With an enrollment of nearly 34,000, and more than 200 degree programs, George Mason University is the largest public research university in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It employs about 7,000 faculty and staff and awards about 11,000 Bachelor, Master, and PhD degrees during Spring and Winter commencements each year. Surprisingly, though, its’ beginnings were quite humble.
In February 1956 the Virginia State Legislature authorized the University of Virginia to start a branch college in Northern Virginia. Since the area had a significant amount of soon-to-be-college-aged students, several localities stepped forward to assist the Commonwealth in getting the new college up and running. Four local governments, Fairfax County, Alexandria, Falls Church, and Arlington banded together to help advise the University of Virginia about appropriate sites for the college, pay for land (if necessary), and promote the new school to their citizens.
While the location and financing of a permanent site for the new college would take almost three years, and groundbreaking, construction, and opening take another five, the University of Virginia and its president, Colgate W. Darden, Jr., wished to open the new college in the fall of 1957. Mayor John C. Wood of Fairfax, who was also a counsel for the Fairfax County Public Schools, knew of a building owned by the school system that was available for use and would be inexpensive. It was a former elementary school that had been abandoned for 2 years by that time. A deal was struck between the school board and the University of Virginia for the lease of the building at $600.00 per year.
The former Bailey’s Elementary School located at 5836 Columbia Pike was a well-used eight-room elementary school constructed in 1922 of red brick. In 1955, a new, larger elementary school was constructed nearby, and “Old Bailey’s” was abandoned. The lower level had four classrooms – two would be used as science labs, and the other two as lecture rooms. On the upper level, three rooms comprised the library. The last room would be used as an additional lecture room. While it wasn’t a gleaming new set of buildings like those that would be built in Fairfax 7 years later, it would have to do.
Though there were concerns both Northern Virginia and in Charlottesville about the low enrollment (only seventeen freshman and sophomores registered to attend the college), it was decided to that the University would move forward and open the branch, named “University College of the University of Virginia” on September 23, 1957.
Bailey’s served as the primary location for the University College (which would later be renamed George Mason College in January 1960) from August 1957 until August 1964. Though conditions were challenging for the early pioneers at Bailey’s Crossroads, the students, staff, and local population became fond of their school, and some were even sad to have to leave. The staying power of Bailey’s (or BXU as some students affectionately called it) is a testament to the commitment of the people of Northern Virginia toward higher education. Individuals from all backgrounds and parts of the area labored to make certain that Bailey’s would make a go of it until more permanent quarters were available.