Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpArlington’s ailing but still centrally located Ballston Common Mall got an economic shot in the arm last week. For frequent users such as I, the news telegraphed local history repeating itself.

The county board voted to cough up $10 million for parking and transportation improvements following years of public-private planning. By next spring that investment could leverage another $45 million loan to help developer Forest City realize its ambition to re-outfit the surroundings for hipsters of the 21st century.

“It’s a landmark project because the county has never done a community development bond,” I was told by Tina Leone, CEO of the Ballston Business Improvement District. “What I find amazing is that this property has been an economic generator for a couple of generations and will continue to be, in the heart of Ballston.”

Nearly seven decades ago a similar commercial adventure unfolded when the old “Parkington” was raised with national fanfare. Details were recently fed to me by some retired Arlington teachers.

Action at the crossroads of Wilson Blvd. and Glebe Road goes back to the 18th century in the form of a tavern, market and voting station. But it was during the post-World War II suburban boom, according to a 1951Washington Post illustrated article, when the arrival of Hecht’s and Kann’s (now George Mason Law School at Virginia Square) department stores became “two modern monuments to progress.”

Parkington was a $14 million “miracle of planning and construction” that opened Nov. 3, 1951, after five years’ work. Precursors of today’s Forest City surveyed Arlington’s spending habits, housing and traffic. They sensed “an opportunity to lure trade from congested Washington” when every Saturday housewives would pile into buses and streetcars to shop downtown.

The 18 acres had to be purchased from 26 owners to commandeer what Parkington operating manager Milton Schlesinger said was as “close to the center of the county’s population as you can get.” (At least one family cemetery was destroyed, according to Eleanor Lee Templeman’s Arlington Heritage.)

Most revolutionary was the five levels that then made the world’s largest parking building – room for 2,000 cars. Customers paid five cents for the first three hours, a dime thereafter. Their reward was convenient access to 600,000 square feet of space hosting 159 “departments,” including McCrory’s variety, Walgreen’s and HUB Furniture.

The anchor, of course, was the Hecht Co. (five shopping levels and an escalator, now Macy’s), which then cost $6.5 million and was the East Coast’s largest. A vintage photo shows it taking shape through the energies of Prescott Construction Co., a wood-frame house stubbornly standing on the corner of Wilson and Glebe.

Many of us associate Parkington with the massive letter messages (“Drive Carefully – School’s Out” or “Buy Easter Seals”). “If there is a message the Hecht Co. wishes to get across to the people, it can be displayed in letters behind the façade,” said New York architect Robert Allan Jacobs. “The theory was not for display of merchandise but display of color and light. Overnight, the color of the façade can be changed by painting or hanging colored paper on the cinder block wall, which is two and half feet behind the glass skin.”

Parkington will produce “a surprising change in America’s fastest growing county,” the Post wrote. That’s what the new public-private partnership hopes to do for Ballston Mall.

***

“I found it at Giant Music!” That was the slogan that long appeared on the paper bags containing the cherished records many of us bought in the Arlington and Falls Church of the 1960s and 70s.

I recently renewed contact with local music memorabilia collector Jack Maier. When his and my music store went under in the early ‘80s and shuttered its outlets on Falls Church’s East Broad Street (west of today’s Applebee’s), Arlington’s Columbia Pike and Fairfax’s Turnpike Pickett Shopping Center, Maier sprung into action.

From a refuse pile in 1983, he rescued the familiar four-foot-by-eight-foot white Plexiglas sign with multi-colored letters spelling “Giant Music.”
Maier, incidentally, has also compiled an exhaustive list of the rock bands who played the Falls Church Community Center in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s (mostly local legends, plus Bob Seger, Mitch Ryder). He will soon post a shot of his sign on the Giant Music Facebook page.