Columbia Forest History

In 1669, a sea captain, Robert Howson, was given a grant of 6000 acres of land for bringing 120 passengers to Virginia. The captain immediately sold the land to John Alexander, a member of the family for which the City of Alexandria is named.

Subsequently, the land was divided into smaller parcels and sold. Two such parcels include what is now Columbia Forest and were sold to Stephan Gray and Gabriel Adams.

In 1774, this land, equal to 1200 acres, was sold to George Washington. At Washington’s death, the land was willed to his relative, George Custis, who combined it with other family land to form the Arlington Plantation, from which the present name of the county is derived.

Arlington Plantation was part of the 34 square miles of land granted by the State of Virginia to form the District of Columbia. In 1847, after almost 50 years, the land was returned to Virginia. The land was ultimately divided between the City of Alexandria and a new county named Alexandria County. In 1920, because of confusion in the names between the City of Alexandria, which was not in the County of Alexandria, the name of the county was changed to Arlington County.

Columbia Forest is located very near the SE corner formed by two turnpikes. In 1805 when Arlington County was still part of the District of Columbia, Congress authorized the charter of the Washington and Alexandria Turnpike (Route 7). Later, in 1813, Congress authorized the charter for the Alexandria and Leesburg Turnpike. Despite Columbia Forest’s location at the intersection of these two turnpikes, the community remained rural as long as the horse was the main means of transportation.

Although the Alexandria and Harper’s Ferry Railroad came close to Four Mile Run and Columbia Pike, when it was built and operated in 1844, it did not cross into the neighborhood. Now, of course, this railroad has been transformed into the popular regional park known as the Washington and Old Dominion Trail.

Little changed in this rural area until after World War I. Transportation was forever changed by the introduction of the family car and domestic electricity. The automobile and bus cut transportation time to Washington and Alexandria to the extent that daily commuting was reasonable.

Electricity brought not only light and power, it made the telephone, telegraph and radio practical. These urban niceties were gradually being expanded into our rural area when the stock market crashed in 1929. The Depression that followed the crash closed banks, factories and markets. The effects of the depression were felt until the beginning of WW II in Europe in the late 30’s.

Early county efforts in 1930 to regulate development designated Columbia Forest as “A” Residential, a designation that allowed single-family, detached homes only. When the government embarked on the Lend-Lease project that created many jobs in Washington, there was pressure to develop areas closer to Washington with excellent transportation.

The opening of the Pentagon in 1941 created demand for local housing, which only increased with the start of World War II. With building materials and labor in short supply, private home building had come to a halt. The rationing of gasoline made living near bus transportation attractive. Our rural area came under consideration for development. In 1941, a sector of the community was laid out for streets lined with single-family housing.

columbia-forest-circa-1940-aerialThis new planned development, named Columbia Forest, nearly did notget off the drawing board due to the lack of construction materials. The Defense Housing Corporation, DHC, stepped in and authorized the formation of our community as a neighborhood of single family houses to be rented to young married officers and ranking government officials.

The Army Corps of Engineers designed the houses and supervised their construction, part of only 40,000 housing units built during WW II. The street layout was designed to conform to the topography and space was allocated for park areas.

Efforts were made to save the existing trees to create an impression of a permanent, mature community. Wartime construction could not be stretched to include building a road connecting our community to route 7 nor a bridge over Four Mile Run. Even the streams that ran through the neighborhood crossed our major streets as open fords until the late 60’s.

Our government owned, planned community had limited access to Columbia Pike at South Frederick Street. South George Mason Drive, at the back of the development, stopped at Four Mile Run. The closest zoned local business district was located on Columbia Pike, between South Buchanan Street and Four Mile Run.

The explosion of new WWII construction sometimes outpaced Arlington’s efforts to provide basic county services. Even with Congress pitching in to pay for improvements to the sewage system, things did not always happen in an orderly way. As David Brinkley writes in his 1988 book, Washington Goes to War, “In March 1943, county authorities had to evict families from a group of homes in the new Columbia Forest development because, the Evening Star reported, they had been ‘living since January without sewer service on a street pitted with yawning holes filled six feet or more deep with water.’”

After World War II, the DHC got out of the house renting business. Our development, made up of individual houses, was sold by the government, mainly to returning war veterans. At the time, a house and lot sold for $4,200. The demand for housing continued to grow in the Washington area. In 1947, another tract of land in Columbia Forest was developed, the Virginia Heights subdivision. This tract, which included South Forest Drive and some of 12th Street, was zoned for single-family houses. These included a few factory built Lustron Houses which were erected in 1948.

The County’s zoning policy had undergone a change that encouraged multi-family housing construction along Columbia Pike and the major streets leading from the Pike, and construction of multi-family residences and commercial businesses flourished along Columbia Pike, rapidly increasing population and traffic.

Despite the increased residential and commercial density along Columbia Pike, the character of the interior part of the community did not drastically change until 1974. At that time, a bridge was constructed across Four Mile Run to connect our segment of South George Mason Drive to the rest of the Arlington County. In addition, South George Mason Drive was extended into Fairfax County to connect with Route 7. This diverted traffic into the next county, so additional access was given to Columbia Pike at South Columbus Street. This short-cut between Columbia Pike and Route 7 through our neighborhood was so successful that traffic increased from a trickle of local residents to over 5000 vehicles per day.

Originally, there were two civic associations, one for Columbia Forest and one for the Virginia Heights subdivision. In time, the two were combined to form the present Columbia Forest Civic Association. Most recently, park improvements and traffic management issues have been the focal point of association concerns and activities. Plans to develop a Neighborhood Conservation Plan in 1989 were renewed ten years later and have been important in reviving interest in the work of the Association.

Membership has increased and great energy has been fixed on improving conditions within Columbia Forest.

As one can see, the neighborhood changed from rural fields to a planned community to house Washington’s WW II population. The 1941 plan that saved existing trees, laid out curvilinear streets following the topography, dedicated open spaces for parks and recreation, and that separated land use to areas of commercial, single-family houses and multifamily residences, has paid off. The result is a mature, thriving residential area providing housing for almost two thousand families. The Association believes that to a great extent, the original plan for the community can be preserved and improved for the betterment of all residents.