By Bill Ewing and Mark Gunderman
Up to the early 1950s, before the development of Sterling Park, when Dulles Airport was only an idea on a drawing board, residents of the village of Sterling—approximately 220 people—went about their lives pretty much like residents of the other small towns in Loudoun.
Washington, DC, just 30 miles away, could, until 1951, be reached by riding on the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad. However, at that time, there wasn’t much commuting to jobs in the metropolitan area. Sterling folks needing to transact government business would motor down mostly unpaved Church Road, two-lane Sully Road (Rt. 28), and make their way to Leesburg via two-lane Rt. 7. Everyday needs were met right in Sterling, where grocery and clothing stores, a meat market and post office served this farming community.
Once Sterling Park, Dulles Airport and new highways began to emerge, however, everything changed.
For a while, the railroad remained in operation by transporting construction materials for the airport; but Sterling village (known as Guilford Station), once a “pearl” in the W&OD “string of pearls” from Alexandria to Bluemont, was overwhelmed by new residential and commercial development.
As a consequence of the unrelenting development, most of the old business establishments, old houses and other buildings were demolished. Most prominent among them was the historically significant 1897 Sterling Methodist Church, leveled in 2017 to make way for a commercial storage business. Earlier, the railroad depot was dismantled in the early 1940s, and a house-turned-hotel that locals nicknamed the “Summer White House” (owned by the Summers family) was destroyed by fire in 1985. Reportedly, President James Buchanan and his family sojourned there in 1859 and 1860.
There are survivors, but preservation activity was sparse until late 2015, when residents and business owners came together, initially to try to save the Sterling Methodist Church building. One of the prime preservation movers is Save Old Sterling, a nonprofit organization formed to rescue remaining historic remnants of old Sterling. For example, before the church was razed, SOS employed Salvagewrights of Orange, to remove the flooring, siding and windows. They are now safely in storage, awaiting incorporation in another (new or old) local building.
As one of its principal objectives, SOS advocates preservation of several standing structures, including the 1879 two-room schoolhouse (1000 Ruritan Circle), a historic treasure and the first schoolhouse in Sterling. For many years, it was the community’s center of education. Because the property is for sale, the schoolhouse’s situation is tenuous. SOS has determined that this building is the most important to preserve.
The 1857 Guilford Baptist Church is now an Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It was one of the churches lining the road that inspired the name Church Road.
The 1860s Sexton/Grooms House (1006 Ruritan Circle) is now home to Mona’s Lebanese Café and “Guilford Station Arts.” This adaptive reuse preserves the building while making it relevant in 2017.
The Southern States building, or Old Sterling Warehouse, is on Ruritan Road next to the W&OD Trail. Its size, configuration and location clearly evoke W&OD history. Currently, this structure houses several businesses.
The Sterling Mercantile Store most recently was a lawnmower repair shop; before that, a grocery. Guilford maps mark this location as “Tavenner’s Wheelwright Shop” or “Thompson’s Saddlery.” The original building appears to be very old and in fragile condition.
Preservation of what remains of Guilford was endorsed in 2009 by the William and Mary Center for Archeological Research, which noted that “Ruritan Circle was bypassed by [major thoroughfares], essentially preserving the tiny community.” The center concluded that Guilford Station should be preserved as “a compact, railroad-oriented, late nineteenth-century village [embodying] regional vernacular architectural trends.” The center added, “The handful of historic buildings clustered along Ruritan Road and Ruritan Circle are an increasingly rare reminder of the rapidly dwindling history of the area and are becoming increasingly threatened by development pressures.”
While recognizing that physical restoration and adaptive reuse of existing buildings is a priority, SOS recommends new construction to revitalize Guilford Station as a “Grandfather Village”—a town in which your grandfather might have grown up. Such a concept is under discussion by the Loudoun Design Cabinet, a group operating under the auspices of Loudoun County’s Department of Economic Development. The cabinet essentially is a think tank of about a dozen architects, engineers, planners and designers who meet in a “charrette” format to brainstorm development concepts that might benefit the county. In two meetings held since mid-February 2017, the group began to consider how Guilford Station might be preserved and rejuvenated, offering their thoughts to affected property owners, community members and local preservation organizations (including SOS). To be considered at future charrettes is the cabinet’s tentative vision: a walkable, bicycle-accessible commercial district, including a two-to-three-block business area, parking spaces, green area such as a park along the W&OD Trail, and a community center. SOS, of course, would strongly advocate incorporation in the community center of the salvaged Methodist Church materials.
We have one last opportunity to rescue the small fragment of old Sterling we call Guilford Station. Bringing to fruition what the Loudoun Design Cabinet even preliminarily envisions would create a lasting asset for Sterling, Loudoun County and Virginia.
[Bill Ewing is, with Jackie Anderson, cofounder of Save Old Sterling (SOS). Mark Gunderman has written extensively about Loudoun historic preservation issues, particularly involving churches. For more information about SOS and the Loudoun Design Cabinet, go to saveoldsterling.org and biz.loudoun.gov/designcabinet, respectively. In Our Backyard is compiled by the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition, loudouncoalition.org.]