by Matt Delaney
A power clique had assembled on Oak Street, but they weren’t interested in the power we associate with storied antagonists. For the Victorian Society of Falls Church knowledge is the greatest power of all, as they’re caretakers of the city’s historical lineage and the progressive identity that defines it.
An upper-echelon of past and present members chatted in the parlor of the Mount Hope house – Midge Wang, co-founder and program chair; Keith Thurston, another co-founder; former president Linda Lau and current president Terry Hooper; and Gus Knapp, membership chair.
As you might’ve guessed, the group promotes the Victorian Era’s (1837-1901) heritage in Falls Church because of that period’s significance to the area.
“The interesting thing about Falls Church is that it grows up in the Victorian Era as a bedroom community for Washington D.C.,” Lau said.
“It was after the Civil War that Falls Church really got populated and that was the buildout of Victorian homes,” Thurston added. “The preponderance of the built history of Falls Church is of the Victorian Era and the houses that are here really influenced the houses that were built around them.”
The Victorian Era’s stamp on the community is still visible today as over 90 houses from the period densely populate a 2.2 square-mile radius.
Impressive, given that it’s been over a century since the Victorian Era was in full swing, but the Victorian Society of Falls Church wasn’t founded until 1995 – who was shepherding this history before their formation?
In short, everyone was. Growth during the Victorian Era gave citizens a sense of belonging to Falls Church and the proud oversight of that growth laid the foundation for the city.
“Falls Church is not as transient as the rest of Metro Washington. Our statistics of being born, living and staying here are significantly better,” Thurston said.
“Creating a township in the Victorian Era [started] the self-governance model [that’s] the centerpiece for [our] community.”
“It’s fascinating that we haven’t changed,” Wang added. “If you look around the state there are towns that had a factory…and everything revolved around that business, but when it closed they became ghost towns. Falls Church is exactly what it was then – a community for middle-level executives of the government. There’s not many places like that.”
Today’s residents remain financially invested in the city’s history as Victorian houses usually sell faster and at higher prices than regular homes. And some of the homes have been converted into historical sites or are being used as office buildings.
The Cherry Hill Farmhouse, for example, is a historical site used for many of the City’s and Victorian Society’s events throughout the year. Built in 1845, the Cherry Hill Farmhouse is a Greek Revival-Farm House style structure whose deed was held by many different hands before it was given to the City of Falls Church in 1959.
The earliest record the Victorian Society has of the house is that its property was deeded to John Tramwell in 1729. In 1845, William H. Harvey bought the 66-acre farm and built the house, as it stands today.
Guided tours of the farmhouse are given Monday – Thursday between 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. and on Saturdays (April – October) from 10 a.m. – noon. Private tours are available for groups of ten or more.
Another example is the Everhart-Marshall House, which was built in 1895 by local builder Weston Turner. The Everhart-Marshall House is a Greek Revival-Modified Queen Anne style home. Today the building is used as office space.
But the preservation of Victorian style homes doesn’t quite do the the Victorian Era justice in the eyes of Society members.
The group is known for their imaginative living history programs where members will don period attire to perform civilian Civil War re-enactments or fashion shows. The result is an engaging form of education that rivals the conventional wisdom of historical text.
“When you come out and talk to somebody, they may listen and interact, but when you have a group of people dressed correctly in that period it spurs a lot of interest,” Wang said.
The popularity of the Society’s programs extend beyond city limits and attract history aficionados from all over the country as a result.
“Not everybody in the Victorian Society of Falls Church is from the city,” Lau said.
“We reach out to a lot of different areas and we’ve worked closely with [them] and a variety of their events. By doing the living history for these events we’ve brought attention to the historical aspects of Falls Church.”
While the Victorian Society has been well-received by most of the city’s inhabitants, there is one cloud that lingers in minds of every member: who to entrust their passion among newer generations.
“A lot of us are worried that younger people aren’t interested in history,” Thurston said.
“They don’t get exposed to history other than the facts they have to memorize in school,” Knapp added. “But when they get a chance to see it, they actually do get interested because it’s something they haven’t really thought about.”
Groups founded on reprising the past seem destined to end in the future, but, just like Falls Church, the Victorian Society proves to be dynamic. The Society intended to pay homage to the Victorian Era with their existence, but in reality, their crafty maintenance of a dwindling niche represents Falls Church’s progressive nature better than any re-enactment.