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Reston @ 50: Reston's Beginnings

Robert E. Simon, Jr. was the son of a New York City real estate developer and financier of the new town of Radburn, New Jersey.  In 1925 Simon’s father acquired New York City’s Carnegie Hall and added it to his portfolio of other properties in the city.  In 1935, after the death of his father, Simon graduated from Harvard University and entered into the family’s real estate development business.

During his years in New York City, Simon developed many of the ideals and values that he later incorporated into the creation of Reston.  Simon enjoyed city life, with its close community and diverse mix of people, culture, music, arts, and fine dining.  But he also enjoyed the country, with its natural beauty, clean air, and outdoor recreational opportunities.  After spending most of his life in New York City, Simon moved to Long Island in the 1950s, commuting to work in Manhattan via the Long Island Railroad.  The inconvenience of commuting to the city in order to enjoy its many amenities motivated Simon to develop a new town which would offer the best of both worlds.

A real estate developer by trade, the younger Simon had studied the new towns of the post-World War II period in England and other parts of Europe.   He was already familiar with the concept of the new town because of his father’s involvement with the creation and operation of Radburn, New Jersey, during the 1920s. 

In 1960 Simon sold Carnegie Hall to the city of New York for $5,000,000, saving the historic building from demolition and providing funds for his next venture.  After investigating an opportunity to purchase 6,750 acres of land in western Fairfax County, Simon’s development company Palindrome, Inc. purchased the property in March 1961 for $13,150,000 from Lefcourt Realty, a local real estate development firm.  The east to west-running Washington and Old Dominion Railroad (W&OD) almost neatly divided the property into northern and southern halves.

The land that Simon acquired had gone through a number of hands between the late nineteenth century and the time of his purchase.  On the north side of the W&OD there was once the tiny 19th century Virginia town of Wiehle, named after Dr. Carl Adoph Max Wiehle.  The land on the south side of the railroad was owned by land speculator William McKee Dunn.  The properties owned by Wiehle and Dunn went through a series of transfers to different owners during the 1900s until A. Smith Bowman, Sr. bought the former Whiele and Dunn properties in 1920 and 1948, respectively. The name Wiehle, which by the early 1900s was simply the name of the local post office, was changed to Sunset Hills in 1923. The Bowman family originally used the land for dairy and grain production, and raising cattle. After the repeal of Prohibition, Bowman created a bourbon distillery on the site just north of the railroad tracks. Virginia Gentleman Bourbon was produced by the A. Smith Bowman Company at that location until 1988. The Bowmans sold the property in 1960 to Lefcourt. The site was about 18 miles west of Washington, DC and comprised about 11 square miles.

During this same time Washington-Dulles International Airport was under construction about seven miles to the west.  The project necessitated the building during the early 1960s of a direct access road from the Leesburg Pike (VA 7), the newly completed Capital Beltway, and later Interstate 66, to the airport.  The road, built initially to permit construction vehicles (and later airport patrons) access to the site, ran roughly parallel to the railroad tracks as it passed through the property, further subdividing it into north and south halves.  It offered no access to or from Reston until the 1970s, when the Federal Aviation Administration permitted entrance and exit of the road to Reston commuter buses.  For nearly than twenty years there were limited options to and from, and between northern and southern halves of Reston until the construction of the Dulles Toll Road in 1984.

Reston @ 50: Reston's Beginnings