settled areas, and on or near main streets where commercial zoning was concentrated years ago.
The Crossman house is a textbook example. It sits at the corner of West Columbia and Washington streets, in the middle of a large lot and on the edge of other commercial development and close to I-66. The site has been zoned for commercial development for many years.
Falls Church has no ordinances or zoning laws that protect historic homes, leaving a property like the Crossman tract virtually open to development. A recent effort to draft an ordinance to protect the city's historic homes met with strong opposition. Instead of approving the draft ordinance, the City Council decided to form an ad hoc committee to study other ways of preserving the city's heritage.
Like most of the old homes in Falls Church, the Crossman house is not protected by preservation easements, which can be arranged with Historic Falls Church Inc., a nonprofit corporation involved in protecting the city's historic properties.
HFC Secretary Henry H. Douglas said the group has tried to negotiate protection easements with owners of old homes in Falls Church but has secured only eight agreements. Part of the problem is that an historic easement usually lowers the resale value of the property because it rules out future development, Douglas said.
"The value of the property has served to destroy many of these homes," said Edmund F. Becker, chairman of HFC's board. "The Crossman house is a good example of what zoning can and cannot do to protect historic houses."
But perhaps most typical is the small number of choices facing the coalition of residents who have fought to save the old homes. There are seldom more than a few alternatives, and for the Crossman house there's only one answer: The house will have to be moved.
"We're talking about a $350,000 operation, if you include buying a lot, moving telephone lines and traffic lights out of the way, and restoring the house once it is moved," Becker said. "I'm very pessimistic about it."
The city is working to find a private investor with open land near the Crossman tract who would be willing to accept the house. In the past, the city has looked favorably on construction projects that mesh small-scale development with preservation. It already is negotiating with one such developer to save the Crossman house.
Lawrence and Carol Pence, a young couple with an interest in old homes, have gotten approval from the city to put in a nine-unit, single-family home development on three acres of land adjacent to another historic house, Whitehall. The Pences hope to to restore the 1870-vintage Whitehall as their private home.
But Lawrence Pence said he also is considering spending the money to move the Crossman house, which is only a few blocks away, onto his land. S. F. Jennings, developer of the Crossman tract, agreed to donate the house to anyone who wanted it, along with the $5,000 it would cost to tear the house down.
The Pence plan has raised hopes among HFC members. "With Whitehall restored, and the restoration of the Cook House next door, moving the Crossman house there would make a nice grouping," Becker said.