Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpPreston Caruthers seldom puts his name on the many marks he has made on Arlington over seven decades—an exception being chiseled letters on the Caruthers building at Marymount University.

At 88 the builder, multi-hatted civic leader and philanthropist still arrives daily at the Ballston office of Caruthers Properties LLC, though because of a heart ailment, his son Steve drives him. “I still cut my own grass,” says the mild-mannered impresario.

Caruthers, whose contributions to the Arlington skyline include Dominion Towers, Shawnee and Rosslyn’s Ames Building, lent me his private autobiography. It’s stark tale of how an Oklahoma farm boy whose parents died young survived the Depression through hard work but an incomplete education.

World War II cut short his high school days, but the Navy trained him as a medical corpsman in the Pacific. In August 1945, Caruthers was on a ship awaiting orders for the invasion of Japan when the A-bomb altered the fate of millions.

His sister’s marriage to Arlington engineer George Snell brought him to postwar Washington, where he talked his way into George Washington University. But building soon distracted him – though neither he nor his brother-in-law had built houses. Beginning with his partner’s lots in Lyon Village, Caruthers’ first home project on his own was at 1800 N. Inglewood Street. By the early 50s, he was constructing 78 split-levels off Sleepy Hollow Road.

Then came his turning point. With postwar tax rates at 70 percent, he foresaw more profit in vertical apartment buildings. His biggest was along Shirley Highway (I-395). In 1960, aerial photos prove, few structures dotted the area between Seminary Road and the Pentagon. With partner Mark Winkler (of Mark Center) over four years they built Southern Towers, 2,400 units in five buildings.

Caruthers recalls defeating gun-toting “labor goons” in a unionization vote. ”The Kennedy-Johnson-Vietnam war years rent asunder the unity and crushed the esteem of the American people,” he wrote. “However, it was our most economically productive period.”

In 1963, while heading the Chamber of Commerce, he sought to integrate the chamber. To those gathered at Washington Golf and Country Club, Caruthers spoke for racial inclusion, but Chevrolet dealer Bob Peck tabled his motion.

Caruthers created office buildings, cultivating government tenants from the General Services Administration and CIA. He gave land that became Rosslyn’s “St. Exxon,” the Methodist church over a gas station.

In 1968, the conservative Caruthers was appointed to a liberal school board, with “a budget in the thousands,” he joked. He used his building experience for a new Thomas Jefferson Junior High.

This determined dropout went on to serve on the State Board of Education, also advising fledgling George Mason University and travelling the state on behalf of private colleges. His donations would benefit the Arlington schools planetarium, Gulf Branch Nature Center and Glebe House (which he bought from the late State Sen. Frank Ball, renovated and gave to the National Genealogical Society).

Caruthers still meets weekly with notables at Washington Golf to influence civic affairs. His grandchildren, meanwhile, are taking over his company. (Current big project: Belmont Bay near Occoquan.)

Homebuilders today use less brick and more frames, Caruthers said. But he now sees Arlington houses as secondary in beauty to the trees. “Today I drive and see one of the most beautiful places one could live in,” he said. “It’s breathtaking.”

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I bought my copy of Alfred O. Taylor Jr.’s new book Bridge Builders of Nauck/Green Valley from the From One Hand to Another calligraphy and print gallery, which hosted Taylor’s first book signing.

The handsome green paperback from Dorrance Publishing collects profiles of achievers past and present in the historically black South Arlington neighborhood. Familiar figures such as singer Roberta Flack and pharmacy owner Doc Muse are accompanied by lesser known local heroes in business, education and the arts. Retired educator Taylor included bios of the late Arlington County Board Chairman Charles Monroe and his father, Judge Thomas Monroe.

He also produced an authoritative history of the-once segregated neighborhood, with special emphasis on churches.