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Regional History



Area of Study

Historical Communities


Concept to Reality

Portrait of President Eisenhower, c. 1954.
(Library of Congress) .

In September of 1950, the 81st United States Congress passed the Second Washington Airport Act, which authorized the construction of and initiated the process of allocating funds for a second airport in the D.C. area. This legislation came in response to traffic congestion at Washington National Airport (now known as Reagan National Airport), which had become hazardous and insufficient for the growing practice of passenger air travel in the United States.[1]

In 1951, the Congress authorized the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) to begin condemnation of 4,520 acres in community of Burke, Virginia for the construction of the second Washington-area airport. However, these plans were halted in response to local opposition to the idea, shifting the CAA's focus to other potential sites. After a 6-year debate, Lt. General Elwood R. Quesada advised then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower to officially authorize the selection of a larger site along the border between Fairfax and Loudoun counties.[2][3]

The news of this selection hit the public in mid-January of 1958. 9,800 acres were condemned and subsequently acquired by the federal government between 1959 and 1961. 87 residents of Fairfax and Loudoun counties lost their land. All owners were financially compensated, but many were left without homes.[4]

Designed for the Future

In 1958, Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen unveiled his design for the airport's main terminal. It was clear from then on that Dulles Airport was designed to be an engineering and architectural marvel. The airport was the first in the world designed primarily for handling jet-aircraft, which had only recently penetrated the market for passenger aircraft. Dulles's passenger boarding system was unique- involving massive truck-life "mobile lounges" that elevated directly to the doors of aircraft. With the focus shifted towards jet aircraft came the necessity for Dulles's two extra-long 11,500-ft (and one 10,500-ft) runways.[5][6]

As Northern Virginia remained an agricultural locale through the 1950s, the area in which Dulles Airport was situated was largely considered a remote location. As such, a 28-mile access highway was constructed from the newly-constructed Capital Beltway to the airport's main terminal. These transportational developments largely coincided with increasing suburban development in Fairfax County in the next decade.[7]

At An Expense

A Floris-area farm being cleared for Dulles Airport's construction.
(Peck Collection)

All of this development came at a price. Over 300 edifices, many of them homes, schools, and churches, often dating back centuries, were demolished or dismantled to make way for the new airport. Many of these establishments made up the small, predominantly black village of Willard Crossroads, which had simply disappeared by the airport's completion in 1962. Local residents had mixed opinions on the airport's construction, but it was clear that nothing could be done to prevent the wiping away of this history. Many saw it as an omen signalling the conclusion of agriculture in the area. In 1961, Joseph Beard, a local resident whose c. 1830 farm was demolished in 1960 to make room for Runway 1R/19L, led an effort to preserve the area's agricultural heritage through the esta blishment of Frying Pan Park, a park located in the nearby village of Floris designed to preserve the workings of a 20th-century farm.[8][9][10]

Sully Plantation, as it stands today.

Among the many properties slated for demolition was the c. 1794 Sully Plantation, built by Richard Bland Lee I, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, whose involvement in the U.S. Constitution's ratification led him to become Northern Virginia's very first representative in the United States House of Representatives. However, Sully, a revered historical landmark by this time, was saved by means of protest and acquired by the Fairfax County Park Authority in 1962. Such a fate was not in store for the 4 other federal-period estates demolished for Dulles's construction between 1958 and 1962.[11][12]

Some lost establishments were given special care: the predominantly-black Shiloh Baptist Church, which was located just west of Willard (on what is now a part of Runway 1C/19C), was given $4,000 of funds for the church and graveyard's relocation to the small village of Conklin, located along Braddock Rd, south of Pleasant Valley and west of Centreville.[13]

Quiet Start

The days after the airport's completion were of little activity. With only a handful of flights traveling in and out of the airport daily, Dulles was dubbed a "White Elephant" by locals. This stagnant scene was nowhere to be found within just a few decades.[14]


  1. "History of Washington Dulles International Airport" last modified March 26, 2012, http://www.metwashairports.com/dulles/661.htm.
  2. "Dulles Airport Has Its Roots in Rural Black Community of Willard" last modified November 2002, http://www.loudounhistory.org/history/dulles-airport-history.htm.
  3. "1900-PRESENT: TIMELINE" last modified March 27, 2012, http://braddockheritage.org/timeline-part-ii.
  4. "Dulles Airport Has Its Roots in Rural Black Community of Willard."
  5. "Dulles International Airport Terminal" last modified March 2012, http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~struct/resources/case_studies/case_studies_suspension/saarinen_dulles/saarinen_dulles.shtml.
  6. "History of Washington Dulles International Airport"
  7. Ibid.
  8. Hugh C. Miller, Historical and Archaeological Survey Report, Washington Dulles International Airport, Loudoun and Fairfax Counties, Virginia, Virginia Department of Historic Resources, October 18, 1989.
  9. "Franklin Farm History, " last modified September 5, 2002, http://www.franklinfarm.com/Summary.htm.
  10. Frying Pan Staff, "Come Celebrate Frying Pan Farm Parkís 50th Birthday, January 29 2011," fryingpanpark.org, December 29, 2010, accessed January 6, 2011.
  11. "History of Dulles Airport," last modified 02-22-2010, http://www.loudounhistory.org/history/dulles-airport-history.htm.
  12. Robert Gamble, Sully: The Biography of a House (Fairfax, VA: Sully Foundation, 1973), 134.
  13. Scheel, Loudoun Discovered, Communities, Corners & Crossroads: Volume 1, Eastern Loudoun: "Goin' Down the Country," 103-108.
  14. "History of Washington Dulles International Airport".