Reston Founder Robert E. Simon Dies at 101

by Karen Goff September 21, 2015 at 3:03 pm 10,088 30 Comments

Reston founder Robert E. Simon Jr., whose idea of a “new town” community in the Virginia countryside evolved into one of the Washington area’s premier residential and business centers, died peacefully at his home in Reston Monday. He was 101.

Simon was an active figure in Reston even as he passed the century mark in the spring of 2014. He could be seen taking a daily walk around Lake Anne Plaza and attending various Reston community meetings and social events. He said the secret to his longevity was a daily nap and a daily gin martini.

If you said “How are you, Bob?” as a greeting, he would answer emphatically “I am healthy! And you?”

Robert E. Simon was born April 10, 1914 in New York City, the youngest of four children and the only boy. He attended Horace Mann School in Manhattan and in Riverdale, N.Y. and later Harvard University. He served in World War II, attending officer’s candidate school, learning to strip jeeps and procuring recreational equipment for army bases. He spent time in Paris and Belgium during his service.

“It was one of the happiest times of my life,” Simon told Reston Now in July. “I had enormous amounts of responsibility but didn’t have to make decisions.”

After the death of this father in the 1930s, Simon joined the family real estate business, which counted Carnegie Hall among its New York holdings. With $12.8 million in proceeds of that sale, Simon purchased 6,750 acres of farmland in Western Fairfax County in 1961.

What was eventually built was Reston, drawing from Simon’s initials, RES.

“The project was really out of my area, but it seemed such a marvelous opportunity,” Simon said in a 1966 speech. “The location was perfect. The foundations were just being laid for the magnificent Dulles Airport terminal building and construction crews were scratching away at the runways. An airport like that in what seems like a desert will cause the desert to flower. And Dulles Airport was being put into Fairfax County, then the single, fastest-growing county in the United States. It was an irresistible challenge, so I didn’t resist.”

Simon envisioned the new town as a planned community where one can work, live and play without having to travel great distances. He hired the design firm of Conklin + Rossant to plan the community with these principles in mind:

That the widest choice of opportunities be made available for the full use of leisure time. This means that the New Town should provide a wide range of cultural and recreational facilities as well as an environment for privacy.

That it be possible for anyone to remain in a single neighborhood throughout his life, uprooting being neither inevitable nor always desirable. By providing the fullest range of housing styles and prices — from high-rise efficiencies to six-bedroom townhouses and detached houses — housing needs can be met at a variety of income levels and at different stages of family life. This kind of mixture permits residents to remain rooted in the community if they so choose — as their particular housing needs change. As a by-product, this also results in the heterogeneity that spells a lively and varied community.

That the importance and dignity of each individual be the focal point for all planning, and take precedence for large-scale concepts.

That the people be able to live and work in the same community.

That commercial, cultural and recreational facilities be made available to the residents from the outset of the development — not years later.

That beauty — structural and natural — is a necessity of the good life and should be fostered.

Since Reston is being developed from private enterprise, in order to be completed as conceived it must also, of course, be a financial success.

By 1964, Simon’s vision of an Italian style piazza with Scandinavian style design took shape at Lake Anne Village Center. Soon after, single-family homes near Hunters Woods Village Center were for sale.  Families with the pioneer spirit – after all, the future Reston Parkway was still an unpaved road — moved into the new homes.

Simon’s vision of an inclusive place — in the American South no less — was radical for its time.

“In 1964, when Reston opened, discrimination was rampant and legal,” Sen. Tim Kaine said at Simon’s 100th birthday celebration. “It wasn’t until 1968 that the federal Fair Housing Act was passed. It wasn’t until 1971 that the Virginia General Assembly passed the South’s first fair housing law. Bob [Simon] was a real visionary.

“When we look at Virginia history since World War II, Bob should be one of the five or six individuals [we talk about]. Bob took a state that was facing backward and turned it facing forward.”

The contemporary designs and innovative vision were not an easy sell for some Northern Virginia homebuyers, though. Eventually, the project ran into financial trouble. Gulf Oil took over the Reston project and by 1967, Simon was out of a job and returned to New York.

“A Gulf consultant took one look at my desk and my chair and said ‘we are going to want to see you hanging by your fingernails,’ ” Simon recalled.

In 1980, Gulf sold the rest of the undeveloped land to Mobil and the plans for Simon’s ultimate vision — the Reston Town Center — could get underway.

Reston — and its likeminded cousin in Columbia, Md. —  is now well-documented in the history of suburban planning. The “lifestyle center” mixed use design originally seen at Lake Anne Village Center and seen again at Reston Town Center, opened in 1990, have been emulated by similar suburban shopping centers nationwide.

Simon moved back to Reston in 1993, living his remaining years in a condo at Heron House overlooking his Lake Anne. He met his wife, Cheryl, during an elevator ride at the high rise. Of all the places that grew in Reston, he said his favorite place was his bed, 13 stories up at Heron House.

In 2004, a bronze statue of Simon — dubbed “Bronze Bob” — was installed on a bench on Lake Anne Plaza.

In 2002,  the American Institute of Certified Planners designated Reston a national planning landmark and Simon a pioneer in the field. The organization called Reston “one of the finest examples of American 20th century conceptual new town planning.”

President Barack Obama said this about Simon in a letter to him on his 100th birthday:

“You are part of a generation that helped guide our country through uncertain and extraordinary times, and the energy and creativity you have shown over the years serve as an inspiration. As you celebrate a century of memories, I hope you take tremendous pride in the community you founded 50 years ago and all you have done to ensure our neighborhoods are vibrant places to live and work.”

Even as he neared and passed 100, Simon continued to travel, finding inspiration in European towns. Closer to home, he often pointed out the ways Reston succeeded in maintaining his vision but also veered off course.

He disliked New Dominion Parkway, the Reston Town Center street that “cuts off the Town Center like the Great Wall of China,” he said. He also said Lake Anne Village Center was the only shopping area that stuck with his original idea. The rest were “all just shopping centers,” said Simon. He was a fan of Reston commitment to public art.

In recent years, Simon advocated for building an expensive indoor tennis facility, even if Reston Association had to borrow the money, and for returning the village centers built like regular shopping centers (North Point, South Lakes, Tall Oaks, Hunters Woods) to the original mixed-use plan. He hoped that Reston would someday build a 600-seat performing arts center.

Simon was an advocate of higher density — “density is community,” he would often say. Taller buildings with more people left room for parks and community gathering spots in between, he said.

Even in his later years, Simon was frequently out on the town several times a week at benefits, community meetings, social events and galas. He was the honorary co-chair of the 2013 and 2014 Best of Reston Galas. Before he became ill several weeks ago, he could be seen taking a daily exercise walk around Lake Anne Plaza. He traveled as recently as May.

Simon was married four times. He had a son and daughter from his first marriage. Lake Anne is named for his second wife, Anne. He is survived by his current wife, Cheryl Terio Simon, as well as his daughter and several stepchildren.

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