Founding Reston: From Blueprint to Reality

Founding Reston: From Blueprint to Reality

The author, co-founder of The Connection Newspapers, was a pioneer resident of Reston and is the author of the book "Reston: The First Twenty Years," published in 1985. He is now a resident of Charleston, S.C., where he is co-writing a book on how white and black leaders are confronting the city’s nearly 350-year legacy of racism.

In the fall of 1961, New York City real estate developer Bob Simon had $2 million that was burning a hole in his pocket. It was the money he and his family had made in June of that year from the sale of the Simon family heirloom, Carnegie Hall, and Simon needed to reinvest it within 18 months or pay a heavy capital gains tax.

As the clock was ticking that fall and Simon was looking for investment opportunities, he got a call from his real estate broker in New York City, Jim Felt, who had just heard about what sounded like a very interesting property from a broker who’d come up from Washington, D.C. The visiting broker, Jimmy Salkeld, from the big Shannon & Luchs realty firm in the District, had actually come to Manhattan to see one of his regular clients, Broadway producer Roger Stevens, who dabbled in real estate.

As it turned out, Stevens wasn’t interested in what Salkeld was offering this time – a big farm in Northern Virginia near Washington – but he thought his friend Simon might be, and sent Salkeld to see him.

Salkeld, a rotund man with a big head crowned with black hair that was slicked down with pomade, was the king of commercial real estate deals in Washington. When he went to see Simon, he had a carefully prepared dog-and-pony show. The property for sale, Sunset Hills Farm, was 6,750 acres, ready for development and only 22 miles from the Washington Monument.

THE FARM was called Sunset Hills because of the spectacular view of sunsets over the Blue Ridge Mountains 15 miles to the west. The price had been knocked down to $12.8 million from $18 million, and the sellers were willing to take only $800,000 in down payment and assume a mortgage on the balance with no interest for the first 10 years.

Salkeld was just getting warmed up in his meeting with Simon. He unfurled the map he’d brought with him, and pointed to two lines intersecting in the middle of the property. One, which was solid, was the Dulles Access Highway, which would connect the new Washington Dulles International Airport to the Nation’s Capital; the other, which was dotted, was the planned Outer Beltway which would girdle the suburban sprawl that was spreading across fast-growing metro Washington.

Salkeld saves his best morsel for last: If Simon had the vision to create a big suburban development on the farm, a major corporation would buy a site for a regional headquarters at one of the corners of the intersecting highways for a million dollars. In other words, Simon would have to put up less money than he would receive for his first land sale.

For several years, Simon had been trying to move beyond the conservative strategy set down by his late father of buying and selling already developed properties in Manhattan. The strategy was financially prudent, but not exciting, and meant there would be no windfall paydays.

The parcel that Salkeld was dangling in front of him in the fall of 1960 was a chunk of land half as big as Manhattan. Simon went down to Northern Virginia to look for himself. It was November, and Sunset Hills Farm’s trees were ablaze in vermillion and gold. The only development that intruded on the pastoral landscape was the tiny community of Sunset Hills, which included Virginia Gentleman Distillery and a few houses where distillery workers lived.

The houses, along with two distillery warehouses, were the vestiges of a failed attempt to start a new community in the last decade of the 19th century. Past the distillery ran Ridge Road, where, 98 years earlier, Gen. Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia had passed on the way to their fateful encounter with Gen. George McClellan and his Union Army at Antietam.

As Simon strolled from the owner’s mansion perched on the highest point of Sunset Hills, the crisp fall air was redolent with the smell of corn mash cooking in the distillery’s kettles, and squawking, aggressive guinea hens trooped along the road looking for stray kernels of corn. But a short distance away, the future was announcing itself more noisily than the guinea hens.

A formation of bulldozers was smoothing four lanes for the Dulles Access Highway that would move traffic from Washington to the newest international airport in the U.S., when it opened in two years. You didn’t need a crystal ball to appreciate the implications if there were an interchange connecting Sunset Hills to the new road.

Salkeld, who lunched weekly with J. Edgar Hoover, the founding director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, at the old Harvey’s Restaurant on K Street NW to exchange the kind of gossip that only the head of an intelligence agency and a broker at a realty company could collect, produced more interest tidbits for the fact-gathering Simon.

He told Simon about the strategic plan approved by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to disperse key federal offices to the suburbs to protect against the specter of the downtown Federal Triangle being obliterated by nuclear attack from the Soviet Union. With that, he segued to the map the region’s planners drew up showing future development extending in spokes through those parts of Maryland and Northern Virginia circling Washington – and how one of those spokes just happened to skirt next to Sunset Hills Farm.

“He was a sensational salesman,” retired Shannon & Luchs executive Warren K. Montouri, who trained under Salkeld, told me years later. “He would say anything, do anything, legally, to make a sale.”

