Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

After two years of corporate and pandemic delays, BB&T Bank and SunTrust on Feb. 20 will officially become Truist.

That burgeoning corporate family tree affects me personally, as I have maintained accounts since childhood at Clarendon Trust, which morphed into First American, then Crestar, then SunTrust. (I still have my faded 1960s Clarendon Trust savings book.)

This churning of logos is the latest in more than a century of banking evolution in our parish, a trend that replaces institutions driven by local personalities with national brand names.

The oldest lending company I tracked was the Arlington Bank, created downtown in 1854 and named to honor George Washington Parke Custis, creator of Arlington House.

Thanks to old directory sleuthing by John Stanton of the Center for Local History, I learned that in 1912 a mainstay was the Rosslyn-based Arlington National Bank (founded 1906 by big landowner names: Rucker, Ball, Mackey, Torreyson).

In Depression-era 1930, many saved at the Peoples State Bank of Cherrydale (actually in Ballston).

By the prosperous 1950s, Clarendon Trust (founded 1921) had eight branches, including in the heart of Clarendon and Westover. Arlington National, by then renamed Arlington Trust, sponsored Little League and had my pals’ dads on its board. Now headquartered at 1515 N. Courthouse Rd., it kept branches in Rosslyn and the Navy Annex. It competed (in banking and Little League) with First National Bank of Arlington, centrally located at 801 N. Glebe Rd. South Arlingtonians had Shirlington Trust at 1776 S. Randolph St. (sponsor of my youth basketball team).

First Federal Savings and Loan Association had three branches. And the Arlington branch of the Falls Church Bank once occupied my current SunTrust site at Washington and Langston boulevards.

By the 1970s, you could deposit or borrow at The America Bank (five branches, near Courthouse and in Dominion Hills), First and Merchants National Bank and United Virginia (five branches).

In recent decades, locals have launched community banks–Virginia Commerce Bank in 1988 and John Marshall Bank in 2006.

The trend is toward the less personal. Diane Perry, who began her bank management career at Shirlington Trust in Cherrydale in 1979, said back then “banking was about customer relationships, getting to know the customers and their needs.” She recalls a “retired and widowed doctor who came into the bank almost every day to visit his safe deposit box. This was not because he needed to transact business; it was a social call.” Another customer was neighboring Cherrydale Hardware.

The corporatization has been dramatic. I found it bizarre the first time I saw the Wells Fargo stagecoach insignia, for decades so Californian, in suburban Arlington.

The bank companies with scale also enjoy clout with the county. Former Treasurer Frank O’Leary recalled that in the 1980s, First American (founded 1978) had the big contract for processing up to 500,000 county transactions. That meant a fancy Christmas party out in Tysons Corner at which drinks and oysters were enjoyed by bold-face county officials and banking execs.

Current Treasurer Carla de la Pava confirmed that this contract in 2005 went to Wachovia Bank, the arrangement handed to Wells Fargo when it acquired Wachovia in 2008. The Wells Fargo contract signed in 2018, she explained, “saves an average of $325,000 annually on banking and custodial services.”

Banks, by any name, help balance the ledgers of Arlington life.

County Manager Mark Schwartz warned of a possible “degradation in service” in February after county employees who decline a covid vaccination are forced onto unpaid leave. By March 1, the 7 percent who still resist face termination, he told the Arlington Committee of 100 Jan. 12.

Lamenting the 285 Arlingtonians who’ve died from the virus, Schwartz described the “uncertainty” the pandemic has brought, requiring preparation of four budgets in two years and three capital improvement plans in three years.

Arlington’s office vacancy rate now at 20 percent may bring a revenue drop that is somewhat permanent, he warned. Thank God, he added, for Amazon.