Dating back to the 1600s, the City of Falls Church has been considered an “unique” and “historic” city. This year, a new physical reflection of its history is allowing people to learn about the city they call home in the form of historical panels now installed on S. Washington Street.
The City is showcasing a series of panels that reflect eight periods of historical development. Located at South Washington Street and Hillwood Avenue at the newly-developed transit plaza there, the panels made their debut this summer and are a permanent installation for all local citizens as well as visitors to this area to learn from and reflect on.
Maggie Redden, senior communications and marketing specialist for the City of Falls Church, told the News-Press the idea for creating and placing the panels started with a working group of City staff and community volunteers coming together in June of 2016. This meeting was to draft the texts and select the images that would be placed on the panels, while also deciding where the panels would be located.
The decision to place them in between the transit plaza at South Washington Street and Hillwood Avenue was deemed perfect, as Redden said it is a “great location to highlight City history since the new plaza is a transportation hub for both residents and non-residents.”
Redden said the overall goal of the panels is to appeal to several factors: audience, content, transportation focus, images and future uses.
For audiences, the information and images on the panels are designed to be “relevant to residents, commuters, future citizens and tourists of all demographics.”
The content of the panels is to feature the history of Falls Church in “chronological order.” The eight periods shown on the panels stretch from the 1600s to present day.
The first historical period presented is centered on the native peoples and their land before 1700. The panel states how Falls Church was occupied by two native tribes before European colonists disrupted them. The panel also shows a photo of “Big Chimneys,” the first known European structure in the area.
The Settlement from 1700 to 1815 is displayed on the next panel. In 1734, a church was built near the Potomac River Falls, soon known as “The Falls Church.” This church that gave the City of Falls Church its name was the “center of local life” and served as a Revolutionary War recruiting station.
The Virginia Village panel features the turnpikes and tolls of the area. Covering the period from 1815 to 1861, the panel describes how the city was an “essential” stop along the route from Alexandria’s port on the Potomac River to Leesburg and western mountains. This caused the creation of the Leesburg Turnpike, now known as State Route 7 and Broad Street.
The next panel on the Civil War era focuses on the years between 1861 to 1865 on how a “village was divided” due to many locals not supporting the Confederacy despite the state joining it. A story is featured on the panel about Harriet Foote Turner, a local free woman of color who led 12 enslaved people to freedom.
The Rebuilding era panel features the historical period when railroads began to spread from 1865 to 1890. The panel states how this was the time where the Falls Church Library Association created the town’s first public library under the leadership of Mary Riley Styles.
The Turn of the 20th Century panel highlights several historical events during 1890 to 1920 and how they associate with the City of Falls Church. Local black citizens formed what would soon become the first rural branch of the NAACP in the nation. By the time World War I began, women in the area took on new roles by joining the women’s suffrage movement, leading to the 1921 election of Mary Smyth and Mattie Gundry in the town’s council.
The Emerging City panel describes the growth of local roads and how Falls Church flourished despite two World Wars and the Great Depression. From 1920 to 1950, schools and a water system were built, along with the air-conditioned State Theatre.
The 1950 to Beyond panel highlights how the City of Falls Church truly became a small, independent city. In 1961, a diverse coalition of City activists successfully ended segregation in Falls Church schools, becoming only the second Virginia community to do so. The panel states how the City’s cultural diversity broadened as immigrants from Asia, Central America and South America joined the community.
Redden said the working group on the panels made a “conscious effort to represent important women and African Americans to create a more balanced representation of the City’s history.”
Because of the Grant Funding received for the panels, the text and images “highlight” transportation’s relevance to the City’s formation, which Redden said is “fitting” for the panel’s location at the transportation plaza.
The images selected for the panels “complement” the text while also creating a “balance of maps, buildings and individuals again consciously representing the importance of both women and African Americans through imagery.”
Lastly, for future use, Redden said the installation of the panels is a “starting point” for historical walking tours and educational resources for locals and non-locals.
So far, Redden stated the response to the panels by citizens has been positive. Redden also said she and her team hope the panels will bring a “better understanding of those who lived here and how the little city came to be what it is today.”
“Everyone is excited to see the evolution of transportation in The Little City,” Redden said. “We also hope to see tour groups use [the panels] as a starting point and for residents and visitors to learn more about our history.”