Exhibit Explores Rosslyn’s Colorful Past (and Bright Future)

by ARLnow.com February 22, 2011 at 10:16 am 4,265 40 Comments

Rosslyn wasn’t always the ho-hum collection of office towers and apartment buildings that it is today. A century ago, it was filled with gambling dens, rough-and-tumble saloons and houses of prostitution.

Photos from the bad old days adorn the walls of Artisphere’s Work-in-Progress Gallery for an exhibit called “Rosslyn: A Work in Progress.” The exhibit, which runs through March 13, “chronicles Rosslyn’s origins as a lawless, rowdy community in the 1800’s to the thriving urban village it is today, through historical items and images, and renderings of developments coming soon.”

At an opening reception last week, we caught up with local historian Kathryn Holt Springston, who told us some stories of Rosslyn’s bawdy past.

“From 1865, the end of the Civil War, up until 1906, it was so bad. There were 38 saloons, 14 bordellos and who knows how many gambling dens, that were open 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”

“Cunningham’s was just on a hill above Rosslyn, and it was the only [bordello] that was actually burned before Crandall Mackey’s great raid. What happened was that a soldier from Fort Myer was killed there, so the other soldiers from Fort Myer went over there one night and torched the place.”

“Crandall Mackey is like the hero of Rosslyn. In 1904 he was elected Commonwealth’s Attorney by one vote. He armed a party of 12 men with axes, sawed-off shotguns, etc. They rode the train down to Jackson City, which is where the 14th Street Bridge is today, and smashed it up because Jackson City was even worse than Rosslyn. Then they walked up to Rosslyn, they smashed in all the bordellos, threw the whiskey into the street, set some of the places on fire, smashed the gambling dens. The next day the Evening Star had a two inch headline: “Mackey Makes it Safe for Humanity in Alexandria County by Cleaning up Rosslyn Bums.”

(Arlington was called Alexandria County up until 1920, when it was renamed by the Virginia General Assembly to honor Robert E. Lee.)

“So Mackey did a lot, but it still stayed pretty bad. There were bordellos such as Follansbee’s, which continued up until the 1920s or 1930s. [There was a] church was in the back, [behind] the 23 bedroom house. My favorite story about this house, though, comes from 1981. A person bought it and petitioned the county board for permission to return it to ‘original use.’ They were ready to vote on it and were going to go ahead with it, when one of the planners said ‘um, excuse me, isn’t prostitution illegal?’ And they went ‘oh no!’ So [the owner] turned it into a tanning parlor, which isn’t far off. That house is gone now, and so is the church.”

“After Mackey’s raid, Rosslyn had some bordellos and gambling dens and a few saloons but it started getting more desperate. The lumber yards moved in, the junk yards, the pawn shops. And it became a real dive. Even as late as the 1960s, people didn’t want to come to Rosslyn. It was so bad that they would form armed convoys to go back and forth. To go into D.C. they would have to line up along Lee Highway and form a convoy.”

“A lady I knew took a government job that was headquartered in [Rosslyn] in 1946. She got on the train, came down here, got off the train at Rosslyn station, walked two blocks over there, took one look and said ‘I don’t care how good this job is. Forget it, I’m not working in a place like this.’ So it was pretty bad.”

  • borf

    Mackey a hero? Sounds like a jerk to me. Broke up a perfectly good party.

  • JamesE

    That seems a lot better than it is now.

  • Southeast Ben

    The “bad ol days” sound like a place I would like. Gambling, saloons, and prostitution…where do I sign up?

    • borf


    • Jason S.

      LOL, I was thinking of the same thing. Something tells me the people were a lot of cooler and more fun than the Clarendon crowd.

      • borf

        Haven’t you heard? Clarendon is a hellhole full of crime and loud noise and drunks now. And illegal immigrants!

  • Chris

    I’m so proud of my ‘hood! LOL

  • great article!

  • Southeast Ben

    I thought illegal immigrants went down in Arlington as a whole and up as you move further west (Fairfax, Loudon County, etc).

    Crime – we should do away with affordable housing so that we only have to worry about white-collar crimes.

  • CW

    Let’s open some “gambling dens” in the lobbies of the office buildings on weekends.

    • borf

      If you work for a mortgage company you’re already set.

  • Valerie

    Good job, Scott. Worth waiting for.


  • KalashniKEV

    We need a Commonwealth’s Attorney to kick ass on Rosslyn Bums and Criminal Aliens today! I’ll sign up to be in his posse!

    (this was a great post!)

    • borf

      All the bums and criminals moved to South Arlington, where they feel right at home.

