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Old Towns Preserve History and Style

In the process of saving an 1866-era farmhouse from a developer's bulldozer, Mike and Cindy Pappas have lived in the dining room with their two children while the renovation team worked in the house.

"We've been living here and camping here since October," Pappas said, "when we first moved in we had two outlets and an extension cord."

In an area awash in history, life in the dining room isn't so bad as Cindy Pappas uncovers more and more about her home in the City of Fairfax. The dining room is in the original part of the house, which was added onto through the years. Pappas has tracked additions to 1876 and 1880. The kitchen was added in 1936 and a garage in 1952. The Pappas's are restoring it in period — within reason. Historically authentic hinges, molding, glass and metal fixtures are hard to find and expensive. The windows were outfitted with pulleys and weights to assist with opening them. The wavy glass is in large panes.

"We've been trying to put some restoration glass in but they were extremely expensive," Cindy Pappas said.

At $80 a pane, "one has to start doing a cost-effective decision. Our goal is to restore it to being livable but not taking away from the historic value," Mike Pappas added.

A developer bought the property and planned to put three houses on it before the City of Fairfax denied their permit due to the historical value of the house. Instead, the developer built two houses and sold the farmhouse to the Pappas's as-is.

"They wanted to tear it down, the city denied their permit. We were driving by, it was so overgrown you couldn't even see the house," Cindy Pappas said.

In late April, a neighbor showed Cindy Pappas a poster called "Historic Doors of Fairfax," and their door was on the poster.

"I had no idea until the neighbor told me," she said.

NORTHERN VIRGINIA is full of history told through many of the old town areas dotting the landscape. The old towns are as much history rich and culturally vibrant as they are an economic center.

In the City of Fairfax, there is a six-block area considered Old Town with 15 historic properties. Betsy Rutkowski owns the Circa Home & Garden store behind TT Reynolds, formerly Nickels Hardware, that was once used as the Nickels warehouse. Rutkowski tried to save the warehouse look of the building by using all the wood that was taken out when they gutted it.

"We tried to reuse all the scraps, it adds to the ambiance of the original store," she said.

Rutkowski's home is historic as well, although it is a few blocks from Old Town Fairfax. Dating back to 1760, her home off Roberts Road is called Aspen Grove. The Sager family that donated the land for the Fairfax Museum years ago, lived in Aspen Grove at one time. In Rutkowski's basement, logs can still be seen supporting the ceiling and there is an old picture of the house in the museum with names of the Union soldiers carved in the trees out front. The trees are long gone but there is a ghost haunting the halls, rumor has it.

"I have tons of papers on the house," Rutkowski said, "The story goes that a Civil War soldier ran out without his boots and got killed. He walks up and down the staircase."

ALEXANDRIA is the third oldest historic district in the country, according to Peter Smith of Alexandria's board of architectural review. According to Smith, Old Town is an area in the City of Alexandria that's bordered by the Potomac River on the east, Hunting Creek, on the south, the metrorail tracks on the west and Four Mile Run on the north. In that area, there are 5,000 buildings. In 1946, the city council went through and designated some of the buildings and residences historic and marked them with a plaque. That was before the National Register of Historic Places was in existence, Smith said. Now there are 31 Alexandria districts, sites, buildings and structures also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Jean Federico from the office of historic Alexandria keeps tabs on historic properties in Old Town Alexandria.

"It's an ambiance and very fragile," Federico said, "it's a pretty well understood preservation ethic."

Around Old Town Alexandria, it's not only the weathered brick buildings or the cobblestone street that defines history. The desire to put additions onto the 200-year old structures also takes up space.

"When someone wants to add on to the back, there's a wall that's lost," Federico added.

"The values of property go up where there are historic districts because people value their homes," Federico added.

Nora Edmonds rents one of the townhouses labeled with a historic city plaque, though it's not on the National Register. That's not what she likes about Old Town Alexandria though.

"It's very human, people know their neighbors, you can walk everywhere," she said.

Edmonds likes the historic preservation rules as well.

"It protects it to a certain extent. It helps it maintain its character," Edmonds said.

She even smiles at the fact that she lives across the street from a former house of prostitution. At least that's what the man that lives in it told her.

"Things have been around long enough to have a reputation," she said.

"The historic character is a strong tourist attraction," said Charles Trozzo, chairman of the Alexandria historical restoration and preservation commission.

A recent controversy before Trozzo's commission involved a house on Lee Street. Originally the homeowners were putting an addition and taking up almost the entire backyard. After many debates with the owners, they reached a compromise.

"There's an old carriage house behind it, they're going to fill in between the house and the carriage house," Trozzo said.

WINDOVER HEIGHTS, a historical section in the town of Vienna, is a quirky section with winding streets, historic houses and gardens that are the centerpiece of the annual Walk On the Hill the last weekend of every April. There are special architectural rules for houses in that part of town as well. Located off Lawyers Road in the northwest quadrant of town, large wooden houses with wrap-around porches are the norm in Windover Heights.

"It's been in existence for a long time; it's unique to the town of Vienna," said Denise Adams, representing Windover Heights.

Although there are historical plaques on many of the houses in Windover Heights, the plaques are supplied by the town, not the Virginia Historical Register. With some of the residences dating back to pre-Civil War years, it gives the town some identity.

"Our town council thinks it's a worthwhile thing," Adams said.

Tom Holmes lives in Walnut Hill, a house in Windover Heights that dates back to 1880s. He maintains the historical look on his house, including the garage he added since moving in. Holmes covered it with German siding consisting of wooden slats, like the rest of the house.

