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Backyard History: Parkfairfax - Defense Housing That Stands the Test of Time

Posted on Nov 02,2011
Filed Under News , Community,
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Photo courtesy of Parkfairfax Unit Owners Association<br />Gerald Ford, the thirty-eighth U.S. president, at home in Parkfairfax with his wife Betty and two of their four children. The Fords lived in Parkfairfax from 1951 to 1955.
Photo courtesy of Parkfairfax Unit Owners Association
Gerald Ford, the thirty-eighth U.S. president, at home in Parkfairfax with his wife
Betty and two of their four children. The Fords lived in Parkfairfax from
1951 to 1955.

By Meg Peters
 
ALEXANDRIA, VA - What do the Empire State Building, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Gerald Ford, and steel have to do with Parkfairfax?
 
Built for $8.5 million dollars by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (MetLife) from 1941 to 1943, this garden-style condominium complex has a history so rich it is listed as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places and on the Virginia Landmarks Register.
 

Elegant signs proclaiming that Parkfairfax is a historic district grace its major entrances. This sign stands at Quaker Lane and Preston Road. Photo by Meg Peters, July 2011.
Elegant signs proclaiming that Parkfairfax is a
historic district grace its major entrances. This
sign stands at Quaker Lane and Preston Road.
Photo by Meg Peters, July 2011.

Tucked into the rolling hills of the North Ridge section of northwest Alexandria, Parkfairfax fans out across 132 acres near the Alexandria-Arlington border. The community is bounded by Quaker Lane, Interstate 395, Beverly Drive, Wellington Road, Gunston Road, Valley Drive, Glebe Road, and Four Mile Run. 
 
The Birth of Parkfairfax
 
Parkfairfax’s location near the Pentagon offers the key to its conception. In the early 1940s, just prior to World War II, the Washington, D.C. area experienced an acute housing shortage as the federal government expanded to prepare for war, hiring thousands of defense and military workers. Roosevelt’s New Deal also created federal jobs.
 
According to rumor, President Roosevelt requested help from his friend Frederick Ecker, the Chairman of the Board for Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (MetLife), in building “defense housing” to alleviate the housing crisis.
 
Already a player in the rental housing market, MetLife engaged architect Leonard Schultze and Associates, landscape architects Gilmore D. Clarke and Michael Rapuano, and builder Starrett Brothers and Eken.
 
A top-notch team, Schultze had served as Chief of Design for New York’s Grand Central Station, and Starrett Brothers and Eken had constructed the Empire State Building and the Lincoln Memorial.
 
Materials shortages during the war posed a challenge to building Parkfairfax’s 1,684 townhouse-style apartments, housed in 285 buildings. Originally the design of the buildings called for reinforced concrete; however, the steel reinforcing rods were delivered just after the ban on steel that prohibited the use of steel except for high priority projects.
 
The rods went unused, only to be sold as scrap metal after the war. Though the buildings of Parkfairfax are all in the Colonial Revival style and appear similar, they vary considerably in materials, in design, and in architectural details.
 
Various types of brick were spread evenly throughout the neighborhood: some buildings consist of red clay fired brick, while some are sand brick. Clearly the builders and architects had to be resourceful and flexible.
 
The design philosophy behind Parkfairfax yielded similar communities such as Fairlington, located next to Parkfairfax, Colonial Village in Arlington, and McLean Gardens in Washington, D.C. Parkfairfax’s “low-rise” two- to three-story buildings back to open, park-like areas, with the kitchens and bathrooms in the front and the primary living spaces facing the back, emphasizing privacy and views of the outdoors.
 

A view of Colonial Revival building fronts on Mount Eagle Place, the street that crowns Parkfairfax at its highest point. Photo by Meg Peters, July 2011.
A view of Colonial Revival building fronts on
Mount Eagle Place, the street that crowns
Parkfairfax at its highest point. Photo by
Meg Peters, July 2011.

Parkfairfax has 13 apartments per acre, set gently into the landscape with abundant open space. At the time of its creation, the neighborhood had few trees. The winding streets were intended to limit speeds to 25 miles per hour.
 
The name “Parkfairfax” derives from the Fairfax family, affluent eighteenth century Virginia landowners; however, the land for Parkfairfax was no longer part of Fairfax County after 1801. Parkfairfax belonged to Arlington County (formerly Alexandria County) until the City of Alexandria annexed it in 1929.
 
The Early Days              
 
Initially MetLife employed 80 people to care for the grounds and buildings of Parkfairfax. Upon its completion in 1943, the community filled up immediately, with a waiting list hundreds long. Original rents averaged $61.25 for a one bedroom, $78.75 for a two bedroom, and $90.00 for a three bedroom.
 
The management strongly preferred families and did not rent to single tenants except for widows. Apartment size was based on family size. Married couples with a child could not stay in a one bedroom apartment: they were required to move to a two bedroom. Rules were strict: no dogs, no cats, and no vegetable gardens, which were popular at the time. Like many similar apartment communities, Parkfairfax did not rent to African Americans or Jewish people.
 
Famous Residents
 
Nicknamed the “cradle of presidents,” Parkfairfax was home to Gerald Ford (resided there 1951-1955) and Richard Nixon (resided there 1943-1944 and 1947-1951) while both men served in Congress. Other well-known residents include Dean Rusk, Secretary of State under John F. Kennedy; Bobby Baker, aide to Lyndon Johnson; Sherman Adams, aide to Dwight Eisenhower; Edward White, astronaut; and Sandar Vanocur, NBC newscaster.
 
Parkfairfax Today
 
Now a condominium complex, the last Parkfairfax renter moved out in 1979, completing the conversion to condominiums by PIA/IDI Corporation. PIA/IDI bought Parkfairfax in 1977 from MetLife and from Arlen Realty, the New York company that had purchased the Parkfairfax buildings and leased the land from MetLife in 1968.
 
The condominium conversion trend swept through many similar apartment rental communities in the 1970s as people sought affordable, high-quality housing in metropolitan Washington – a tough market, as in the 1940s. Today Parkfairfax’s prime location still draws the “defense workers” that keep the federal government ticking, and the community has matured into a beautiful landscape graced with almost 100 species of trees that add shade and color to Parkfairfax.
 
Reprinted from Zebra August 2011. Visit www.thezebra.org.



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