Clarendon from the corner of Wilson and Washington Boulevards.
To many, Clarendon might not fit so nicely into that title.
First of all, it’s not in Washington. Secondly, with the amount of development that the entire Ballston–Virginia Square–Clarendon corridor has seen over the past decade, one could easily disregard the historic nature of the buildings and neighborhoods that make up the heart of Arlington. It’s true, Clarendon and the surrounding neighborhoods are young and their short history is one of constant redevelopment. In my opinion, however, it is this youth that gives the neighborhood its distinct flavor and an energy that is easily felt along its boulevards.
While no longer located in the District of Columbia, the area now known as Clarendon (much like Old Town) was once part of Alexandria, the second of two counties divided by Congress to comprise D.C. Due to the growing questions around the slave trade and its future in Washington, Alexandria County petitioned, and in 1846 was retroceded, to Virginia. By 1852, Alexandria the city was incorporated from a portion of the county bearing the same name. So, now you had the city of Alexandria in addition Alexandria County, which was mostly rural. This naturally led to some confusion, as the two were right next to each other, so eventually Alexandria County became Arlington County, taking its name from the National Cemetery located within its boundaries.
For anyone unfamiliar with Northern Virginia, Arlington is still a county, not a city, and is made up of neighborhoods that share the names of their Metro stops. Clarendon’s Metro station is just a short distance from the neighborhood’s original train stop - a trolley car station located at the present intersection of Washington and Clarendon Boulevards. Streetcars came to the area in the late 1900s, and it was around this station and the two lines that converged there that Arlington’s original downtown developed. Department stores sprung up in the 1920s, and businesses began to stretch west into the adjacent neighborhoods of Virginia Square and Ballston.
Today, the large department stores are gone, but the development has not stopped. With the arrival of the Metro in the early 1980’s, a mix of small shops, restaurants and bars began to fill the storefronts along Clarendon and Wilson Boulevards. More recently, development within Arlington has been centered on high-rise offices, apartments and luxury condos. While Clarendon is certainly no exception to this growth, it has maintained the flavor that an eclectic mix of shops and restaurants can add to a neighborhood.
If you walk down Wilson Boulevard during the warmer months, you’re likely to find sidewalk patios, spot cheerful patrons at rooftop bars, or even hear some local live music at one of our neighborhood festival days (Clarendon Day in September is the largest and the neighborhood even holds a pro-am bicycle race in the summer). The energy doesn’t cease when the weather gets cold either. Establishments like O’Sullivan’s (Irish food and sports), Iota (live music) and the Galaxy Hut (Pac Man!) are always fun and can get quite festive on any given night.
People may think of Clarendon as solely a hangout for the younger crowd, but there’s plenty to do for all ages around here - it only feels young. So if you’re visiting Arlington Cemetery for the day, saving some cash by staying at a hotel in Northern Virginia, or just looking for somewhere different to eat and have a good time, try Clarendon; it’s my historic Washington.
- Matt Ringelstetter
Matt Ringelstetter is the web team coordinator for PreservationNation.org. Stay tuned leading up to the inauguration as more National Trust staffers share their stories about the greater D.C. area. Coming to town for the historic event? Be sure to visit our new Preservationist’s Guide to Washington.
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The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.