"We designed it to fit in, they [architectural review board] approved it," Holmes said.

Walnut Hill is part of the Walk on the Hill as well.

"I think the town benefits a lot by having a historic district. Just having that historic designation gives everyone the feel, character. There's some very nice homes being restored," Holmes said.

Matters considered by the Windover Heights board includes exterior features such as signs, texture and material, the relation of similar features of buildings, accessory buildings, structures, and fences or signs in the immediate surroundings. Under consideration is the harmony or incongruity with the old and historic aspect of the surroundings, and the extent to which historic places and areas of historic interest in the district will be preserved or protected. The board also considers the special public value because of architectural and other features, which relate to the cultural and artistic heritage of the Town of Vienna.

THE ENTIRE TOWN OF CLIFTON, which occupies about one square mile, was declared a National Historic District by the Department of the Interior in 1984. A railroad runs through the middle of town, surrounded by a general store, post office, a couple of restaurants and residents that all seem to know each other, according to resident Terre Simpson.

"People like the rural, funky lifestyle," said Simpson.

Simpson's house is 100 years old, and likes the old-fashioned feel. Her house is up on the side of a hill overlooking the main street through town and the old church.

"I love the wood floors, the view of the park. I love walking in town," Simpson said.

There are rules though when it comes to improving the houses in Clifton.

"It's in everybody's best interest to keep their houses looking good. You want to keep that look, you want to keep history," Simpson said.

Margo Buckley, who has lived in Clifton for 29 years, works behind the counter at the General Store. "The town's all charming, it's not cookie-cutter looking," Buckley said.

Although Clifton is 20 minutes from Washington D.C., Buckley experiences the small town first hand.

"Often I'll look out my window and see someone riding a horse," she said.

The small town appeal is popular to newcomers as well, according to Richard Esposito with Long & Foster.

"There's a certain curiosity of people coming through here," Esposito said, "it's a unique lifestyle."

Some get the wrong idea about the housing market in town though. The real estate prices are consistent with the rest of Fairfax County. In Clifton, the houses are on small lots and many don't have basements, according to Esposito.

Clifton has its local lore and brushes with greatness as well. The list includes a house visited by Helen Hayes, a former resident named Oscar Woody that went down with the Titanic, and cinematically, the movie "Broadcast News" was filmed in Clifton, and "Sleepless in Seattle" was written by a Clifton resident.

"He wrote it when he lived here," Buckley said.

These are among the 33 stops on the Clifton Walking Tour.

ALONG OLD BRADDOCK ROAD, Centreville has a historic district as well. Consisting of six houses, two churches, an old store and a restaurant, "it was a commercial hub," according to Dennis Hogge who lives in one of the houses. His residence dates back to 1792.

"It was the village of Newgate in the 1750s, it became Centreville in 1792," Hogge said.

It was actually a place where George Washington slept on four separate occasions, Hogge said. This section of Centreville is under the Fairfax County architectural review board, and protected due to its historical designation. Hogge noted the importance of historically protected areas.

"They're important because they allow us to connect with the past," Hogge said, but there are plans for additional structures in the area that will be built in historic tones. When Hogge was rebuilding some of the stone foundations on his own house, he used stones that were on the site but had to make a special mortar to match the existing mortar.

THE TOWN OF HERNDON and Cape Hatteras, N.C. are linked by Captain William Lewis Herndon whose ship, the Central America, sank on Sept. 12, 1857 off the Cape. In the spirit of naval captains, he put the women and children on lifeboats and Herndon went down with the ship so the Virginia General Assembly named a town after him. Later, the town became a railroad center. Pine, Monroe and Grace streets were around then and are now main arteries in the section known as Old Town Herndon, divided into a central and northern area.

"There are several areas," said Carol Bruce, a past president of the Herndon Historical Society, which has a list of guidelines for the exterior portions of historic homes in Herndon.

"The homes in those districts fall under the guidelines," she said.

Captain Herndon, the Civil War and the railroad's role are elements of the Depot Museum in Herndon that is run by the historical society. Although most of the structures in Herndon's old town areas are homes, there are some businesses as well in the central part of the town. These businesses and any businesses being constructed have to adhere to the historical guidelines as well.

"It provides us with a sense of place," said Bruce, who lives in a house built in 1894.

WHILE FIXING the German lap shingles on her house, Bruce found some historic papers in the spaces between the walls.

"We found some old newspapers from the week after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor," Bruce said.

In Old Town Herndon, there are also houses known as the "Sears" houses that were ordered through the Sears and Roebuck catalog and delivered via the railroad. At the time, they may have been an easy way to get a house, but owners of the houses now have maintained them with pride, Bruce added. The Smithsonian Museum had a tour of the Sears homes at one time.

"It's something to be very proud of," Bruce said.

Although the Old Town mystique does attract tourism and commerce, not everyone thinks it's being preserved the way it should. To Virginia Drewry, commercialism and a transient population are hurting things in Alexandria. She looks at the great fire of Jan. 18, 1827 at the Green Furniture Factory and the house of Phillip Marsteller as telling examples. Marsteller was George Washington's doctor years before the fire. "That was not Marsteller's house. It is a house built on the foundation of his house," she said. "Almost everything burned."

The move-in, bulldozer attitude has taken over, Drewry said. People are bringing their suburban values with them.

"It's a touristy, marketing thing," Drewry said.