The Fire of Civic Zeal
A History of the Falls Church Village Preservation and Improvement Society
Past VPIS President (1965-1968)
May 2, 1971
An ill-considered proposal of a young city planning director was the spark which ignited a fire of organized concern for communal well-being that has glowed with increasing effect in the little Virginia City of Falls Church since 1965.
The proposal and the action taken by concerned citizens of Falls Church are described in a mimeographed invitation broadcast throughout the community. The invitation was to attend a public tour of the "grounds and garden of historic [Lawton House], 203 Lawton St., Falls Church," which "will be open to the public,
Saturday, April 24, and Sunday, April 25, 10 A.M. to 5 P.M., through the courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Ernest S. Shepard, and Mrs. Edith Pike Clements" (now deceased).
The reason for the broadcast and the action which the aroused citizens proposed followed the formal invitation:
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Many of us in Falls Church are alarmed by a current threat to the Lawton House property. A map of the Circulation System for the Central Business District, as proposed by the Planning Office and published in the January 1965 issue of Focus on Falls Church shows a street to be cut through this historic property.
The Planning Commission in a work session studying this particular area of the plan on March 24 was split in its vote; three members voted against it, with the seventh member out of town.
Concerned citizens are petitioning the City Council on Monday, April 26, to avoid this wanton destruction of one of the few historic properties left to Falls Church out of its eventful past. In the rapid growth of this small city, few landmarks now remain other than The Falls Church, the Riley House property and the now threatened Lawton House property.
The fine old house, an authentic Greek Revival architecture of the Federal period, was built some 125 years ago and gives its name to Lawton Street and the nearby cluster of attractive houses. It is situated on 1½ acres of ground, landscaped with a wide variety of trees and shrubbery, including handsome hollies, viburnum, box, crab, hemlock, and a garden designed by Heidi Kreuger, Landscape Architect.
The proposed extension of Park Place would run along-side the State Theater off Washington Street and cross through the Lawton House property to Lawton Street, passing within seven feet of the front steps of this historic building. The house was built to face on Leesburg Pike, now Broad Street.
Questions are being asked widely in Falls Church today: is the proposed street necessary? why must we destroy one of our few remaining historic properties? Some cities might lose a few such sites and still remain rich – not so Falls Church.
Such was the spark which lighted the fire of organized concern that, burning ever more strongly, led to the re-formation of the Falls Church Village Preservation and Improvement Society.
Fuel to the growing flame of civic concern was found in a petition which was circulated by ardent citizens and presented to the Falls Church City Council on April 26. What happened then, and soon thereafter, in consequence, is described in "A Report on the Preservation of the Lawton House" mailed on June 1 to some 400 Falls Church citizens:
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Many persons attended the Council meeting on the 26th when the petition was presented. The Council thanked attending citizens for their interest, and at once referred the petition to the Planning Commission with a guideline to the effect that it was the consensus of Council that the Lawton House be preserved. A special subcommittee was asked by the Commission to study the matter and make recommendation to that body. The subcommittee made its report to the Commission on May 17, stating that in its view the historic aspect of the Lawton property – an aspect not prominent in earlier consideration -- and the community-demonstrated concern for its preservation, warranted the recommendation that the Lawton House property plan be deleted as one of four traffic routes under consideration. The Planning Commission voted unanimously to accept this recommendation which was conveyed to the Council at its meeting on May 24.
Thus ends satisfactorily the immediate threat to the Lawton House. The purpose of the first part of the petition has been effected.... This report is due by June 14. We believe, on the basis of the Council’s reception of the petitions that we can look forward to a follow-up of the other portions of the petition relating to possible steps to secure the future of this property and to a study of its possible uses to the community when the present owners are ready to relinquish it.
Secondly, there is under discussion the possibility of increasing allowable building heights to 10 stories in the central business district . . . . here are arguments pro and con. Many questions need to be answered. We hope this issue will be widely debated before any
steps are taken.
This message was signed "Provisional Committee, Falls Church Preservation Society, the members of which were Mel H. Bolster, Mrs. Leath P. Bracken, Mr. and Mrs. Edgar D. Brooke, Mrs. Meres G. Brown, Miss Helen McGregor, Mrs. Charles G. Manly, Mrs. Ernest S. Shepard, Elwood Street, Miss Elizabeth M. Styles, and Mrs. J. Roger Wollenberg.
You will observe that while "the immediate threat to the Lawton House" was felt to "end satisfactorily", many immediate and potential concerns were illumined by the flames of ignited civic obligation. So it was that a Provisional Committee for a Falls Church Preservation Society came into being.
The provisional name of the Society was derived from an early Falls Church Village Preservation Society, organized in 1885, when the present city was indeed a village – but possessed then, too, of concerned citizens. It endured for a generation or more, then vanished, to endure only in memories passed on by living voice from surviving forebears of members of the Provisional Committee.
