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Great Falls Sites Make List

Grange and Four Stairs added to national register of historic places

Two historic and unique properties in Great Falls have been added to the Virginia Landmarks Register and are on their way to being added to the National Register of Historic Places. The Great Falls Grange and a private home, Four Stairs, were named this month.

“Both are beyond a shadow of a doubt National Register of Historic Places,” said local historian Karen Washburn, who helped ensure the two landmarks were included on the register.

“This brings up the communities awareness of their importance,” said Washburn of the need to maintain heritage properties.

The Great Falls Grange also includes the Forestville School that is located next to it on Georgetown Pike. “It truly is the center of the community and always has been. The interesting thing is its use for community activities has never changed,” said Washburn.

The Grange is a nearly perfect example of the Craftsman style that is typical of that period. It was constructed in 1929 and has had very few structural changes over the ensuing years. The property is now owned by the Fairfax County Park Authority, which purchased the building in 1980.

Although the community of Great Falls has changed from a primarily agrarian culture to suburban in character, the Grange has maintained its importance as a community gathering place and continues to play a central role in the community.

THE NATIONAL GRANGE was an association started by Oliver Hudson Kelly in 1867 in western New York. Its purpose was as an educational, political and social organization for the American farmer, and promoted rural communal spirit and the improvement of the social and economic condition of farmers throughout the country.

The Great Falls Grange was the first one built in Virginia. Great Falls, because of its proximity to Washington, D.C., and the availability of transportation in the area, was at one time the leading dairy producer in the state. Because of that prominence, building a Grange and establishing its mission made sense for the community.

Over the years the Grange has served the residents of Great Falls in a variety of ways. Throughout the twentieth century the unassuming building has served as a polling and lobbying place, dance hall, social center and meeting place.

It continues to serve the community in the same capacity, making it a living history. The Great Falls Citizens Association meets there regularly, Great Falls Day is held on the grounds and various social activities take place inside the building year round.

The school house is also a dwelling of note. It is significant in the educational history of the county because it is one of only a handful of one-room school houses still in existence. It’s even more relevant in that it still occupies its original location.

The one room school house was built in 1889 and served as a school until it was closed in 1922. It has alternatively served as a residence, office, bank, and most recently, was the local Post Office from 1959 through 1982.

“The two buildings relate to each other. Because of their relationship to each other, that’s all that’s left of Forestville,” said Washburn.

The other addition to the registry is Four Stairs. The home is believed to have been built as early as the 1730’s by Northern Neck farmer Thomas Simmons. Over time additions were made to the house but its current owner has labored intensively to restore the property to its original condition as accurately as possible.

“In my opinion as an historian, it’s the oldest existing house in the Great Falls zipcode,” said Washburn.

IN ADDITION TO THE TELESCOPE type home, the property also contains a family cemetery and stone-lined hand-dug well, both of which are considered contributing features to the historic nature of the house.

The original log house was a small dwelling with a single room and a loft above. It was built using the native tree species that were abundant in the virgin forest of the time period, and shaped by hand with a broad axe.

“This is a fabulous example of an early dwelling of a person who was middle class. It appears to be a simple log cabin but it’s an upscale compared to what others lived in at the time,” said Washburn.

The Eighteenth-century additions that followed began expanding the footprint of the house in nearly every direction.

According to the statement of significance filed to get the property included in the register, “After 1796, the work of African slaves is apparent.”

Cornwell Farm, a landmark familiar to Great Falls residents and also on the register, is directly tied to Four Stairs.

The statement of significance reads, “Before his death, John Theodore had begun building a new brick house for Matilda’s younger sister Julia Ann (1812-1848) who, at the age of 16, had married in 1828, shortly after Matilda. This was a grand Federal-style brick house, atypical for the up-country Potomac planters.

JULIA’S MARRIAGE WAS unfortunately short-lived, and she and her infant daughter remained with Verlinda. Robert and Matilda moved into the unfinished brick house for several years, paying rent to Verlinda, Julia’s guardian. This house, now called Cornwell Farm, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.”

The couple later returned to live in Four Stairs and raise their family.

Washburn said that Four Stairs is a residence more likely to have been occupied by Great Falls early citizens. “It’s a misconception to think the plantation owners around here lived in Cornwell Farm type houses. They didn’t,” said Washburn.

The two Great Falls properties now on the register get very little other than the new designation. “There’s some protection. It prevents the use of federal funding that would do something that would be detrimental to it,” said Washburn.

Calvin Follin, of the Great Falls Historical Society, said, “It does give us in Great Falls a couple of landmarks. And the Grange, it makes it so they can’t change the way they use it.”