Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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The tear-down trends in Arlington housing this year got the best of the historic George Washington Carver Cooperative Apartments.

Back in February, the wrecking ball hit the units off Columbia Pike near Washington Blvd. that for 70 years had been a mainstay of the working-class African American community—with links to the 19thcentury.

Credit both the county government and the builder of the now-on-the-market luxury townhomes for honoring their historical legacy.

Built in 1945 and designed by dean of the Howard University School of Architecture Albert Cassell, the Carver apartments were “the most recent incarnation of the housing provided by the federal government for Arlington County’s African Americans since the founding of the Freedman’s Village in 1863,” said a county staff report. “With the government’s dissolution of the village in the late 1890s, its occupants dispersed throughout the county, settling in nearby neighborhoods such as East Arlington, Queen City, and Johnson’s Hill.”

But when the wartime feds decided to build the Pentagon, Navy Annex and accompanying access roads, those communities were dispersed again. So the federal government built the 44 garden apartments in eight multiple dwellings on 3.3 acres at South Rolfe Street and 13th, near Hoffman-Boston school.

Carver the namesake (1861-1943), to refresh, was born in slavery in Missouri and became a botanist, inventor and educator with an agricultural innovator. Other housing units bearing his name are in Naples, Fla.

In the Arlington version, says the staff history, the federal government in 1949 offered to sell the units to the county, which declined, then to the tenants, who formed a cooperative. They landed a $123,000 Federal Housing Administration loan from the James W. Rouse Co. The cooperative paid it off by 1974.

“What I remember most is that it was always well- maintained and families were close-knit,” I was told by Craig Syphax, curator of the virtual Black Heritage Museum of Arlington. “Those who lived there comprised, for the most part, a solid blue-collar, military and some professional families. Co-op leaders met regularly to address general maintenance and upkeep issues. The play area provided fun times for pre-teens on the sliding board and monkey bars.”

The county and the Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board applied for National Register of Historic Places designation. But in 2015, the developer won out by rights, though the owners were divided over the desire to sell, I’m told by Arlington Preservation Planner Rebeccah Ballo.

In October 2015, the county board approved naming the nearby mini-park George Washington Carver Park, as recommended by the Park and Recreation Commission and the Arlington View neighborhood. The Arlington Public Library and historic preservation staff interviewed residents and the developer to build an oral history. Tom Dickinson of the Arlington Historical Society took photos of the demolition.

“It’s a loss of historical architecture,” Ballo said. “But we won wonderful mitigation for the county and the country,” she added, citing the oral histories and two “beautiful markers,” one on the homes and one on the architect.

The luxury townhomes sprang up in just months. What are now called the Carver Place townhomes designed by Craftmark and honoring the history are priced from $689,000 to $875,000. So far, 38 of 73 have sold, I was told by McWilliams/Ballard realty Vice President James Lobocchiaro. The markers should be up before the New Year.

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Loyal alumni of Washington-Lee High School are miffed. Their unique database of all class rosters going back to 1926 got demoted from its place of prominence on the Arlington Public Schools website.

It’s still available on the alumni website but harder to get to. Schools spokesman Frank Bellavia told me a recent upgrade of the school system’s online presence forced the change. The database has “been moved to an external site because the way they are being maintained is not compatible with our new site,” he said.