A Local Life: Thelma ‘Tim’ Edwards, 94, real estate developer

(Andrea Bruce/THE WASHINGTON POST) - Friendship Heights developer Thelma “Tim” Edwards, photographed in Chevy Chase in 2006.

Thelma Terry Edwards was born on a Fairfax County farm where her father, a Baptist minister, preached to his eight children that “the money is in the land.”

In the 1950s, Mrs. Edwards had a high school diploma, four children and a hefty mortgage when she decided to heed her father’s advice and start a real estate firm from her home in Friendship Heights. Throughout her five-decade career as a developer, she did well by his words.

Mrs. Edwards became a multimillionaire, owned two matching Rolls-Royces and was largely responsible for shaping Friendship Heights, a neighborhood that reaches from the District into Chevy Chase along Wisconsin and Western avenues NW. She died of a heart ailment May 6 at age 94 at the Carriage Hill nursing home in Bethesda.

For much of her life, Mrs. Edwards went by the nickname “Tim.” Few in her family know how she inherited the moniker, but her daughter, Deborah Demaree, knows why it stuck.

“Having a man’s name in a man’s world really made a difference” on business deals, she said.

Mrs. Edwards’s many real estate transactions included the sprawling Geico headquarters, the Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue department stores, and the Irene apartment tower, named for the wife of the real estate developer and late Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin.

Mrs. Edwards was dubbed the “unofficial mayor of Friendship Heights” by The Washington Post in 1969. She said that no one in real estate knew her neighborhood better than she. Some of her competitors agreed.

“She knew what Friendship Heights was going to look like 20 years from the time she started,” business rival Edward Asher, president of Chevy Chase Land, told The Post in 2006.

In the 1960s, Mrs. Edwards noticed a change in a Maryland zoning law that would allow developers to construct 16-story buildings on the northern side of Friendship Heights. A few hundred yards down Wisconsin in the District, buildings could not exceed 10 stories.

Predicting that high-rise builders would also notice the law, Mrs. Edwards began buying land, stitching together plots to offer to developers.

She purchased many of the homes she had sold earlier as a real estate agent and was willing to pay any price. She paid $175,000 to buy back a house she once sold for $5,000.

Mrs. Edwards attributed her success to her longtime connection to the community and her feisty personality.

“I was on the PTA,” she said in 2006. “I was a mother. People trusted me.”

When her matronly qualities didn’t work, Mrs. Edwards said she “would take reverse action and be tough as nails.”

When the commercial and residential developers arrived, Mrs. Edwards cashed in. She paid off her mortgage and later bought two white Rolls-Royces — a convertible and a four-door.

As Demaree recalled in the 2006 article: “I thought everyone’s mother sewed clothes and made multimillion-dollar real estate deals off the back porch.”

Thelma Leona Terry was born March 23, 1917, in Newington, a community in Fairfax County. At 19, she married a pilot and liquor salesman named William Edwards.

He taught her to fly, a skill that came in handy when Lord & Taylor representatives arrived in Washington scouting for a store location on Connecticut Avenue. She offered the two dark-suited gentlemen a tour of the city from the air and along the way convinced them that Friendship Heights was a better option.

She employed a similar tactic in the late 1970s while wooing the billionaire New York real estate investor Harry Helmsley to make a business deal. Mrs. Edwards and her onetime business partner, Milton Barlow, wanted to buy the Helmsley-owned Willoughby apartment building in Friendship Heights, but Helmsley wasn’t cooperating.

“He treated me like a peasant,” Mrs. Edwards told Washingtonian magazine, noting that everything changed when she picked him up in her Rolls. “All of a sudden, I was a big woman.”

Mrs. Edwards and Barlow, who died in 2001, bought the Willoughby for $35 million.

Yet for all of her successes, Mrs. Edwards suffered setbacks as well. Her husband died in 1972 while flying his plane. He had a heart attack and crashed into a pasture in northern Montgomery County.

Unable to bear living in the home they shared, she invited friends to a brunch on the front lawn while bulldozers knocked the house down.

Mrs. Edwards had squabbles with community leaders in Friendship Heights and was involved in a number of legal battles, including with Barlow. They ended their partnership in the 1990s.

Two of her sons died, Terry Edwards in 1982 and Billy Edwards in 1993. Her second husband, real estate broker F. Winfield Weitzel, died in 2003.

Survivors include her third husband, H. Jeffrey Binda of Chevy Chase; two children from her first marriage, Geoffrey Edwards and Deborah Demaree, both of Bethesda; nine grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren.

In 2003, Mrs. Edwards sold her real estate properties and retired. Instead of decamping for a tropical paradise, she chose to remain in the community where she had amassed a fortune.

“No money,” she said, “could buy the pleasure it gives me to look at Friendship Heights.”