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In Fairfax the intersection of Lee Highway, Fairfax Boulevard, Arlington Boulevard and Old Lee Highway officially is known as Fairfax Circle.

But the name often is shortened by locals to just “the circle,” and has been in use for 81 years.

“I still have a program from the groundbreaking of Fairfax Circle in 1931,” said Lee Hubbard, 76, a local historian and lifelong Fairfax resident. “They gave one to my father, who was a landowner in Fairfax then.”

According to Hubbard, Fairfax Circle’s original intent was to provide an alternate route — today known as Fairfax Boulevard — bypassing downtown Fairfax via the original two-lane Lee Highway that ran between the city and Falls Church.

“That original Lee Highway is now known as Old Lee Highway,” he said. “It was only the second paved road in all of Fairfax County at that time, with Little River Turnpike being the first. Many motels and restaurants were built along that route.”

Fairfax Station resident Judy Lothrop, 67, grew up on ‘the circle.’ Her father, Jack Sweeney, owned Sweeney’s Motel and Tourist Courts at 9625 Lee Highway.

“My father had traveled a lot in his life and decided to settle here in Fairfax in the late 1930s,” she said. “He built the motel, and I was born shortly thereafter in 1944.”

Lothrop said she and her family lived in one of the motel cabins for years before her father eventually built a family home behind the motel in the late 1940s.

“Some of my earliest memories are of me bringing ice to motel customers in their rooms,” she said. “I also remember a private airplane that crashed in front of the motel in either 1948 or 1949.”

Lothrop said many motels were being built near Fairfax Circle in the 1940s and 1950s and many motel owners knew each other and comprised a closely knit group.

By the mid-1970s, Sweeney’s Motel was no more, but Lothrop had inherited the property and was determined to keep it in the family.

That’s when Joe Lothrop came into the picture.

“I met my wife in Georgetown in 1972,” he said. “I wasn’t particularly interested in her family business matters at the time, but I knew that her father had retired out of the motel business.”

An astute businessman who already had built a franchise of specialty dry cleaning chains, Joe Lothrop began managing the former Sweeney’s Motel property in the late 1990s.

“There had been a series of restaurants built on it by that time, including an Applebee’s and the Ground Round,” he said. Lothrop later leased the property to Sylvan Pools, but the company closed in 2010.

“I knew they were leaving a few years before they actually left and I got the idea to turn the property into our own shopping center,” he said.

Lothrop formed a company — 9625 Lee Highway LLC — named after the original Sweeney’s Motel address, and began plans for what today is the Fairfax Boulevard Center.

The center is an 18,000-square-foot facility consisting of two buildings.

A 7-Eleven convenience store occupies the larger of the two, and Lothrop’s own environmentally friendly dry cleaning business — Circle Cleaners — takes residence in the smaller one.

“We will soon have another tenant, Title Max, here shortly as well,” Lothrop said, adding that the future of ‘the circle’ is bright, but could use some support from the city of Fairfax.

“The demographics of this area are phenomenal,” he said. “And the traffic count at the circle is nearly 50,000 vehicles a day but I think there needs to be some effort on the city’s part to develop a uniform, form-based code for developers interested in this area. It took me three years and seven months to finally get my center off the ground due to the lack of one.”

City of Fairfax Councilman Dan Drummond agrees.

“A master plan for that area was introduced in 2008 and Joe is a great example of a long-term resident who is currently making a significant investment within Fairfax,” he said. “A form-based code is certainly worthy of consideration, and I will even go a step further by saying that a complete, wholesale rewording of our zoning ordinances — many of which are outdated — is needed in order to see the Fairfax Circle area develop and grow into the future.”

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com