by Lee Graves
Though the rattle of Civil War rifles faded long ago from Chain Bridge Road, history still holds a place in the mix of old and new in the city of Fairfax.
Huseyin Kansu, owner of La Rue 123 restaurant in the Joshua Gunnell House, proudly talks about the four members of the Gunnell family who served as sheriffs in the city’s formative years. A plaque outside the 1830 residence on Chain Bridge Road recounts how former Virginia Gov. “Extra Billy” Smith bustled from the house to take charge of the Warrenton Rifles in an early skirmish of the Civil War.
Kansu’s appreciation for history has a practical side. He and his wife, Didem, have used the big rooms and high ceilings in the house, once the site of the Bailiwick Inn, to create a spacious but intimate feel with an Old World influence — a strolling violinist, impressionistic paintings of wine and food, a menu offering French cuisine such as Saumon Sauce Moutarde a l’Ancienne and the signature Chocolate Soufflé. “It’s a beautiful building, and it gets lots of attention,” Kansu says. “It is a very nice ambience. I think people like to sit in the separate rooms.”
Eateries such as La Rue 123 and its Italian neighbor, Villa Mozart, are playing a vital role in the economic evolution of Fairfax. “Especially in the historic component of the downtown, they’re smaller and more quaint,” says Geoff Durham, director of economic development for the city. “You’re going to go there, and you feel like you’re in somebody’s home.”
Other small businesses such as the Little Shoppe of Restoration, Benchmade Clothing and Circa Home and Garden rub shingles with myriad law offices that do business at the venerable Fairfax County Courthouse, built in 1800.
The courthouse is a centerpiece of Fairfax’s historic district, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. A few steps in either direction will take you to the Old Fairfax Jail (1885), the Old Town Hall (1900) or the William Gunnell House (1835), where Confederate Col. John Mosby captured a slumbering Union brigadier general in 1863.
Such gems distinguish this city of 22,000 residents from some of the suburban blur in Northern Virginia. And Kansu and Durham both hope to retain that link with history while building business.
“Because the buildings are older, it allows for smaller, more unique mom-and-pop-type startup businesses to come in and get a footing,” Durham says. “That’s critical to keeping a unique feel.”
Several years ago, the city fathers of Fairfax launched a major project that gives a bow to the past and an eye to the future.
Old Town Village, which pays architectural homage to the nearby historic district, spans several parcels and combines uses such as retail shops, restaurants, offices and residential units. Improvements to roads and other infrastructure, new traffic patterns and construction of a regional library added to the scope of the effort.
While it has added opportunity in some corners, it has added travails elsewhere. “It’s amazingly difficult to ask any of the [existing] businesses to have to endure that,” says Geoff Durham, director of economic development. “Then when we finally deliver this new project, the bottom falls out of the economy and disposable income isn’t what it was.”
Restaurateur Huseyin Kansu sees challenges, such as traffic congestion and economic woes in general, but he also is upbeat about doing business in the district. “It’s growing, and people like an upscale restaurant,” Kansu says. “It has great potential. It’s just a matter of
Old Town Village serves as a bridge to the historic district and to underutilized areas of the city, Durham says. “That’s not the end; that’s
the catalyst project.”
Festival of Lights and Carols: Dec. 6 and 7. Includes illumination of downtown historic district, caroling and lighting of the city tree.
Activities will be held in the Kitty Pozer Garden behind Old Town Hall (3999 University Drive). (703) 385-7858.
Chocolate Lovers Festival: Feb. 7 and 8, 2009. Includes the Chocolate Challenge (City Hall Atrium, 10455 Armstrong St.) and Taste of Chocolate (Old Town Hall). (703) 385-1661. http://www.chocolatefestival.net/
Civil War Weekend: May 2 and 3, 2009. Featuring the 17th Virginia Infantry, Company D, “Fairfax Rifles.” Historic Blenheim Estate, 3610 Old
Lee Highway. (800) 545-7950. http://www.fairfaxva.gov/specialevents/cww/CWW.asp.