Mason and City of Fairfax Celebrate 50 Years of Partnership

Posted: February 9, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

City and Mason representatives at statue unveiling
Mason and the City of Fairfax celebrated their partnership with the unveiling of a sculpture by Mark Sistek at City Hall on Feb. 10. Shown above, from left, are Jeff Greenfield, City Council member; Alan Merten, Mason president; Gary Rasmussen, City Council member; Sistek; Robert Lederer, mayor; Laura Elliott, descendant of the Farr family, which owned the land purchased for Mason’s Fairfax Campus; Page Johnson, City commissioner of the revenue and a former member of Mason’s Board of Visitors; Dan Drummond, City Council member; and Joan Cross, City Council member.
Creative Services photo

By Dave Andrews

Mason has come a long way from its humble beginnings. It didn’t take long for it to shed its subordinate status as a branch of the University of Virginia and achieve national prominence on its own.

Last month, Mason was applauded by the Princeton Review for arriving “at an impressive reputation in less than a quarter of the time it has taken for schools of comparable quality.”

Thanks, in part, to its advantageous location near the nation’s capital, Mason quickly developed into an innovative, entrepreneurial institution. The university’s location close to the heart of the City of Fairfax has also been beneficial to both entities. This year, the two celebrate 50 years of partnership.

Unanimously Undecided

Mason’s beginnings were filled with uncertainty. Mason, or the University College of the University of Virginia, as it was originally known, was created in 1956. In 1957, students and faculty set up shop in an abandoned, eight-room elementary school in Bailey’s Crossroads. But it took another two years for the young school to find a permanent home.

Mason and City representatives looking at statue
The unveiled sculpture, titled “Fenwick’s Farrsight,” is embossed with the number “50” to commemorate the 50 years of Mason-City of Fairfax partnership.
Creative Services photo

Fifty years ago, available land in Northern Virginia was plentiful. But finding an affordable location appropriate for construction of a college campus was a tricky task.

Though several plots of land had been offered, only two were under serious consideration – 150 free acres in Herndon, or farmland for sale near the intersection of Braddock Road and the future Capital Beltway. But neither option could be unanimously agreed upon by both UVA’s Board of Visitors and a group of Northern Virginians chosen to select a site.

“I believe that the Town of Fairfax [as it was called back then] saved Mason,” says Robert Vay, an archivist in Mason’s Special Collections & Archives.

“After four years without a final decision, UVA was really starting to get bored with the process, and Colgate Darden, the university president, was hinting very strongly that he might scrap the whole idea and keep the campus at Bailey’s Crossroads, for the time being.”

When talks seemed to be approaching a stalemate, the Town Council of Fairfax proposed a possible location south of town along Route 123. After all parties agreed to the location, the 150-acre plot that belonged to Wilson M. Farr was quickly purchased by the town for $300,000. On Feb. 9, 1959, the land was deeded to UVA for $10.

“It was really a stroke of luck that it all came together. The Town of Fairfax had the right piece of land at the right time,” Vay says. “Members of the Town Council became good friends to, and boosters of, George Mason in the years that followed. This showed a great deal of generosity and commitment from the Town of Fairfax to pursue this relationship.”

The Power of Partnership

Ever since the deed was handed over, the partnership between Mason and the City of Fairfax has generated countless mutually beneficial programs. Some have introduced the community to new cultural arts, others have expanded public interest in education, while others have brought solutions to transportation dilemmas.

News clip from library archives
A news clip from library archives reflects the anticipation the city had for the new campus.
Virginia Room, City of Fairfax Regional Library

For example, the Spotlight on the Arts was developed in 1986 to infuse the community with artistic displays and performances. Music, dance, theater and visual arts have all been part of the three-week festival, which continues to this day.

Fall for the Book, a week-long festival, showcases literary events for people of all ages. Writing workshops, skits and storytelling create a more engaging learning atmosphere by taking education outside the classroom.

The CUE (City University Energy Saver) Bus began serving the community in 1980. It answered concerns about increased traffic in and around the Fairfax region, giving Mason students, staff and faculty, as well as local residents, an efficient and economical option to get around town and to the Metrorail station.

“Having a partnership like this for the last 50 years proves that community, education and cultural arts leaders can come together to truly enrich the quality of life for both the Mason community and the citizens of Fairfax,” says Traci Claar, Mason director of community relations. “These programs, and those soon to come, will keep us progressing through the next 50 years.”

A Fortuitous Cycle

Emergent programs and partnerships between the City of Fairfax and Mason will become increasingly beneficial in the years to come. The city’s support helped Mason build a strong academic foundation, and in turn, Mason can reach beyond its campus boundaries to enrich the community.

One example will be on display Tuesday, Feb. 10, as the university and the city officially commemorate their partnership’s 50-year anniversary. A ceremony to mark the occasion will be held at the City of Fairfax City Hall Annex, and a commemorative sculpture will be unveiled.

The sculpture will be the first of many as part of a new legacy project to publicly display artwork created at Mason throughout the City of Fairfax. Each year, a new piece of art will be added, creating an ongoing “dialogue” between Mason and the city.

sculpture on Fairfax Campus
A sculpture similar to the one unveiled at City Hall this week is displayed on Mason’s Fairfax Campus.
Photo courtesy of Mark Sistek

The inaugural piece to be showcased — a large, abstract form of castable stone material, weighing approximately 700 pounds and measuring nearly 6 feet tall — was created by Mark Sistek. Sistek is director of advising for the Bachelor of Individualized Study program and a former student in Mason’s graduate sculpture program. He was approached by the Department of Art and Visual Technology to create the commemorative piece.

Crafted in a Mason studio, the piece incorporates a great deal of math, using geometry and calculus to create precise curvatures, “but really, it’s just meant to be enjoyed visually,” Sistek says.

The sculpture is titled “Fenwick’s Farrsight” noting the contributions of Charles Fenwick and Wilson M. Farr. Fenwick was a state legislator who was instrumental in getting George Mason College established as a branch of the University of Virginia and was the first person to break ground during construction of the Fairfax Campus; Farr owned the land where the campus now stands.

The piece is also similar in design to one that he previously created for the Mason Fairfax Campus, thus establishing another tie, in a way, between the city and university.

Sistek adds, “It was fortuitous timing that I was approached to do this at the exact moment I was planning out my next piece of artwork.”

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