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Recognizing Herndon's History

Historical Society tries to generate interest in plaque program to recognize historical structures in town.

Herndon's train depot has been around the block a few times — or more to the point, the blocks have been constructed around the depot.

At 158 years old, the depot was built before a name was chosen for what is now the Town of Herndon.

According to Herndon Historical Society president Chuck Mauro in his latest book, "Herndon: A History in Images," the train depot is considered "perhaps the most significant building in Herndon's history."

Built along the tracks of the Alexandria, Loudoun & Hampshire Railroad, in 1857 the depot was the one stop on a rail line that ran through five farm fields — what is now part of the Heritage Preservation District.

It wasn't until a year later, when a post office was established in the small depot, that the town was named.

Today the building is surrounded by other historic structures including the original town hall — built in 1938 — as well as modern-day businesses like Dairy Queen.

It is because of buildings like the depot that Don LeVine, former historical society president, initiated a program in 1980 to make sure the "older and more important structures within the town" were recognized and maintained.

This program is the historic registry and to date 21 structures have been recognized.

But within the past few years, interest in the program has declined — along with publicity, said Mauro.

"For the past couple of years the society has been focused on getting the inside of the depot ready," he said. "Each year we decide what we're going to focus on and this year someone suggested the plaque program."

THROUGH THE HISTORIC registry program, owners or residents of historic structures in town can research the history of their buildings and then register them to become historic plaque recipients.

To qualify for a plaque the historical society has outlined a set of guidelines, which include the structure having to be at least 50 years old and the exterior of the building being in the spirit of its original design, among other things.

In addition, residents must research the structure themselves, which means going through old deeds and documents in the archive section at the Fairfax County Circuit Courthouse.

"If you don't know anything about the history of your house, only yourself, you can do title search," said Mauro.

Sandy Rathbun, archivist at the courthouse, said people need to be prepared for the time it takes to do the research.

"Sometimes it's not very easy," she said. "It is time consuming, but sometimes it can be very easy because you can start with the original deed and go from there."

Richard Downer, historical society member, said he thinks one reason the program lost interest in the last few years was because of the time involved.

"I own a building that would qualify," he said, "but I don't know when I'd get the time to do it."

Downer joked he had even considered hiring someone to do the project because he thinks the registry is a good program, he just can't find the time to do the research.

Carol Bruce, historical society member and owner of a registered house, said she didn't think the research was time consuming.

In fact, she enjoyed learning the history of her house.

"It's not as hard as people think it is," she said. "You can do it over time in the evenings."

During her research, Bruce said she was surprised to learn that her house was built in 1894 by a widow with five children who purchased the land for $65.

BASED ON THE RESEARCH Bruce and the other recipients of the plaques did to be registered through the program, Mauro was able to include the information in the last chapter of his book, set to be released in June — for the Herndon Festival.

"The idea is that you can track your house back to its original owner," said Mauro about the information gathered. "You can even find out when it was built and by whom."

Bruce said she wanted to learn more about her house because she loves history and wanted to know more about her house, and she felt it was important to participate in the program.

"There are so many houses in town that would qualify for this registry," she said. "It's not like a huge project that you have to do all at once, you can put the work down and walk away and come back when you have time."

Mauro said because of the loss in interest with the program, the hope is through extra publicity and meetings people will start participating again.

"It's something I'd probably do now," said Laura Price, resident of a house built in 1879. "But it was something that years ago, when we were younger and when it came out, when I thought about doing it, it sounded more like homework to me than anything else."

As the owners of the house owned by Herndon's first mayor, Price agreed she and her husband should have the house registered.

Bruce said when the program first began and people did the research, they couldn't get the plaque unless they purchased it — which was expensive.

"There were several homes out there with the research done, but no plaque," she said.

Because of that, she said the group began the Herndon Homes Tour to raise money to help buy the plaques.

With this incentive, in addition to the upcoming promotions for the program — starting with a May 25 meeting in the depot at 7:30 p.m. — Bruce said she hopes more people with historic structures will participate.

"If anyone is thinking about doing this, they would benefit by coming to this meeting," she said. "We're talking about doing workshops for people, presentations and even question-and-answer sessions to maybe encourage people to start the process."

Applications are available for the program and can be acquired by calling Chuck Mauro at 703-787-9879 or by e-mail at cmauro10@aol.com.