When Lehman Brown was about 4, he watched as the Ratcliffe house burned down near the corner of what is now Main and Oak streets. “My mother held me up to the bathroom window, and we could see it burn,” Brown said. The fire was in the early 1920s.
Richard Ratcliffe likely built the house sometime in the late 1700s, but the exact date isn’t known, said Edward Trexler Jr., a local historian and member of Historic Fairfax City Inc. “He brought his family here in 1798,” Trexler said.
“Ratcliffe acquired nearly 3,000 acres,” said Susan Gray, curator of the City of Fairfax Museum. “Today, when you travel through the City of Fairfax, you are traveling over Ratcliffe’s land.”
Ratcliffe already had a home on a 600-acre piece of land, which he called Mount Vineyard, before he built this new home, Trexler said. The original house was located about where Borders bookstore is today, near the intersection of Main Street and Route 50.
In 1799, Ratcliffe sold four acres of land for the construction of a courthouse to Fairfax County for $1.
Ratcliffe, a court justice, wanted a short commute. “When the court was built, he wanted to be close to work," Trexler said. He then built the house at Oak and Main.
Ratcliffe lobbied the Virginia General Assembly to establish a town around the courthouse area, and on Jan. 14, 1805, the town of Providence was established. The town on Ratcliffe’s land was 14 acres, to be sold in half-acre lots, Gray said. Ratcliffe took out ads in The Alexandria Gazette to try to entice people to come to the new town.
On Jan. 14, 2005, dozens of people, including Brown, Gray, Trexler and a group of Ratcliffe’s descendants came to dedicate a historical marker a few yards from the site of Ratcliffe’s house, now the Oak Knoll apartment complex.
The house, Gray said, went through several owners. Ratcliffe died in 1825 and left it to his son Charles. It was then sold to George Gunnell, then Thomas Love, and finally W.T. Rumsey.
It is Rumsey’s house that Lehman Young, now 89, remembers. “I can still see the fire,” he said.