Taking its name from The Falls Church, an 18th-century Anglican parish, Falls Church gained township status within Fairfax County in 1875. In 1948, it was incorporated as the City of Falls Church, an independent city with county-level governance status. It is also referred to as Falls Church City.
The city's corporate boundaries do not include all of the area historically known as Falls Church; these areas include portions of Seven Corners and other portions of the current Falls Church postal districts of Fairfax County, as well as the area of Arlington County known as East Falls Church, which was part of the town of Falls Church from 1875 to 1936. For statistical purposes, the US Department of Commerce's Bureau of Economic Analysis combines the City of Falls Church with Fairfax City and Fairfax County.
When the City of Falls Church was incorporated in 1948, its boundaries included only the central portion of the area historically known as Falls Church; those other areas, often still known as Falls Church (although they lie in Fairfax and Arlington Counties), are considered here for historical reasons.
Sixteenth and seventeenth centuries
In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the area of present-day Falls Church was part of the Algonquian-speaking world, outside the fringes of the powerful Powhatan paramount chiefdom to the south. It was part of the Anacostan chiefdom, centered on the lower Anacostia River near present-day Washington, D.C. (John Smith visited them in 1608); the Anacostans were organized under the Piscataway paramount chiefdom (not part of the Powhatan alliance), which by the 1630s claimed to have had thirteen successive rulers. Tauxenent/Doegs, who had shifted politically from Powhatan's alliance to Iroquois alliances, migrated physically into the Piscataway territories in the 1660s.
The earliest known settlement within the current city limits of Falls Church (whether Anacostan or Doeg is unclear) was on the south side of present day N. Washington Street at its intersection with Columbia Street. Just east of Falls Church, on Wilson Boulevard, is Powhatan Springs, where Powhatan is said to have convened autumn councils. Today's Broad Street and Great Falls Street follow long-established trade and communication routes.
In the late 17th century, especially after Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, English settlers from the Tidewater region of Virginia began to migrate to the area. According to local tradition, one of the chimneys of the "Big Chimneys" house and tavern was inscribed "1699"; based on this claim, 1699 is often taken to be the first European settlement in the immediate vicinity. (The house site is now Big Chimneys Park, on W. Annandale Rd. north of S. Maple.)
The Falls Church, from which the City takes its name, was first called "William Gunnell's Church," built of wood in 1733 to serve Truro Parish, which had been formed two years earlier from a larger parish centered in Quantico. By 1757, the building was referred to as "The Falls Church", as it was located along the main tobacco rolling road from the Little Falls of the Potomac River. George Mason became a Vestryman in 1748, as did George Washington in 1763. A brick church designed by James Wren replaced the wooden one in 1769, at which point it became the seat of the newly-formed Fairfax Parish. Following the Revolution, in 1784, the Commonwealth of Virginia enacted disestablishment of the Anglican Church, meaning it was no longer the state church. Shortly thereafter, in 1789, The Falls Church was abandoned and was not re-occupied again until 1836, by an Episcopal congregation. The Wren building remains on the site, between S. Washington, E. Broad, and E. Fairfax Streets.
Falls Church, like many colonial Virginia settlements, began as a "neighborhood" of large land grant plantations anchored by an Anglican Church. By 1800, the large land holdings had been sub-divided into smaller farms, many of them relying on enslaved labor. With the soil exhausted by tobacco, new crops including wheat, corn, potatoes, and fruit were grown for area markets. At the same time, the movement of the US Capital from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., in 1800 brought a gradual influx of workers to nearby Falls Church. Taverns also opened to serve travelers going to and from the federal district.
By the start of the American Civil War, Falls Church had seen an influx of Northerners seeking land and better weather. Thus the township's vote for Virginian secession was about 75% for, 25% against. The town changed hands several times during the early years of the war. Confederate General James Longstreet was headquartered at Home Hill (now the Lawton House on Lawton Street) following the First Battle of Manassas. The earliest known instance of U. S. wartime aerial reconnaissance was carried out from Taylor's Tavern at Seven Corners by aeronaut Thaddeus S. C. Lowe of the Union Army Balloon Corps. When Confederates took Falls Church, the town became one of the earliest targets of aerially-directed bombardment, with Lowe operating air reconnaissance from Arlington Heights and directing Union guns near the Chain Bridge by telegraph. These events have now been documented extensively, particularly the military encampments on Minor's Hill and Upton's Hill.
Following Reconstruction, Falls Church remained a rural farm community. It gained township status in 1875. Its first mayor after this status was Dr. John Joseph Moran, known as the attending physician when Edgar Allan Poe died.
In 1887, the town of Falls Church retro-ceded to Fairfax County the section south of what is now Lee Highway, then known as "the colored settlement."
By 1900, Falls Church was the largest town in Fairfax County, with 1,007 residents. Many of the residents at that time had come from the northern states or elsewhere. A 1904 map of the town shows 125 homes and 38 properties from two to . The town had become a center of commerce and culture, with 55 stores and offices and seven churches. In 1915 the town had a population of 1,386 (88% white, 12% black).
In 1912 the Commonwealth allowed municipalities to enact residential segregation, and Falls Church's town council soon passed an ordinance designating a "colored" residential district, in which whites were not allowed to live and outside of which blacks were not allowed to live (black property owners already living outside that district did not have to move, but could only sell to whites). The Colored Citizen's Protective League formed in opposition to this ordinance and worked to prevent it from being enforced. The League incorporated as the first rural chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1915. In November 1917 the segregation law was formally nullified by the United States Supreme Court, though the Falls Church City Council did not formally repeal it until February 1999.
One of only three Frank Lloyd Wright houses built in Virginia once stood at 1005 Locust Street, Falls Church (just outside current city limits, in Fairfax County). Commissioned in 1939 by journalist Loren Pope and his wife Charlotte Pope, it followed Wright's Usonian design principles and was completed in 1941. The Popes sold it to Robert and Marjorie Leighey in 1946. In 1963, the house was threatened with condemnation for the construction of Interstate 66. Marjorie Leighey (then a widow) donated it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1964; it was dismantled, moved, and reconstructed at Woodlawn Plantation, where it opened to the public as the Pope-Leighey House in 1965.
In 1948, Falls Church became an independent city, according to the City's website, "to establish a highly acclaimed school system." The existing system was racially segregated, as was common at the time. (See "Cultural Events," below, for more on Falls Church's history of segregation. Also note the naming of the middle school after Mary Ellen Henderson in a belated effort to make amends.) Following the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, one city school board member pushed to allow black students to attend Falls Church City schools (they attended Fairfax County schools, with the city paying tuition to the county), but others delayed, and the state government's "Massive Resistance" laws (known as the Stanley plan) prevented desegregation of any schools. In the 1959 school board elections, candidates supported by the Citizens for a Better Council, which lobbied for increased school funding overall, won the majority of the school board. These more "progressive" school board members then allowed "pupil placement" of selected black students into Falls Church schools as allowed by Virginia's 1959 "freedom of choice" law. Three students applied for fall 1961, two for Mason High School and one for Madison Elementary; all were approved and attended city schools that fall. In 1963, one of these Mason students helped gain full desegregation for the State Theatre, on Washington Street, which had previously excluded black patrons.
Northern Virginia is home to a sizable Vietnamese-American community that began to develop with immigration from South Vietnam after the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. One visible sign of this community is Eden Center, a Vietnamese-American shopping plaza constructed in 1984 in the southeast corner of Falls Church City, at Seven Corners, and marked by a traditional gateway, guardian lions, and a clock tower modeled on one in Saigon. It houses restaurants, bakeries, and shops.