Pioneer in Highway Design Spread Talents Broadly

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 24, 2005

Alan M. Voorhees, who made important contributions to fields as varied as mapping, urban planning, the interstate highway system, airlines, collecting and philanthropy, died Dec. 18 of an apparent stroke at the Berkeley Hotel, a small hotel that he built and owned in Richmond.

The Alexandria resident had just attended the annual Christmas party of his family investment firm and celebrated his 83rd birthday, which was Dec. 17.

Early in his career, Voorhees, an engineer who specialized in transportation projects, devised a mathematical model to predict traffic patterns. This formula has helped planners build highways, subway systems, shopping centers, apartment buildings and office complexes throughout the world.

Voorhees was instrumental in designing the roads and transportation systems in at least four national capitals, including Washington. When land was reclaimed at the southern tip of Manhattan, he helped connect the new street grid to existing roads and the Brooklyn Bridge.

"It's not too much to say he was a legend in the field," said Thomas B. Deen, a former business partner who later was executive director of Transportation Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences. "He was very intuitive. He was a genius in his ability to sense what was going to work and what wouldn't."

In the late 1950s, before a single mile of the interstate highway system had been built, Voorhees was one of its early planners, particularly in determining how the highways should go through and around cities. Later, he helped plan subway systems around the world, including Washington's Metro.

His curiosity led him to other fields, and he funded entrepreneurs who developed the electronic cash register and a bar-code system. He established a popular berry farm and nature preserve in Virginia's Northern Neck; collected historic maps that he later donated to the Library of Congress and other institutions; and funded buildings and programs on the campuses of at least four colleges.

"He liked ideas, progress, productivity," said his daughter, Nancy Voorhees. "He never really retired."

His work quietly affected the lives of countless people, yet Voorhees maintained such a low public profile that he was all but unknown in Washington, where he had lived since 1952. He moved below the Beltway radar, staying out of politics and the local party scene.

His name made the headlines only when he donated 729 acres on the Rappahannock River to the Nature Conservancy in 1994; when Rutgers University in New Jersey dedicated the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center, a research institute on transportation policy, in 1998; and when he gave priceless historical maps to the Library of Virginia in 1999.

"Al made a huge difference in the way our society is today, and he did it behind the scenes," said Gary L. Fitzpatrick, former senior specialist for digital programs at the Library of Congress, who knew Voorhees as a map collector.

Alan Manners Voorhees was born Dec. 17, 1922, in Highland Park, N.J. He was in his early teens when his father, a stockbroker, died.

He made his first major contribution during World War II, when he left his civil engineering studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., to become an officer with an elite Navy unit called UDT-11, Underwater Demolition Team 11, a forerunner of the Navy Seals. (His unit is featured in an exhibit at the Navy UDT-Seal Museum in Fort Pierce, Fla.) Voorhees was in the advance units of several Allied invasions in the Pacific islands during World War II, swimming ashore to scout enemy positions and, under heavy fire, map shoreline defenses. His maps helped guide the Allied invasions of Okinawa and in Borneo.

After the atomic bombing of Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, Voorhees's unit inspected the city's harbor, and he was among the first Americans to see the destruction of Nagasaki. He was awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and the Presidential Unit Citation.

Voorhees returned to Rensselaer, graduating in 1947, and then received a master's degree in city planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1949. He did further study of highway transportation at Yale University and took his first professional job as a city planning engineer in Colorado Springs. While there, he was on a committee that put together a proposal that eventually led to the location of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

In 1952, Voorhees came to Washington as a planning engineer with the Automobile Safety Foundation, a nonprofit corporation. He lived in a house in Bethesda that he built with his own hands.

While studying traffic patterns in Baltimore, he applied a principle from marketing to measure housing, congestion and other urban uses to assess future transportation needs. He was present at the launch of the interstate highway movement in the 1950s. He also worked to help Boston, Washington and other cities convert their bus systems from private to public ownership.

In 1961, he formed Alan M. Voorhees and Associates, which grew to have 10 branches throughout the country and six offices abroad. During the 1960s, Voorhees helped in the initial design of Metro's underground stations and contributed to plans for subway systems in Sao Paulo, Brazil; Hong Kong and Caracas, Venezuela. He drew up transportation plans for the national capitals of Australia, Nigeria and Yugoslavia.

In 1967, his firm was bought by Planning Research Corp., but it remained an independent subsidiary until Mr. Voorhees left in 1977 to become dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Urban Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. While there, he established a neighborhood planning center at the university in his wife's name.

He returned to the Washington area in 1979, settling in a historic house in Alexandria. He had become a wealthy man when he sold his company, and he began to invest in promising ventures.

In 1979, after the deregulation of the airline industry, Voorhees helped found Atlantic Southeast Airlines and remained its chairman until it was bought by Delta Airlines. He and a partner expanded a small mapping and satellite reconnaissance firm, Autometric Inc., into a $100 million concern that conducted top-secret intelligence work.

He also turned to development, building Hamilton Court, a mixed-use development in Georgetown, and properties in a historic district in Richmond. He bought a farm in Westmoreland County, on Virginia's Northern Neck, that is now a popular fruit and berry farm, and turned 1,000 nearby acres into a nature preserve.

He was a member of the board of Voorhees College, a historically black institution in Denmark, S.C., and paid for buildings there and at Rensselaer and Rutgers.

In later life, Voorhees amassed about 300 maps that document the development of Virginia since the 16th century, which Fitzpatrick of the Library of Congress called "the best collection that was in private hands."

Once, when an important map came up for sale in London, Voorhees flew over on the Concorde, without telling his wife where he was going. He bought the map and returned the same day.

He divided his collection, worth several million dollars, among the Library of Congress, the Library of Virginia and the Virginia Historical Society. He organized a campaign to have the map collection of the Library of Congress photographed and digitally preserved.

Voorhees was a member of the steering committee of Jamestown 2007, a group planning the 400th anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown. He was a former chairman of the Transportation Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences and the first chairman of the Center for Geographic Information at the Library of Congress. He served on several boards devoted to Virginia history.

His wife of 51 years, Nathalie P. Voorhees, died in 2000.

In addition to his daughter, Nancy, of Bethesda, survivors include two other children, Susan V. Hunt of McLean and Scott Voorhees of London; two brothers; and six grandchildren.

Voorhees was preparing for a trip to Antarctica in January. It was the only continent he had not visited.

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