Our Man in Arlington

February 13, 2018 2:15 PM0 comments

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Who is the all-time queen of Arlington real estate? (Hint: her picture is not on a bus.)

Ruby Lee Minar (1883-1952), whose name inspires awe in homebuilders, in the 1920s was tops among the visionary investors who created our restful suburb.

“The most successful woman in realty development in the country,” as she was dubbed by a 1929 business journal, worked alongside Arlington luminaries Frank Lyon and Adm. Presley Rixey to create prize subdivisions.

Born in Montana to a Baptist minister, Minar earned degrees from Kalamazoo College and the University of Chicago before becoming a speech teacher and women’s suffrage activist. Her marriage to journalist John Minar brought them to Washington.

World War I left the couple with a “paltry” $200 in liberty bonds. So Minar invested it in home lots in Chevy Chase, Md., and soon set up a downtown office on New York Ave. Noting the new Key Bridge and improvements to Lee Highway, she got the idea of buying a 400-acre set of tracts between Washington Golf and Country Club and Lee Highway. She christened the enclave Lee Heights.

Minar insisted on views of the Potomac and the monuments from “where dust and smoke from the city and passing trains would not reach it,” she said. The automobile is responsible for lure of suburbia, she added. “When a man can live in a healthful and beautiful suburban community and still get to his office in town within 15 or 20 minutes, he naturally picks the suburbs.”

Those 130 homes were valued at a then-hefty $3 million.

“Washington is becoming a great world capital,” Minar told The Washington Post, “and Lee Heights is today an integral part of the Metropolitan area of Washington.”

In 1921, she predicted that next year would be Arlington’s biggest building year yet. “Ruby Lee Minar Sells Land at Lyon Park Worth $225,000,” read the headline in 1921 Washington Herald. The deal was followed by a reception with Frank Lyon at Lyon Park Hall to form a civic association.

In 1922, she opened a new office in Cherrydale. Its six-man staff handled sales in Maywood, Thrifton, Dominion Heights, Park Lane and Livingstone Heights. Salesmen who made their quota by the 22nd of the month received Thanksgiving turkeys.

After those upscale subdivisions, Minar built more-modest homes in Brandon Village (near Ballston) to take advantage of three Arlington highways and two electric lines. “How would you like to live at the top of the monument?” her promotions asked.

Current-day builder Scot Harlan told me his 93-year-old father recalls that Minar lost much wealth in the Depression. By the 1930s, she was ensconced in a mansion near Lorcom Lane at Military Rd., I’m told by builder Terry Showman, a fan. She hosted neighborhood parties.

One night a fire broke out at the mansion, according to Cherrydale memoirist Dean Phillips. A confused Minar had to be rescued in her nightgown as the bucket brigade and Cherrydale volunteer firemen went back for her boarders. She later moved to Florida.

Minar for decades was active in the women’s service club Soroptimist International. She became the federation’s first president in 1928, and the group named an award for her.

In August 1952, Minar was on a ship heading to the Soroptimists International meeting in Copenhagen. She died of a heart ailment off the coast of Denmark.

***

The rain-mageddon that poured this weekend came amidst a county push for improved drainage in my neck of the one-time woods. New cisterns are being installed on traffic-calming median strips on Sycamore St. and Williamsburg Blvd.

A new home going up near me – the site of a recent tear-down – is smack in the middle of a watershed stream bed that floods regularly. Builders laid the foundation with an impressive full-perimeter drainage system. But the construction foreman told me it was rejected by the county inspector as too flood-vulnerable.

The builder had to pay an extra $25,000 for another layer of gravel.

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