If there were an award for unearthing the shiniest gems of Arlington’s past, I would bestow it on Andrew Ratliff.
The 55-year-old government contractor is familiar to denizens of the popular “I Grew Up in Arlington, VA” Facebook page (18,340 members) for his deep research and frequent postings.
“Metro construction next to the Pentagon,” Ratliff noted in one photo caption. “Red Head gas station from the Yorktown [High School] ’81 yearbook.” “A 1939 Washington Post photo feature for Arlington Forest homes.”
Why do all that digging? I asked him. “Obviously, there’s no money in it, and it poses challenges to work-life balance and my relationships,” he said. But his hours spent online in history and photo archives “is just one of those things that sprung up over time.” A compulsion, to some.
The son of a State Department official, Ratliff actually grew up in Japan and graduated from Annandale High School in 1981. “I went to an all-boys Catholic school in Japan and was fundamentally Asian in culture,” he said. So the one-time outsider had to get culturally acclimated when he returned to the States.
But he worked in Rosslyn for nine years at a language school, and lived at several addresses in Arlington, north and south, as well as Seven Corners. So he comes by his Arlington fixation authentically.
Ratliff began by joining online nostalgia groups, including ones for Annandale and Fairfax, eventually becoming a site administrator and helping create groups for Seven Corners, Bailey’s Crossroads and Alexandria.
“Sometimes there’s a specific thing I’m trying to find,” he said, citing one specialty — photos of the old Hot Shoppes restaurants (eateries are popular on these sites). He went through a university’s digital collection (from the comfort of his home) and posted some that few had seen. “I got 200 likes.”
Almost everything is online, at public domain places like the Library of Congress, he said, but not everything is properly labeled. For example, a photo of Arlington’s old courthouse in 1918 was labeled as “Alexandria Courthouse.” (Though Arlington then was part of Alexandria, there was another courthouse in Old Town.)
Old shots of Rosslyn and the Potomac became Ratliff’s fixation. He has posted early photos of the Army Air Corps in action there early in the 20th century.
Photos of the old orange-painted Putt-Putt mini-golf course in Ballston have probably run their course, he thinks. Many people have posted memories of the 1973 collapse of the Skyline Towers then under construction at Bailey’s Crossroads, which killed 14 workers. Ratliff assembled nearly 100 photos into an online album.
Frequent posters can “run afoul of administrators,” he said, for using items that have already appeared, for vague captions, for failing to credit sources. “The more active you are, you either get the kind of recognition for what you’re giving, or people get annoyed because you’re dominating the forum.”
Like many online entertainment outlets, “I Grew Up in Arlington, VA” comes with “a little bit of competition,” Ratliff said. “People get territorial.”
His discoveries show up in “Back in the Day in Northern Virginia,” Pinterest and the Fairfax Underground discussion group (not always attributed).
It’s hard to predict what will be a hit. But Ratliff persists: “1950s Arlington Towers postcard on eBay.” “Cherrydale Baptist [church] in 1928.” “The newly built Cherrydale firehouse in 1919.”
Bring on more gems.
Some fun Ballston history inside the American Service Center on Glebe Road.
Though I don’t drive wheels in that league, I was recently shown around by new model sales manager Mark Zetlin, whose father is the son-in-law of co-founder Saul Brooks. Photos show the shop off N. Randolph as it appeared soon after opening in 1937 to sell Studebakers, Amoco gasoline and Hotpoint appliances.
In 1957, the business became the first Mercedes-Benz dealer in the D.C. area, and by 1998 it was devoted solely to that brand.