The year he turned 50 (1964), Robert E. Simon Jr. did something remarkable: he founded a new town. Simon chose a plot of land 18 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., as the site for Reston, the first planned residential community in Virginia. The name for the new community? His initials—R.E.S.—attached to the English suffix for “town.”
In 1961, after discovering 6,750 acres of Fairfax County wilderness, Simon says he “fell in love with the land and the price.” He purchased the property for $13 million, using the profits from his family’s share of the sale of Manhattan’s Carnegie Hall. (His father had bought the concert venue in 1925.)
In 2014, Reston turned 50, and Simon turned 100. Now nearly 60,000 residents—from tree-huggers to tycoons—call this thriving 11.5-square-mile area “home.” This year Reston has honored its milestones with festive events, a documentary film by Storycatcher Productions (“The Reston Story”), the launch of website RestonCelebrates.org and a special commission by composer Donald McCullough titled “The Essential Life.”
Simon envisioned an “open community” with “guiding principles” that embraced all incomes, backgrounds and races (at a time when Virginia had no fair-housing laws). He had studied Greenbelt, Maryland, a New Deal government housing experiment, plus England’s post-WWII “new towns.” With his legal pad of notes and help from architectural firm Whittlesey and Conklin, Simon created a master plan that included a series of village plazas aimed at minimizing urban sprawl. Some credited the planners’ notion of separating pedestrian and vehicular traffic to none other than Leonardo da Vinci.
Simon’s vision emphasized quality of life and access to all necessities with no more than a 15-minute bike ride. Another bonus? Multiple housing options meant residents could “age in place,” migrating from affordable apartments to single-family, detached homes and later to downsized condos.
From Blueprint to Reality
In 1964 the community’s first residents moved into the neighborhood called Lake Anne, a waterside zone with a plaza modeled after one in Portofino, Italy. Simon hired architects Clothiel Woodard Smith and Charles Goodman to design the residences, modernist town homes clustered by the water and the plaza.
From the beginning, Reston received national and even global publicity. New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable called it “one of the most striking communities in the country.” Simon believes the plan’s use of plazas earned the “absolutely mind-blowing reception.” The new community attracted intellectuals, artists and architects, those with a deep appreciation for urban planning and the preservation of green space. In 1967 Lady Bird Johnson visited Reston, confirming her interest in beautification projects.
Janet Howell was living in Mexico when she read about the planned community. In 1974 she and her husband visited and then decided to stay. Howell became involved in the community, serving as president of the Reston Citizens Association and establishing a local homeless shelter. In 1993 she was elected a Virginia state senator.
When Simon reflects upon Reston’s success, he says, “I am most happy that it seems to be a community. The emphasis of everything I’d put on that famous yellow pad had to do with the interaction of people.”
A Close Community
David Newton heard about the budding development on the news. He wanted to move to Reston in 1967 but postponed since no buses ran to his D.C. office at the Department of State. In 1975, however, he relocated his family to Hunters Woods, Reston’s second development.
“We didn’t want to live in a traditional suburb, but we knew there were good schools, and we liked the idea of a new town,” Newton says. The decision proved a great one, Newton believes. “It’s been ideal for us.” The retired ambassador (to Iraq and Yemen) has appreciated living in a “nice, stable neighborhood” that’s a 10-minute drive from Dulles International Airport, and he’s formed long-term friendships with residents from around the globe, including Simon himself.
As a “bedroom community of D.C.” near a thriving technology corridor, Reston has an affluent, educated demographic. This translates to strong schools, an excellent theater program and top-notch sports facilities. Residents and visitors take full advantage of the art galleries, 70-acre Walker Nature Center with a LEED Gold-certified education building and 55 miles of trails that weave through hundreds of wooded acres.
Reston has expanded over the years, but its neighborhoods retain their personalities and charm. For example, Reston Town Center, a commercial zone that opened in 1990, adheres to an unusual plan that allows for development in phases, evolving with demand.
The original Reston plan projected a population of 85,000, a number not yet reached. However, several recent changes suggest this estimate might soon be a reality. This year Metrorail opened the Wiehle-Reston East station on the Silver Line, which will eventually include a stop at Reston Town Center and extend to Dulles International Airport.
The Lake Anne neighborhood may be the truest to Simon’s vision. He recommends starting a visit there, especially at the informative Reston Museum. Visitors also enjoy strolling around the lake and exploring the mom-and-pop businesses surrounding the quaint plaza.
Then there’s Reston Town Center, the community’s pedestrian-friendly “urban core.” The focal point—Fountain Square—is a plaza that features the 20-foot-high Mercury Fountain designed by Brazilian-born sculptor Saint Clair Cemin. Here visitors find an ice rink (in summer, a pavilion), a cineplex, 30-plus eateries and more than 50 stores that range from independently-owned boutiques to national chains.
Dining options include Americana-themed Clyde’s, Italian-inspired Il Fornaio and sleek seafood spot PassionFish. Tavern64 Regional Kitchen pays homage to the town’s history in its name (the founding year) and its “hand-crafted, regional cuisine inspired by nature, made from scratch and sourced locally.” Annual festivals include Taste of Reston in June, Oktoberfest and a vibrant holiday parade the Friday after Thanksgiving. In summer, evening concerts enliven the town center’s plaza.
One of Simon’s favorite Reston sites is the Lake Anne public art piece that resembles a concrete “boat.” Once, while strolling by with a reporter, Simon overheard two young kids “hollering bloody murder” about make-believe sharks they saw from their imaginary “vessel.” For Simon, that scene represents what’s desirable in any destination—“some fantasy and some fun.” We couldn’t agree more!