By Alex Russell
To this day, the City of Falls Church retains a certain, long-standing small town atmosphere despite decades of change and modernization, both in and around the Little City.
Winter Hill, a residential community near the City’s center — first erected in 1948 and at the time one of the higher density communities in Falls Church — is a picturesque embodiment of this passage of time. Decades of history made their way through Falls Church, prompting the community to respond and change, yet retain its village spirit.
Originally known as Tyler Gardens, this residential community’s continued evolution reflects the City — and the region’s — response to massive factors since the middle part of the 20th century.
Up until the late 1940s, Falls Church could have been best described as a “quaint little town.” It was surrounded by woods and farm fields, surroundings that were far more common in Virginia at the time than they are today.
Bradley E. Gernand, who has studied the area’s history going back to the Civil War, provided a historical framework for the City’s development up until the present day. He highlighted how the end of World War II acted as a “huge accelerant” that preceded a building boom that essentially swept the region.
Incidentally, when Mattie Gundry closed her nationally-recognized institute for special needs students on West Broad Street in 1946 — the 11 acre-property was then utilized for residential use, eventually becoming Winter Hill. A historical marker at the intersection of West Broad St. and West Annandale Road can be found today, noting Gundry’s impact on her community.
The rustic air and feeling of tight-knit community would consistently be intruded upon in the subsequent decades as new housing developments constructed to the east and south of the City blurred city limits as construction initiatives “stretched all the way into Bailey’s Crossroads and down to Route 50,” according to Gernand.
The opening of Seven Corners Mall in 1956 and of Tysons Corner Mall in 1966 ensured economic growth as well as an influx of new residents. With the establishment of such large urban shopping centers around the City, the retail market along Broad St. suffered.
With the founding of Dulles International Airport in 1962 and of CIA headquarters in Langley the following year, more and more people found themselves in Falls Church.
James D. Pammel, the director of City Planning at the time, conducted a study that sought to examine the “desirability of apartments in Falls Church.” The study, titled “Analysis of Multi-Family Dwellings, the Prospects and Recommendations for the City of Falls Church,” underscored the economic advantages of medium- and high-rise apartment complexes that would materialize through tax revenue.
The City Council did not jump at the chance to further modernize the City, but Pammel’s work, coupled with the findings of another study titled “The Economic Impact of Potential Development in Falls Church” by Hammer and Associates, led to a zoning ordinance that permitted the construction of apartment buildings in Falls Church.
The findings of both reports and the ever-increasing necessity for new apartment buildings in the City were balanced out with the goals and needs of the community, which strove to maintain its provincial identity.
The buildings that made up the original housing community were two- and three-stories high, constructed of brick, with roofs made of gambrel-like wooden shingles; each individual building had a central entrance.
In 1976 and 77, a number of the buildings situated to the rear of the complex were destroyed and replaced with townhouses; the community’s name was then officially changed to Winter Hill.
The Falls Church Housing Corporation, created in 1982 and a part of the NHP Foundation, purchased 81 apartments at the 480-unit Winter Hill complex for $2.9 million during the 80s with the specific intent of reserving them as low-income housing domiciles for elderly and handicapped persons.
This was the first time that the Corporation attempted to sustain affordable housing through the purchase and maintenance of existing residential units.
Around the same time, thousands of low-income people were suffering from displacement, especially in the Arlington and Alexandria areas, many of them Hispanic. The residential communities they had lived in previously were in the middle of a repurposing project aimed at attracting higher-price residents.
Today, Winter Hill offers one- and two-bedroom units at two sites for seniors 55 and older.
The location is especially ideal for its proximity to local pharmacies, the post office, the Mary Riley Styles Public Library, various shops and many other community resources.
Taking a stroll through the Winter Hill neighborhood today, the immediate incorporation of nature — large trees framing the community’s calm suburban scene, as well as the occasional singing of birds — helps keep the City’s inviting, neighborly energy alive.
With the benefit of hindsight, it becomes clear that the architectural changes in Falls Church are at their core bittersweet. Gernand wrote that the Little City’s downtown area, with time, “became less intimate than before.”
Old photos dating back to Gundry’s time offer a clear glimpse into the past, illustrating how the City’s aesthetic and terrain, both natural and man-made, have both gone through a lot of upheaval.
Even so, walking through the center of the City, one cannot help but acknowledge that Falls Church still has that certain feeling inherent in almost any small U.S. town.
The human-scale buildings, as well as the vibrant mix of people working, learning, shopping, living and socializing, pays respect to the area’s humble beginnings more than a hundred years ago.