A market in 1956 stands at the corner of routes 7 and 123, where Tysons Corner is today. (Washington Post Archive/Homer Heller/Courtesy of Fairfax City Regional Library)

Going to Tysons Corner these days — with its many shopping opportunities, condos and now the Metro — has the feeling of another city. However, I remember seeing a photo that appeared to be taken in the 1950s at the intersection of Routes 7 and 123. There was a building on that corner that could have been a general store (the beginning of shopping at Tysons?) with a car sitting in front of it. If you could publish some history of the Tysons Corner area, I would appreciate it.

— George Dick, Potomac

For most of its history, Tysons Corner was a place to go through, not a place to go to. The roads that intersected there — today’s Route 7 and Route 123 — carried people and products to and from Leesburg and points west and into Washington.

Long before it was known for office buildings and shopping malls, Tysons was known for peaches. The area was known informally as Peach Grove. It didn’t become Tysons Corner until the 1850s, when a Maryland transplant named William Tyson purchased a large tract of land and became postmaster of the Peach Grove Post Office.

The crossroads kept its rural character into the 1950s, with a corner store, a beer joint, truck farms and peach orchards. And then . . .

“The transformation from the 1950s to today is hard for people to wrap their minds around, so explosive and revolutionary was it,” said Joel Garreau, professor of law, culture and values at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University and author of “Edge City: Life on the New Frontier,” a classic look at modern urban centers.

Tysons was the result of successive changes in how Americans lived, worked and played, Garreau said. After World War II, millions of Americans fled the cities for newly constructed suburbs. Soon, merchants followed their customers into the suburbs, leaving downtown behind. Employers followed suit, creating office parks that could be reached only by that great shaper of the landscape, the automobile.

On Oct. 13, 1961, the Fairfax County Planning Commission made the announcement that set in motion the Tysons we know today. As The Post reported then: “The Tyson’s Corner section of Fairfax County has been proposed as a regional business, convention and residential center which could tie together large areas lying inside and outside of the County.”

This could have happened just about anywhere in Fairfax County, but the promise of the Beltway — added to the existing routes 7 and 123 — created a location that was in­cred­ibly easy to get to from six directions,” Garreau said. Tysons “had this huge natural advantage.”

The county’s planning staff included a warning in the master plan: “Tyson’s has a potential of being one of the most dynamic, thriving, well-planned regional centers in the Washington Metropolitan Area. At the same time, it has the potential of being a colossal slum of the worst kind if no comprehensive plan is agreed upon.”

Tysons didn’t become a slum — far from it — but it didn’t become a city, either. It never had much residential character. Instead, it was a place to shop and work — and sit in traffic on your way to shopping or working. Look at that old black-and-white photo, and it is impossible to place it in a current context. The real estate developers responsible for Tysons Corner remade the landscape.

These men, Garreau said, “were terrific at creating anything you measured in dollars. What they weren’t so good at is stuff you know is in­cred­ibly important but can’t measure in dollars: civilization, soul, identity, community. That’s what was so painfully missing.”

In 2008, a county commission unveiled a sweeping plan to transform Tysons. “I’m calling this the audacity of change,” Clark Tyler, chairman of a county-appointed study panel, told a group of business leaders. “This is our last chance to get it right.”

Is Tysons right? It’s headed in the right direction — or a different direction, anyway. It has the Metro’s Silver Line now, and developers are endeavoring to make it a more walkable, liveable community.

It’s a far cry from the sleepy crossroads it was in William Tyson’s day. The next time you’re there, bite into a peach and think of him.

Helping Hand

All this month, The Washington Post Helping Hand fundraising campaign is telling the stories of Washingtonians whose lives have been made better thanks to Community of Hope, Sasha Bruce Youthwork and Homestretch. These local charities work to end homelessness in our area. In this season of giving, I hope you’ll consider making a gift to one, two or all three. You can read about them — and make a tax-deductible donation — at www.posthelpinghand.com.

Twitter: @johnkelly

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