The Fairfax County Courthouse
Courthouse Bicentennial April 2000
Fairfax County has had a county court and a county courthouse for 258 years. The first Fairfax courthouse was specified in the legislation creating the county in 1742 to be located "at a place call'd Spring Fields." This location was most likely slightly south and west of the present-day Tyson's Corner (the intersection of Rt. 7 and Rt. 123).
Ten years later, in April 1752, in response to petitions from "many of the principal inhabitants of Fairfax County," it was ordered by the Governor and Council of Virginia that the Fairfax courthouse be moved to the town of Alexandria, which had agreed to build the county a new courthouse at its own expense.
It was in these two courthouses that "gentlemen justices" (men of property and social standing, such as George Washington and George Mason), who had been appointed by the Governor of Virginia, met to carry out all the business of the county. The judicial functions of the colonial court included punishment for petty property crimes such as stealing, punishment of runaway and disobedient slaves, apprenticing orphans, and punishment for moral misdemeanors, such as swearing on the Sabbath. The Fairfax Court did not have jurisdiction in capital cases involving whites. The court's administrative and executive responsibilities included setting tax rates (payable in pounds of tobacco), authorizing roads, mills, and bridges, setting ferry rates, and licensing taverns and ordinaries. The court carried out all the official local government business of and for Fairfax County. Elections, conducted by the sheriff, were also held at the courthouse.
The Fairfax Court continued to meet at the courthouse in Alexandria even after the American Revolution in 1776 and the formation of the new federal government in 1789. In 1790, the federal Congress voted to locate the new national capital on the Potomac River. Virginia ceded land that was at the time part of Fairfax County, including the town of Alexandria and the Fairfax County courthouse, to be included in the new District of Columbia.
It thus became necessary to build a new courthouse for Fairfax County, and the General Assembly specified that it be located closer to the center of the county. In June 1799, the commissioners appointed for the purpose agreed on a site and purchased four acres of land (on the S.W. corner of what is now the intersection of Rt. 236 and Rt. 123) from Richard Ratcliffe for one dollar. Ratcliffe had effectively donated the land to the county for the construction of the new courthouse.
To build the new courthouse, the commissioners contracted with John Bogue (a carpenter and cabinet maker who had arrived in Alexandria in 1795) and his partner Mungo Dykes. James Wren, who was one of the commissioners, had prepared the plan for the new courthouse. The original four-acre lot was soon found not to be large enough for the courthouse, clerk's office, jail, gallows and pillory, and other necessary buildings. Accordingly, the courthouse lot was expanded to ten acres. The first meeting of the Fairfax Court was held in the new building on Monday, April 21, 1800.
The courthouse building remained substantially unchanged until the time of the Civil War. By that time a little village had grown up around the courthouse. William Russell, a correspondent for the London Times described the village in 1861 as forty houses with gardens and fields
During the war, the building was occupied by both Union and Confederate troops. In the spring of 1862, however, the Union Army took possession of the courthouse and the surrounding area for the rest of the war. The building was used as a military headquarters and a lookout station. It was reported that the building was gutted by the soldiers and that many records were lost or destroyed.
Following the Civil War, the extensive damage to the courthouse was repaired and restored, and the building resumed its former functions until the early twentieth century, when other more extensive and significant changes were made to the building. Electric lights were installed in the building in 1918, the courtroom was refurbished in 1920, and an addition was constructed on the south end of the building around 1929.
In the mid-twentieth century, as the population of the Fairfax County greatly increased, life and local government became more complicated. Substantial changes and additions were made to the building in the early 1950s.
In the mid-1960s, the Fairfax County Bar Association and the Fairfax County Landmarks Preservation Commission requested funding from the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to restore the inside of the old courtroom as closely as possible to its original appearance. The Board appropriated $90,000 for the project, and the work was completed in the spring of 1967.
In 1976, a "time capsule," to be opened in 2076, was buried next to the front wall of the original part of the building. Additional changes and renovations have been made to the building since that time.
In addition to the remaining old and original courthouse and courtroom, dating to 1800, the expanded building now houses the Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Courts, along with other court facilities.
The year 2000 marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the construction of the courthouse, and the first meeting of the Fairfax Court in the building. The building and its history are tangible reminders of the many changes that have taken place in Fairfax County in the last two-hundred years.