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On Reston's 50th Birthday, Founder Recalls Inspiration For New Kind Of Suburb

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Robert Simon pointing to his likeness on the shore of Lake Anne in Reston, Va.
John Hines/WAMU
Robert Simon pointing to his likeness on the shore of Lake Anne in Reston, Va.

On Reston’s 50th and his 100th Birthday, Reston founder Robert Simon reflects on the beginnings and evolution of his beloved Virginia town.

In 1960, Simon had sold his interest in the iconic New York theatre Carnegie Hall when a Washington, D.C., real estate broker dropped into Simon’s Manhattan office peddling 6700 acres of Northern Virginia countryside. Others had taken a pass on the land sale, but Simon traveled to Virginia to take a look at the land between Washington, DC and the nascent Dulles Airport. Soon he had used the Carnegie Hall money to buy the land and begin developing a new and different kind of suburb to be called Reston.

“Having a contract to buy a property that was half the size of Manhattan…what to do with it? Well clearly it was too big for a shopping center. And I sat down with a yellow pad and wrote down everything I could think of that would work with a property of that size," Simon says. "And I had been to Europe, and I had been around the United States and so I listed all of these things that I had seen and struck out a few that seemed irrelevant.”

What seemed very relevant to Simon was the notion of a self-contained village-type town with a central plaza where people could gather. But having fleshed out the concept, Simon needed a name, and, though he had hired a PR person to advise him, his mother and his wife came up with a different idea.

“The county had said that ‘we need a name for this before we can go forward with processing your plans, and we need it by next Monday,’" Simon says. "So a PR person came up with “Simon City” and that didn't appeal to me very much, so my wife and my mother came up with the idea of Reston — Robert E. Simon Town or ton.”

Whatever its name may be, the essence of Reston — and maybe Robert Simon’s favorite word — is “community.” Simon believes that the concept of community is really the "secret sauce" of Reston’s success.

“It’s not unfair to say that in the housing market, typically the things that sell the most are bathrooms and kitchens, and Reston is selling community," he says. "Certainly, in the early days there were people who considered themselves pioneers and who packed and left someplace in the middle west to come here because they wanted to be in this place. So back to community again, the reason why Reston continues to prosper was because the small portion of U.S. citizens who value community are there, and one of the places in the United States they want to go to is Reston.”

Eventually, the uniqueness of "community" made Reston successful. Unfortunately, though, Simon never saw the financial rewards of that success. In contrast to many land developers in Northern Virginia who have made fortunes over the years developing farm land, Robert Simon actually lost money on his investment.

“We invested $2 million. That was our share of the sale of Carnegie Hall and we got a million back," he says. "Obviously, I had thought we would make money. And that was the point. So I made a mistake.”

An idyllic, visionary, grand mistake that has matured into precisely what he wanted it to become. But was it worth it?

“Oh, of course…of course," Simon says.

Music: "Start Me Up" by Smooth Jazz Express from The Songs of Rolling Stones

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