Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Economic facts of life are changing home life in our increasingly transient community. So it’s nice to ponder a special neighborhood where the changes — while present — have preserved some old Arlington intimacy.

Arlington Village is the cozy set of 80-year-old historically designated garden apartments by a woodsy ravine off Columbia Pike at South Edgewood St.

Before my recent visit, I chatted with its chronicler, retired art dealer Virginia Lillis Smith, whose parents moved in when Arlington Village was brand new in July 1939.

Her memoir, “The Village and the Pike,” was published in 2014 to mark the 75th anniversary of the development (still commemorated on neighborhood signage).

Brimming with nostalgic detail of penny-allowance childhoods along Columbia Pike, her narrative based is on two dozen former resident interviews done with Central Library’s Center for Local History, near Smith’s current home. It also provides evocative history of businesses in South Arlington.

It’s an area Smith believes too often gets short shrift from us compatriots who lay our heads north of Route 50.

Builder Gustav Ring, fresh off his success in the mid-1930s at creating Colonial Village in upper Rosslyn — the first federally insured housing project — bought 53 acres near the pike from developer B.M. Smith. The plan was to surround the ravine and creek with 595 colonial-revival-style brick one, two- and three-bedroom apartments.

There would be common recreation areas and nearby shopping in an area that would attract other developers.

Dentist Charles Munson built the Arlington Theater (today’s Cinema and Drafthouse). Columbia Pike construction king Gerald Reinsch added nearby high-rises. And Vince Tramonte, father of the entrepreneurs behind today’s Italian Store, in 1951 built a mini-golf course behind the Arlington Theater, the memoir notes.

The 2,000 residents took milk delivery from Chestnut Farms and received calls from door-to-door strawberry salesmen. “Clothes had to be off the [outdoor clotheslines] by 5 p.m. weekdays, and by noon on Saturdays” went the rules.

A village childhood meant “endless hours of play” in the creek and ravine. Add in badminton, croquet and horseshoes in common areas, dance lessons and cotillion downstairs from the commercial rental office. Kids attended Patrick Henry Elementary, Thomas Jefferson Junior High, Wakefield High School or St. Thomas More, the booklet notes. Little leaguers practiced at Walter Reed field (whites meeting blacks from Nauck during segregation) and enjoyed summer recreation at the Reed community center.

To catch a flick at the Arlington Theater in the 1940s set you back 25 cents — unbuttered popcorn was 15 cents, Smith reported. Upstairs was a bowling alley, according to oral recollections from alums that include Cecelia Cassidy, former director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization, and Falls Church dentist and former college football standout Earl Longauer.

In 1981, Arlington Village converted to townhomes and went condo. Today its association publishes a homey newsletter “The Village Crier,” boasting of its certified Natural Wildlife Habitat. Units now rent for about $2,100 monthly, an agent told me.

“The village today has many professionals, singles and couples, certainly fewer families with little children as there had been in postwar Arlington,” says Smith, whose son lives there as a “third-generation” loyalist. “There are more absentee owners today, and hence more renters. The same qualities that made the place attractive then appeal to today’s residents — the park-like setting, the community, the convenience to downtown, life along the Pike.”

No truth to the rumor that Arlingtonians who wish to elevate to the top of Rosslyn’s new 387-foot CEB Tower Observation Deck have to produce a utility bill to prove residency.

I hiked there Saturday with a gang of dressed-down wiseacre buddies, and we learned that a driver’s license is sufficient to enter for free. Non-Arlingtonians pay $22. (Sorry, Falls Churchians.)

The spectacular 360-degree view of the D.C. area from a vantage point you’ve never experienced is worth everyone’s time.