After seventy years of steady and often astronomical growth—from 1940 to 2010—suburban Fairfax County Virginia finally slowed in the 2010s to a more modest pace. It had no choice. This county opposite the Potomac River from Washington DC is developed across about 75% of its 390-square-mile land area. Even more impressive is that isn’t even the closest Virginia county to the heart of the nation’s capital; that award goes to the comparatively tiny Arlington County, which is almost completely urbanized across its 26 square miles. And, wedged between the two counties is the independent city of Falls Church, just 2.1 square miles and completely developed.
One might ask: what’s an independent city? There aren’t many of them. A few big ones come to mind: Baltimore, St. Louis. And the not-so-big Carson City, Nevada. The remaining independent cities—all 38 of them—are in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Due to statutory provisions unique to Virginia, a number of the state’s municipalities large and small are technically excluded from the counties that surround them, making them self-governing entities. Falls Church is one of them.
Falls Church does not belong to either Fairfax or Arlington County. Like Baltimore and St. Louis, it communicates directly with its state, much like counties, but without having the structure of a county government. Falls Church serves its own primary administrative division within Virginia, and uses the council-manager governance common among many counties and some cities. Though most people in the Washington DC metro will recognize the name “Falls Church”, it’s not big enough (at less than 15,000 people) that it has much of a national profile. But it is the smallest independently functioning, self-governing municipality in the entire country. Surrounded by the decentralizing development of both Fairfax and Arlington Counties, it is a mildly distinctive old-school town amidst the seemingly endless suburbia that characterizes the area. Emphasis on the mildly. For being an independent city, it looks pretty similar to the affluent, reasonably walkable Fairfax/Arlington communities that surround it.
However, Falls Church is not as old as one might expect, given its place in one of the nation’s 13 colonies and the state that housed the first permanent English settlement in all the Americas (Jamestown). Named after a still-operational Episcopal Church in the area, Falls Church only began to congeal into an organized settlement with a commercial core after the Civil War. It earned township status within Fairfax County in 1875, then only in 1948 did it achieve incorporation as the independent city (disaffiliated with Fairfax County) that it is today. Aside from the namesake church, some 18th century boundary stones, and one or two antebellum homes (the only structures/features on the National Register of Historic Places), nothing in Falls Church looks nearly as old and stately as, say, Old Town Alexandria, a few miles away. The smallest independent city in the country has much the appearance of a streetcar suburb.
I’ll offer one disclaimer: it has the appearance of an old streetcar suburb in dense, urban, transit-rich, expensive metro Washington DC. And that means that many of the older 19th and early 20th century structures that lack any architectural interest are facing the wrecking ball, giving way to bigger, bulkier mid-rise apartments with retail on the ground floor, like the one in the background in the photo below:
Or the one to the left in this photo:
Hulking apartment buildings, sometimes ten or even twenty stories, are a common feature throughout the northern Virginia suburbs to Washington DC. And more are cropping up every year. How much longer can this place claim banners that call itself “The Little City”?
Falls Church, eager to buttress its tax base by responding to the huge demand to live there, is more than happy to see older, lower-value structures give way to dense mixed-use housing. Here’s a 1950s-era motel that recently closed.
It’s hard to see, but a flimsy chain-link fence lines the perimeter of the property—a clear indicator of its imminent demolition. In a few years another multi-story apartment building will inevitably take its place. And here’s another:
The solarium awnings on the first floor, the decorative diamonds at the cornice, and the corrugated patterns for the roof all suggest a structure from the 1970s or even 80s. It was mixed use too: offices and storefronts on the first floor. But it’s vacant with a chainlink fence around it, another indicator that a developer purchased the building with the intent to demolish and build something bigger and more valuable on this pricey, desirable peace of real estate along Broad Street (Virginia Highway 7), the main commercial street of Falls Church.
And here’s another vacant structure probably no more than forty years old, which occupies a large parcel with considerable space devoted to off-street parking.
By today’s standards, in a community as coveted as Falls Church, it’s underutilized. So it’s only a matter of time before a developer purchases it, demolishes it, and builds a mixed-use apartment building of six stories (or more). That’s the way of things in the nation’s smallest independent city. Swept within a wave of affluent suburbanization characterizing Arlington and Fairfax counties, Falls Church would have to manage itself pretty horrendously to make itself an undesirable place to live. Median household income is well into the six figures.
But with such pricey real estate, is this most affluent of independent cities running a risk of losing what little survives of its historic commercial architecture? Quite possibly. As I indicated earlier, Broad Street doesn’t remotely look like a nineteenth century main street. What’s impetus remains to preserve early twentieth century architecture, if even a fair amount of late twentieth century structures are facing the wrecking ball? A few relics offer some hope, like this one:
It’s an old Depression-era movie theater now used primarily as a musical concert venue. The architecture is disjointed enough that it’s original use might have been something completely different; notice the righthand wing with the sharply horizontal cornice and different colored bricks. A hastily conceived add-on, most likely. But the State Theatre has got a reasonably vintage marquee (with some groovy neon), an old-school box office, and a pedestrian friendly entrance. It also sits at a t-shaped intersection just a block off of the main drag Broad Street.
In the photo above, I’m standing in the road of Park Street, looking down where it terminates at Washington Street (US Highway 29). This photo reveals one other quirk that may be hard to notice even for a pedestrian walking around the area. But a person in a car would pick it up.
Does the above photo make it clear? That quirk is the position of the traffic light along Park Street; it is almost directly in line with the crosswalk where cars must stop. Rather than looking ahead out the windshield, motorists have to crane their necks and peer upward. Instead of being on the opposite side where it’s easy to see, the light is perched almost right above them. It’s more noticeable in comparison with the conventionally positioned lights along Washington Street.
This location of the traffic light is inconvenient and probably wouldn’t pass AASHTO standards under normal circumstances. Though it doesn’t compromise safety much—it’s not a hugely busy intersection, and all but the first car in the queue would be able to see the light easily—it’s still enough of a compromise that I can only imagine it owes its position to a special exception: the location of the State Theatre, right at the convergence of the T.
If the stoplight’s pole and stanchion stood on the opposite side of the intersection, it would conceal the façade of the State Theatre, which is probably not a huge deal from a historic preservation standpoint. Though the 1930s-era building is old enough to qualify for the National Register, that goofy addition (on the right side of all these photos) compromises the symmetry and uniformity enough that it’s unlikely ever to rate as a structure of enduring architectural significance. More importantly, the traffic light, if placed correctly, would certainly impinge upon the visibility of that marquee. And the business owners could make a case, while traffic engineers could assert that a stop light in front of the marquee would be more dangerous to motorists. After all, the red neon of the marquee at night could create confusion with the stop light’s beams, a situation far more dangerous for motorists than the temporary discomfort from having to peer upward to watch the light change. And the State Theatre was there before the stop light.
So, in the long run, the independent city of Falls Church gets an idiosyncratic, oldish building for its commercial corridor to humanize the encroachment of those mixed-use monstrosities. The weird position of that stop light suggests that the State Theatre is something that The Little City will seek to preserve for the long haul. It’s extremely unlikely to get demo’d any time soon. It’ll never compete in age or significance with the actual Episcopal Falls Church a few blocks away (constructed 1769), but at least both buildings can crank out some pretty killer music. Saturday night and Sunday morning.