The question of name for the new organization brought about much discussion. "Falls Church" was an obvious element. "Village" had a nostalgic sound, indicating its inhritance of purpose from the 1885 Society, and suggested the organization's intent to preserve the amenities of single- family residential architecture. "Preservation" was not only redolent of the name of the earlier organization, but also suggested the importance of maintaining what charm and residential and historical values the modern City could present. however, maintenance was not enough; it suggests possible erosion and fighting of a losing battle. "Improvement" represented a forward look, and a challenge to efforts at enhancement of all desired qualities. So, Falls Church Village Preservation and Improvement Society became the official name of the infant organization.
Its purposes, concurrently adopted, were inherent in its name:
<li>To preserve the historic and predominantly single-family residential character of the City of Falls Church.</li>
<li>To preserve the historic structures and landmarks of Falls Church.</li>
<li>To promote community appreciation of this historic significance and to encourage construction and renovation of residences and commercial buildings in architectural harmony with this background, in order to give Falls Church a unique and distinctive style.</li>
<li>To encourage the planned and continuous beautification of the community in its public, residential, commercial and industrial areas through appropriate planting, preservation and maintenance of trees, shrubbery and flowers.</li>
<li>To promote the development of aesthetic values and cultural activities which will contribute to making Falls Church an interesting, unique, and stimulating community in which to live.</li>
<li>To work with governmental bodies and community groups to encourage them in measures conducive to the fulfillment of the above purposes.</li>
In view of the broad appeal envisioned for the FCVPIS, membership was made simple and easy, open to any resident of Falls Church upon payment of annual dues of $1. Hope for more adequate financing was indicated in the provision that persons who paid $5 or more were to be known as Contributing Members; and there have been many over the years. Hope was expressed that both husbands and wives would join, for double fiscal benefit; and this, too, has been general membership practice.
Thus named and proposed, the Provisional Committee somewhat enlarged and welded into a working group, spent the early summer of 1965 rotating from home to home of the members and laying plans for action. These plans were revealed on August 27 in a letter of the President, to "Fellow Residents of Falls Church" who had signed that April petition which "urged the preservation of historic Lawton House."
The letter recited what practically everyone knew by August that the City Council had reexamined the proposed extension of Park Place through the Lawton house property and dropped the proposal. The letter continued, in part:
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There are many people in Falls Church who are unwilling to surrender to so-called "inevitable" forces that have been tragically triumphant in obliterating individual towns and small cities all across the country. We know we can preserve the village values of Falls Church and establish some realistic, lasting ground rules for our future growth and development.
We have organized ourselves as the Falls Church Village Preservation and Improvement Society. Our first act was to inform the Planning Commission of our existence and our goals. We intend to be alert to all proposals that would affect the nature and environment of Falls Church and to support effectively those we believe to be in the best interest of a community primarily made up of single-family homes. Effort to further enrich land speculators or to alter the face of the city in ways we believe are steps backward, we will oppose vigorously - and early enough to make our views influential.
Thank you again for lending your support to protecting Lawton House.
If you believe that a more permanent organization can perform a useful function for you and countless others who share a desire to keep Falls Church different, join us now! We invite you to be a charter member!
The enlarged committee included Mr. and Mrs. Mel H. Bolster, Mrs. Leath P. Bracken, Mr. and Mrs. Edgar D. Brooke, Mrs. Meres G. Brown, General and Mrs. William A. Carter, Mrs. Dorothy S. Garner, Miss Helen McGregor, Mrs. Charles G. Manly, Mrs. Edward B. Rowan, Mrs. Paul Schlager, Mrs. Ernest S. Shepard, Mrs. Calvin W. Smith, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. Malcolm E. Smith, Mr. Elwood Street, Miss Elizabeth M. Styles, Mr. and Mrs. Fonda C. Williams, and Mrs. J. Roger Wollenberg.
Response to the invitation to join the infant organization was prompt and generous. Thus nurtured, it has steadily grown in membership, in influence and in effectiveness, through the five and one-half ensuing years. The main services and developments of these years we shall now describe.
In the interest of economy of wordage, we shall not reiterate, from one year to another, activities and practices early established and continuously followed. Thus, the Provisional Committee (and later Board of Directors) has met an average of at least once a month, and more frequently when necessary, in evenings at homes of members.
Husbands and wives are voting units; either or both may attend and participate.
Members of the Society are welcome to attend these meetings; and are, indeed, urged to do so.
City officers and paid employees on occasion have met with the Board, to present their points of view on City problems, procedures and plans, to answer questions and consider proposals.
Members of the Board have regularly attended meetings of City Council, Planning Commission and related official bodies and reported their observations to the subsequent Board meetings.
A public meeting has been held each autumn with appropriate subjects and speakers. Fall and Spring newsletters have kept the Society's members in touch with activities and community problems.
Annual Awards Ceremonies, for excellence in architectural, structural and environmental design have been held each spring, except the current one. That exception was to "take a breather" in organizational activity. In- stead of the usual ceremony, the handsome Fifth Anniversary booklet, cover- ing in pictures and text, the awards of the previous five years, has been published.
