Nancy Fitzgibbon just couldn't stand the thought of losing a part of her childhood. It kept her up at night. Every time she looked out her living room bay window, she was reminded of her history across the street. So in 1999, Fitzgibbon, made it her mission to save the Civil War-era "Thompson House" along West Ox Road from the state's impending bulldozer.
Fitzgibbon, the secretary for the West Ox Civic Association in the Navy Vale section of Fairfax County, started writing letters, making phone calls and chatting up anyone who would listen. "So much of this area is being torn down and redeveloped," said Fitzgibbon, a history buff. "It would be nice if, at least, a little of our community's history could be saved. This was my playground. I just loved that house."
Brian Fitzgibbon said his wife wanted to leave a "lasting legacy" to the community where she has lived since she was born in 1955.
That legacy was secured in April, when after four years, VDOT sold the property to Herndon residents John and Jill Martin. VDOT engineer Mike Estes said he and his colleagues are "tickled to make this deal happen."
Estes lauded Fitzgibbon and others for their persistence. "Nancy deserves a lot of credit," he said.
Brian Fitzgibbon stood by his wife while she fought to save the house. "She never gave up. She put an extraordinary amount of time and effort into saving that house. Perseverance has always been one of her trademarks," he said. "This wasn't a quest for personal satisfaction to just save a house across the street from where she was born and raised. She really did this to save what little heritage that we have left around here."
The community knew it was an important site, Estes said. After a little convincing, VDOT recognized that the house, which is not on the National Historical Registry, is still significant to the surrounding community.
"VDOT has ensured that a local treasure, known as the Thompson House at 'Fiddler's Forks' will continue to be an important part of the Ox Hill community." said Estes. "Although proposed improvement to West Ox Road would impact the property where the house stood, VDOT took action to ensure that this house was saved."
IN 1998, THE OWNER of the property since 1956 sold the 2,300 square foot farmhouse and the nearly four-acre parcel for $403,585 to Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), as part of a Fairfax County project to widen West Ox Road, according to county records. In January 2003, the county's assessed value of the neglected property was listed at $361,595.
Fitzgibbon refused to stand by and watch the Thompson House, situated next to Navy Elementary School, become the "latest victim on the county's assault on history."
Built in 1857 before the Civil War by William Thompson, a member of Mosby's Rangers, the house is now a regular fixture on the annual Mosby Tour conducted by the Stuart-Mosby Historical Society. According to historical accounts, John Mosby is said to have visited the property and is said to have launched various reconnaissance missions against Union soldiers. The property was also used as a hospital during the Battle of Ox Hill in September 1962. Shortly before the turn of the 20th Century, Arthur Thompson, a local builder who worked on Washington's famed Willard Hotel, enlarged the house. The land is known by neighbors as "Fiddler's Forks" because until 1941, the property was owned by the Thompson family, a family known for its fiddlers and musicians, Fitzgibbon said.
"I am happy knowing that I am saving a little bit of my hometown," Fitzgibbon said.
SUPERVISOR MICHAEL FREY (R-Sully) said the solution to save the Thompson House was a "win-win" proposition that was "wonderfully creative" example of how to work with the government and the private sector to save historic sites. "Just because George Washington didn't sleep there doesn't mean it is not worth saving," said Frey. "It was a middle class and working class family household. We saved Mt. Vernon and we saved Sully Plantation. We can still see where the rich lived, but what about the rest of us?"
Frey credited VDOT for putting the house up for sale. "That was a huge step for them, a step that wouldn't have happened in the old days," the supervisor said. "It took people like Nancy [Fitzgibbon] to get them to listen."
Estes agreed that it took some "out-of-the-box" thinking to save the home, while still widening West Ox, one of the oldest streets in the county. When VDOT received an intent to purchase letter from the Martins in February 2002, the focus of the preservation project changed. "Due to the desire to relocate the structure on the remaining property that was not needed for the future upgrades to West Ox Road," Estes said, "VDOT stepped out of the road building business and into the property management business during the next few months."
As negotiations progressed, VDOT and Frye worked with the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust to see that the house was moved onto a preservation easement, Estes said. "These actions demonstrated VDOT's flexibility in 'process' as well as use of innovative thinking in order to ensure the deal was struck," Estes said.
But without a willing buyer, the deal would never have materialized, Frey said. "Preservation can be a private venture," he said. "The Martins were the real key, even if [John Martin] jokes that it could bankrupt the family."
Earlier this month, the house was moved from its foundation to its new location farther away from West Ox on the existing land.
IN NOVEMBER OF 1999, "This Old House Magazine" featured the Thompson House in its "Save This Old House" section. After reading the article, Jill Martin, a Herndon resident, joined the cause. Nearly four years later, Jill and John Martin took ownership of the old farmhouse. "After three years of red tape, two months of closing hassles, an illegal subdivision from 1920, we are finally here," Jill Martin said. "If VDOT had had their way they would have bulldozed that house in the middle of the night."
"To their credit, they could have made a fortune off that land by selling it to developers," Fitzgibbon interjected.
Jill Martin, a children's clothing designer and mother of one infant girl, said she looks forward to the challenge of renovating her new house, a house that has been vacant since 1997. "The bones of the house are good," she said, adding that this will be the fifth house she will restore. "Though this will be the first historical house I have tackled. We are going to keep it as historically accurate as possible, right down to the doorknobs.
"Of course, my husband thinks I am crazy," Jill Martin said, laughing.
While John Martin worries about the costs associated with restoring a house in disrepair, his wife only worries about whether their new home is haunted. "Yes, I am sure of it," she said.
With a Civil War-era cemetery out back, both women are convinced that Civil War soldiers still roam the halls of the six bedroom house. "I feel their presence in there," she said.