Mason’s Arlington campus, Mason Square, came to be through of the resolution of two distinct challenges: the university’s desire to have a law school, and a small local law school’s difficulties in attaining accreditation.
In 1978, the George Mason University Foundation purchased eleven acres of land and the former Kann’s department store building in the Virginia Square neighborhood in Arlington. After Kann’s closed in 1975, the International School of Law (ISL) purchased the building in anticipation that the area’s projected growth would attract more students. However, the reality was that for ISL to stay open, they needed American Bar Association accreditation, which remained elusive.
Coincidentally, George Mason University wanted a law school and believed the Northern Virginia region needed one. Unfortunately, the Association of American Law Schools, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) and the General Assembly rejected Mason's request to establish a law school, twice. In 1976, the Honorable Charles S. Russell, a judge for the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit and, later, the Supreme Court of Virginia, became aware that Mason’s Board of Visitors hoped to add a law school to grow the university. Russell knew that ISL and Mason were seeking partnerships to resolve their respective law school difficulties. So, Russell arranged a secret meeting between ISL Dean, Ralph Norvell and the Rector of Mason’s Board of Visitors, John “Til” Hazel, at a restaurant across the street from ISL. As they ate lunch, the two men agreed that a merger would be advantageous to each of their respective institutions. Hazel and Norvell shook hands and decided to work together for Mason’s and ISL’s mutual benefit. But first, they needed both SCHEV and the General Assembly to approve the merger.
Unfortunately, Mason and ISL also faced opposition to their merger. In November 1978, Mason purchased ISL’s property in Arlington for $3.2 million. In response to this gutsy move, SCHEV issued an additional report to the General Assembly, again showing resistance to the merger. To ensure Mason’s attempt to acquire a law school would succeed, Hazel created the “Urge to Merge” lobbying campaign to convince Virginia’s legislature to approve the merger. Motivated by the prospect of accredited degrees and a chance to sit for the bar exam, law school students worked with Hazel on the campaign. Their efforts were rewarded in February 1979 when the State Senate and House of Delegates passed Senate Bill 607, authorizing the merger between George Mason University and ISL. Mason finally had a law school, and ISL students received accredited degrees that spring.
The former department store building, built in 1953, became Mason’s first building on the new Metro Campus, its name before it was renamed Arlington Campus in 1989. The building was known as "Original" or "Arlington Original". The building had escalators and a PA system from its time as a department store, making it the only law school building with an escalator at the time of the merger. Law school students recalled using the PA system to request assistance from facilities staff. Original's huge footprint allowed Mason to expand its programs, eventually filling up the law school building. As Mason’s enrollment in Arlington increased, the university leased space in neighboring buildings, such as one at Quincy Street Station, eight blocks to the south. However, this solution could still not sustain Mason’s rapid growth in Arlington.
By 1988, GMU President George Johnson had plans to grow the Arlington Campus and make the Virginia Square neighborhood “an educating community.” As a result, Mason drafted expansion plans that included multiple phases of construction. The first phase provided a modern building, Arlington I, for the law school and its library on the land that used to be Original’s parking lot. Arlington I’s construction broke ground on April 25, 1996, and cost approximately $19 million. This new building opened in 1998 and dedicated in January 1999. Arlington I became the new home of the law school, its library, the Mercatus Center and the Institute for Humane Studies. As a result, programs in the leased Quincy Street Station location moved into Original. The second expansion on the Arlington campus was completed shortly afterward. It included a 240,000-square-foot building and public plaza between Arlington I and Original. This building housed a library, an art gallery, and a large auditorium. The Metropolitan Building, located between the Law School and FDIC headquarters, opened in 2006 and houses a parking garage and office space. Construction on Arlington II finished in 2011. This building became home to the then-named School of Public Policy and was known as Founders Hall.
In 2005, Arlington I was renamed John T. Hazel, Jr. Hall (Hazel Hall) in recognition of the role Rector Hazel played in establishing Mason’s law school. Hazel Hall is home to Antonin Scalia Law School, renamed after the late Supreme Court Justice in 2016. In June 2017, the Foundation Building was renamed Vernon Smith Hall in honor of Mason’s second Nobel Prize winner. Vernon Smith Hall is home to the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution. Founders Hall was renamed Van Metre Hall in October 2018 in recognition of a previous donation of land by Van Metre Companies, a local commercial and residential real estate firm. Van Metre Hall is home to the Schar School of Policy and Government, named for benefactor, Dwight Schar. Finally, in 2020, Original was demolished to make way for a new building, Fuse, which will focus on technological innovation and entrepreneurship.
The Arlington Campus became known as Mason Square in 2022. Mason Square predominantly offers evening classes, and the campus comes alive around 4 p.m. Its plaza has become an energetic center for campus and community engagement. It has featured a game cart, a ping pong table, and a cornhole set for use by the local community. Free yoga classes and juggling lessons have been offered in the plaza, and musicians play cheerful music in the plaza regularly. The plaza also hosts outdoor concerts and movie screenings. Mason Square is located across the street from the original El Pollo Rico restaurant, a beloved hangout spot. In addition, Mason Exhibitions Arlington is two blocks from the campus on Fairfax Drive. Construction on Fuse is expected to be completed in 2025.