Already, the suburbs of Northern Virginia were mushrooming. Sometimes soon, they would push out toward Sunset Hills Farm. Balancing the promises and the reality, beholding the unspoiled beauty of Sunset Hills Farm, with its gently swelling hills creased by fast-running streams sheltered by occasional willow trees, Simon was a smitten buyer. By the spring of 1961, all the purchase details were worked out, and Simon was the fee simple owner of Sunset Hills Farm.

Simon had no experience in suburban development, but that didn’t stop him from thinking big thoughts about what he would do with his new land acquisition. He was himself a frustrated suburbanite, having moved to Long Island with his first wife, Helen, when he came home in 1946 from military service in the Army in World War II. He loved to putter around his five acres in leafy Syosset, but hated the inconveniences, which included driving the kids to everything. Then there was the drudgery of the often-delayed, hour-long train trips to work in Manhattan.

Why, Simon wondered, couldn’t a suburb combine the beauty of the country with the convenience of the city, so people could live, work and play in one place, without being a slave to the automobile? He remembered, as a young boy, sitting at the family dinner table in the Simon family home on Riverside Drive on the West Side of Manhattan, hearing spirited discussions between his father and Alexander Bing, who was developing the “garden city” of Radburn, N.J., which proposed to answer that very question. Young Bob even helped name some of the streets of Radburn, in which his father was a minor investor.

So, Sunset Hills would not be transformed into another Levittown, which was being replicated across the American landscape as young and fertile American families joined the biggest and most significant migration in the country’s history – from the old, rusting cities to the new and shiny suburbs. But neither would Radburn be Simon’s model.

The Depression had stopped Radburn’s development before it was even close to being half-finished. Beyond a much-publicized, picturesque underpass that separated a pedestrian pathway from a busy road, Radburn had not achieved much of its promise. Simon knew he would have to start virtually from scratch.

HIS FIRST BLUEPRINT for his city in the suburbs was a simple, and very personal, wish list. Soaking in his tub – his think tank – Simon wrote down what he thought his new, still-unnamed development should have. There should be lots of woods and lakes and active recreation, ball fields, swimming pools, tennis courts, and everything should be within walking distance from where people lived so the car could be put in its place.

The list went on and on. People should be able to choose from all kinds of housing, including high-rise apartments and townhouses, neither of which existed anywhere in the suburbs of metro Washington in the new 1960s. The housing should vary in size and cost so people could move to different dwellings at different stages of their lives.

High on Simon’s wish list for services was childcare, run by professionals who were schooled in early child development; furthermore, he wrote down, care should be offered around the clock seven days a week.

Most radical of all, Simon wanted his community to be open to people of all races – this at a time when the biggest suburban developer in the country, William Levitt, required his buyers to sign agreements they wouldn’t sell to non-whites. Astonishingly, where Levitt was imposing his covenant in otherwise progressive New York State, Simon was proposing to bring integrated housing to a state – Virginia – which, only three years before, had enacted “Massive Resistance” to desegregation of its separate white and black public schools.

Simon took his wish list to his company’s new executive vice president, who promptly told him it was crazy. So did the first 50 banks he went to for financing. The calculus of suburban development in 1961 demanded that developers get their projects approved by Washington so they could offer low-interest, government-subsidized FHA loans. This is how the wheels of the great postwar suburban migration had been greased.

GOVERNMENT BUREAUCRATS had a thick book of rules specifying exactly how suburban houses should be build and look to keep costs down. Simon’s wish list, with its open housing and all its amenities, violated many of the rules. But Simon was unfazed; he, a New York Democrat with connections to powerful people in the party, would convince the new Kennedy administration in Washington to change the rules – simple as that. Besides, didn’t Kennedy’s own housing experts say that sprawl, which FHA loans had helped to create, was a huge waste of national resources?

While he was figuring out how to change Washington’s mind, Simon achieved a breakthrough in his search for money to start development of his community, which he decided, on the advice of his mother and in-laws, after a weekend-long brainstorming session on Martha’s Vineyard, to call “Reston” (the prefix coming from his initials). Morgan Guaranty in New York City loaned him $15 million. With that money, plus $2 million of his own (and his family’s) money from the sale of Carnegie Hall, Simon was able to begin.

He commissioned the firm that designed Radburn, gathered a brain trust to advise him on social issues and hired local attorneys and managers in Fairfax County, where Sunset Hills Farm was located, who knew how to get things done. A lake was dug and dammed (and named after his new and second wife, Anne), townhouses in a palette of pastels were clustered at the water’s edge, within the shadow of a stunning, 15-story apartment tower, and pathways were cleared through meandering stream valleys.

When Simon’s first village, Lake Anne, was officially opened in December 1965, it received a torrent of publicity in the news media. By the count of the record keepers at Simon’s Reston Inc., there were articles in 64 magazines, 24 newspapers and 22 other media. Even Esquire magazine, the guidebook for how American men should dress, furnish their apartment and imbibe spirits and dine, was intrigued enough to comment on the New Town.

Bob Simon’s wish list had progressed well beyond his bathtub.