This section covers Arlington Municipal County and the counties of Fairfax and Prince William. Treated under a separate section is the city of Alexandria. Adjacent to Washington, D.C., these three counties (and Alexandria) are the most populous area of Virginia with more than 1.5 million residents.
Before European settlement, present-day northern Virginia was the home of various Algonquin tribes. Captain John Smith stopped at an Indian village on the Potomac somewhere in the area in July 1608. For the next century, competing land claims and the resistance of Native American inhabitants prevented settlement. Finally, proprietorship passed to the Fairfax family, and in 1722 the Iroquois ceded their rights. The eighteenth century saw some settlement. Alexandria, the principal port, was established in 1749, and several large land holdings emerged, such as those of the Washingtons (see Mount Vernon), the Masons (see Gunston Hall), and others. Other than a few churches and the large estates, very little eighteenth-century building remains. From 1791 to 1846 portions of present-day Arlington County and the city of Alexandria were part of Washington, D.C. During the Civil War the Union army built forts in the area to guard Washington, and major battles, such as those at Manassas, were fought nearby.
Alexandria became an independent city in 1870, and the ensuing confusion over a county and a city with the same name led in 1920 to the renaming of the county for Arlington, the Custis-Lee House and the cemetery. (Arlington is a municipal county, not a city.) Alexandria remained the only urban area of any size in northern Virginia well into the twentieth century. The remaining area was largely agricultural, with a few small farming villages. Until World War II, the northernmost counties—Arlington and Fairfax—remained rural, but then changes started. In 1940 Arlington's population was 57,040; by 1948 it had grown to 123,832. Fairfax in 1950 had about 1,500 farmers and was the greatest milk-producing county in the commonwealth; by 1970 it had only twelve farmers left. Similarly, Prince William County had a population of 144,703 in 1980 and 286,813 by 2000.
These changes resulted from the growth of the federal government; the relocation of major businesses to the area, frequently at the invitation of either local or state governments; and the resultant construction of major highways and public transportation. Metrorail for Washington, D.C., reaches into northern Virginia on two major lines. The state has set up a public rail system for commuters on the I-95 corridor and is considering expansion in other areas.
The consequence is a vast suburban wilderness of undistinguished housing tracts, shopping malls, and strip developments. Traffic tie-ups on the various interstate highways have become legendary, perhaps the worst in the country. The western reaches of Fairfax County, McLean and beyond, are “McMansion heaven”; thousands of houses of 7,000 square feet and larger, with three-car garages, have been built on small plots. Closer to Washington, in and around Rosslyn and Crystal City, a forest of high rises has appeared, almost all devoid of architectural interest. The high-rise boom along the Potomac River waterfront at Crystal City and Rosslyn resulted from height restrictions in downtown Washington, D.C., and a major exodus of many businesses following the 1968 riots in Washington. The result is not just architectural mediocrity and banality, but the creation, in these places and in the office parks around Tysons Corner, of environments in which the pedestrian is banned. Gems of importance do appear, and some important urban models as well, but overall, northern Virginia illustrates the ills of uncontrolled development and the need for coordinated plans and environmental considerations for future growth.
Because of the complexity and the geographical configuration of northern Virginia, the sequence of entries begins with the area closest to the Potomac River across from Washington and spirals up to the north, and then swings back around to the south.
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