Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpArlington has long hosted its share of residents who are power players across the Potomac. But familiarity didn’t lessen the thrill on May 21, 1969, when news broke that President Nixon was naming D.C. appeals judge Warren Burger as Chief Justice of the United States.

Residents of Burger’s then-home on North Rochester Street off Williamsburg Boulevard were happy to share memories of the local hoopla – from a time when a high court justice could be nominated, confirmed and sworn in within five weeks.

A 61-year-old Minnesotan, Burger lived with wife Elvera in a tree-shielded “modest, two-story 110-year-old white shingle farm house” on six-acres called Holly Hill, as described by the Washington Star’s “Woman’s World” section.

After the news trucks descended on the street (said to contain Arlington’s last septic tank), Mrs. Burger remained in seclusion behind a no-trespassing sign while a law clerk answered the door.

When Nixon presented Burger to the press at the White House, the judge pleased cameramen by giving his wife a kiss. Mrs. Burger said she was determined not to change with her husband’s elevation, and after the June swearing in, the couple and their two grown children joined other relatives for a “celebratory dinner” at their home.

Neighbor Kim McHugh Arthurs, then 15, remembers the set-off house as scary, and that the Burgers on Halloween gave dimes rather than candy. Burger used to disguise himself so he could walk his dog, she says. “The neighborhood thought that having the chief justice meant we might get our street plowed faster.”

Reva Backus, who moved to the neighborhood in 1952, says it wasn’t unusual to see Burger riding his horse, with kids followed him like the pied piper.

Those stabled horses were often cared for Saturdays by Joanna Carlson, who told me Burger paid her by allowing her to ride the animals Story and Vicky, who are buried on the property. On the big day, “I remember getting ready for school and a knock on the door,” Carlson says. “It was a tall reporter named Sam Donaldson needing the phone.” She noticed when Burger switched from commuting in a white Volkswagen bug to a limo.

Perhaps the most vivid memory comes from Chris Reynolds, owner of City & Suburban Homes Co. and partner in Reynolds Brothers Inc. He bought the property from Burger in 1984 and built the 24 Brandymore homes. “We found out he was considering selling and thought we could do something creative,” he says. “We reached a draft deal on the porch of the house. He had a significant law team looking over his shoulder, and when the numbers were close, he got up and we shook hands.”

But because Arlington is a “small town,” Reynolds says, other developers got wind of the sale and swooped in with higher offers. “I became nervous, but decided that Burger was probably the most honorable man in the country,” he says. He called the jurist and asked to come over. “We shook hands and had a deal, Mr. Chief Justice, didn’t we?” Burger’s reply: “Of course, Chris, we have a deal.”

After Burger moved to the Analostan development off Old Dominion Drive (near colleague William Rehnquist), Reynolds kept in touch, visiting Burger in his chambers. On the wall of the homebuilder’s office is the contract bearing the chief justice’s signature.