      • KalashniKEV

        The center of Vagrancy, Public Drunkenness/ Urination, and Panhandling in Arlington County is the Bum Mansion in Courthouse.

        • mehoo

          Good thing it’s completely impossible for someone like you to ever become homeless.

  • Andrew

    The bums in Rosslyn really do need to go. Aren’t there loitering laws in Arlington?

    • JamesE

      There has been one hanging around N Stuart St in Ballston, the police were called on him and apparently they cannot force them to move. I figured staying in one location for weeks counts as loitering.

    • The Dope of South Arlington

      Aren’t they building a fine new plaza for the homeless at Central Place?

    • Ex-Communicated

      There are currently no effective loitering or vagrancy or panhandling laws in Arlington that will do anything to curb the “bum problem”… It is a social issue, born of the relatively supportive climate (panhandling handouts, social (county gov’t & non-profit) services, general safety/quality of life for homeless in Arlington VS in DC..) in which the homeless/outdoor/transient (like most of the indoor/permanent) residents in Arlington find themselves. Until Arlington is less attractive than nearby, accessible jurisdictions, they will stay… and that will be a looooooong time (if ever).. and add to that the fact that Arlington will always attract a certain quantity of the mentally ill from around the country who are flocking to DC for a redress of their imagined grievances against a host of government agencies and persons…

      • local

        Hey, throw in a kick at the mentally ill, that’s always classy.

        • V Dizzle

          Is there not a high incidence of mental illness in the homeless, local or not? Seemed like a perfectly reasonable statement (and therefore completely out of place).

          • mehoo

            But he didn’t just note that, he bashed them.

      • jay w

        take old parking meters & put them where there are problems it seems to help in other cities, the money is given to places that can help them http://articles.sfgate.com/2008-05-13/news/17155377_1_parking-meters-panhandling-homeless-aid this is only one example just google it

        • jay w

          ps the old Rosslyn sounds fun to me

  • Overgrown Bush

    Somebody invent a time machine, please!

    “A century ago, it was filled with gambling dens, rough-and-tumble saloons and houses of prostitution.”

    • Mark

      This history is missing the era when the Jetsons settled in Rosslyn and created the landscape we all know and love now

  • SoCo Resident

    Oh, the good ol’ days. But slowly, Arlington is building up its saloon population to these former heights and with it crime.

    • borf

      Someday we’ll pine for the good ol’ days when Rosslyn was uncommonly boring and bland.

  • Me

    What are the artisphere hours? The website was not all that helpful.

    • Glebe Roader

      I think it took 15 seconds and three clicks to search and find:


      Monday-Friday:11 am-11 pm
      Sundays: 11am-9pm

      *Please note that we stay open until the end of our last evening event. We will ask all visitors to leave by 2 am.

      Monday to Friday:11 am-9 pm
      Saturday: 11am-9 pm
      Sunday: 11 am-6 pm

      Monday to Friday: 9am-11pm
      Saturday and Sunday: 10am-11pm

      • Me

        Thank you. My 15 seconds must have included a different three clicks.

  • OX4

    Considering Rosslyn still hosts the likes of Boeing, Corporate Executive Board, Northrop, and DHS, it appears to still be a haven for thieves and slimebags.

    • local

      and whores, don’t forget the whores.

      • DouroRouro


  • MC

    I saw nearly identical exhibit materials at the Arlington Historical Society, and I have say that the history that is
    “remembered” is selective indeed. Only the most titillating stories seem worth recounting. I expect what is now Rosslyn was fairly boring, even if not bucolic. We know Rosslyn had churches and made Cherry Smash soda. People took their cars there to get them repaired. There was a train stop that served trollies and local rail.

    Rossyln was too minor a place for a real historian to ever chronicle what the real Rossyln was like, so instead we get amateur historians repeating gossip recorded in tabloids and folk tales.

    Let’s hope no future historian looks to the comments on this blog as indicative of what reality was in 2011!

  • Akimbo

    Clarendon is a great place to find bawdy houses in this modern day.
    Plenty of fine wenches there!

  • Pingback: Celebrating Rosslyn’s Renaissance at Artisphere | Rosslyn Blog()

  • T. Handell

    Wow does this miss the whole point. Mackey led a lynch mob that busted up exclusively African-American homes and businesses. This was a race riot, not some do-gooder ridding the area of “bordellos.”

  • Jim

    Wondering if anyone hasany photos from the early 60’s
    of any auto repair shops…in particular Safe Brakes repair.
    This was my dads shop and I’m just trying to dredge up history.I believe it was on Lee Highway.


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