The Annual Attic Treasures Sale, instituted in May 1968, has been a useful source of funds and public relations.
With this background of common procedures, let us consider significant events and action by the new officially established organization.
[bold]Official Year 1965 - 1966
As a running start on relations with the City Council, the President on August 30, 1965, presented to the Council a carefully prepared statement which described the goals and objectives of FCVPIS.
In the early summer, the Society was included among a number of community organizations which received from the Planning Commission "A Plan for the Central Business District" as of June 1965, with request for comment. The Society's "provisional Executive Committee" worked vigorously on the proposed plan. On October 18 it presented to the Commission an analytic statement. It approved the plan in general, but opposed the proposal for increasing the present height limit of 75 feet or seven stories to 110 feet or 10 stories in the central business district, as a move toward destroying the character of our City. Several members of the Society, as well as other citizens, spoke on behalf of our statement.
The expressed opposition of the VPIS to increase the allowable height of buildings had no visible effect on the Planning Commission. Its staff prepared a proposed amendment to the Building Code, which would allow increase of the height limit in the central business district from seven stories or 75 feet to 10 stories or 110 feet. the proposal was to be given public hear- ing by the Planning Commission on February 21. The Provisional Executive Committee organized a circulation of a petition in opposition to the change. By that time, President Bolster had resigned, because of academic pressures, and Elwood Street, Vice-President, became acting president. On March 3 he reported for the Committee to the persons who had signed the petition:
More than 600 signatures were appended to our petition presented to the Planning Commission at the public hearing on…Thursday, February 17. This was one of the largest petitions ever presented in Falls Church, and revealed vividly the community's position on this critical issue. Fifteen persons spoke forcibly against the proposal. The Council Chamber was filled to overflowing.
As the Chairman of the Planning Commission remarked at the close of the hearing, "Well, I guess that scheme is a dead duck." It was, but later, as you will read, another lively duck, of the same breed, came fluttering into the Council Chamber. However, for the time being: On Monday, February 21, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to delete from the plan for the central business district the proposal to increase the height limit for buildings from seven stories or 75 feet to 10 stories or 110 feet.
The Provisional Executive Committee now turned to preparation of the First Annual Award Ceremony for architectural and related excellence. The City Council accepted Committee's invitation to co-sponsor the ceremony. Mrs. John Conner, wife of the Secretary of Commerce, was the guest speaker and personal representative of Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson. The ceremony was co-sponsored by the City Council and was presented on May 22 before a standing-room-only crowd in the Council Chamber. The ceremony was preceded by the First Annual Meeting of the Falls Church Village Preservation and Improvement Society. It achieved permanence by adoption of bylaws, and by a report of the Treasurer, which showed 237 members and a treasury balance of $181.16. Acting President Street was elected President for the statutory two-year term.
Official Year 1966 - 1967
The official year, 1966-67, was early marked by a matter of great concern which eventually involved much time and effort by the Society. At the first Fall meeting of the Society, on November 18, the President reported:
Currently there is pending before us in Falls Church a decision of large proportions - one of the most far-reaching of any in recent years. I refer to the petition now going into the courts, initiated by neighboring citizens in the Fairfax County area adjacent to Route 66 who desire to be annexed into this city… We are confident that at an early date Falls Church citizens will be supplied with the information necessary for intelligent opinion- forming. It will be necessary to weigh the advantages of bringing our two city schools, George Mason and Mt. Daniel (now in Fairfax County) into the city with increased control over traffic problems, against the more intangible but significant aspect of a change from the predominant one-family residential nature of Falls Church into one that would be balanced or even dominated by apartment dwellers, some of whom would be residing in high rise apartments of 15 to 20 stories.
A full year of activity gave the president opportunity to stress in his annual report, among many activities and interests, these special concerns:
With the addition of a full 12 months of working together as a Board and as Committees, of earnestly studying the community problems related to our purposes, of engaging in active programs, we are now more than ever confident that the Falls Church Village Preservation and Improvement Society has a useful, indeed, an important function to perform in our community.
We continue to ask for serious consideration of the charming and historic Lawton House and garden for possible future usefulness as open space and a cultural center in the area east of Washington Street.
Another of our native concerns is the ghastly appearance of the vacant southeast corner of Broad and Washington Streets. We intend in the immediate future to initiate cooperative activity by the owner of that property, the City Council and Administration, and civic-minded groups in order to transform this eyesore into a little area of relative beauty and convenience.
We follow closely and with great concern the measures, now underway, for annexation of Fairfax County territory at the west end of Falls Church. The issues are complex and place a heavy burden of decision upon our City Council.
We are fully in tune with our time as we demonstrate our determination to stimulate the growth of our city in terms of quality; from what it is today to what it may become: a model small city… well run, beautify, and faithful to the comment to itself as a predominantly single-family residential community…the best possible place in which to live, to work, and to do business. In this day of tumult, uncertainty and commercialization, this is a rule of far- reaching significance.
Go on to The Fire of Civic Zeal - Part 2