A Sign of Times Past Bows Out in Ballston As Car Dealer Closes
Builder Buys Vintage Chevy Showroom

By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 4, 2006

Drive through the busy Arlington intersection and you can't help but notice the towering glass windows and the giant, geometric roofline that seems to hover like a suspension bridge.

There's the odd sensation that time is standing still. At least until the traffic light changes.

For decades, the Bob Peck Chevrolet dealership and its unusual architecture at Glebe Road and Wilson Boulevard have served as a county landmark, both as a beacon for drivers trying to navigate across the county and as an emblem of the past.

But that's exactly what it is now: the past.

On Saturday, the dealership closed it doors to make way for offices, retail space and townhouses being proposed for the site by the JBG Cos.

JBG purchased the 100,000-square-foot property in January for $26 million, making owner Don Peck -- the son of Bob Peck -- an offer he said he and other shareholders couldn't refuse in the face of dwindling sales and rising real estate values.

"I didn't think they could possibly offer enough to make it worthwhile, but they did," said Don Peck, 60, who took over management of the company in the 1980s and has fielded calls from interested developers ever since.

Seldom do car dealerships and their sprawling parking lots have such a positive impact on the landscape, but this one, planners say, was different. Different enough that JBG has said it will consider incorporating the building's architecture into the design of its development. JBG still needs a host of county approvals to go forward with the project.

"It is such a landmark for the area," said Dean Cinkala, JBG's partner in charge of the project. "We recognize that, and I think it's fair to say we'll work hard with the community and the county planning staff to see how we can carry forward that important history."

In 2003, Bob Peck Chevrolet was included in a feature on the Arlington County Cultural Affairs Division Web site titled "uncommon places," which sought to celebrate the funky fringes of the county before they vanish.

"Even if you didn't know what was inside [the dealership], the building was from a time when there was expression in architecture," said Mary Briggs, head of the Cultural Affairs Division's cultural development unit. "It was postwar. We were going places. It was the space age. It was probably one of the last relics in Arlington that was that distinctive."

Like its founder.

Bob Peck was 25 in 1939 when he and a partner, Lawrence Kenyon, opened Arlington's first Chevrolet dealership.

Peck was ambitious. He was savvy. And his timing couldn't have been worse.

Two years after they opened the showroom -- then on Wilson Boulevard in Clarendon -- Chevrolet suspended production of its vehicles to help make armaments for World War II.

"They did whatever it took to get by until the war was over," Don Peck said.

They would not only survive, but thrive. Bob Peck took over the business in the 1950s, and in 1964 he moved it to 800 N. Glebe Rd., hiring architect Anthony Musolleno to erect a round showroom with a distinctive geometric design.

In its heyday, the dealership sold 2,700 vehicles a year. But sales aside, the property became one of most visible landmarks in the county. It was pictured in U.S. News and World Report in the 1960s as an example of unusual architecture. Later, its image would be used by a Soviet news agency as an example of "filthy capitalism during the Cold War," Peck recalled.

It was 1967 when Bob Peck became one of the area's first car dealers to appear in his own television commercials. To capture viewers' attention, Peck decided to juggle lacrosse balls. He was already well known in Arlington, having served as chairman of both the County Board and the School Board in the 1950s. The stunt made him widely recognized.

The car dealer often found that celebrity boggling.

Don Peck said that once while at National Airport his father asked a ticket agent if a gentleman standing in the waiting area might be Joe DiMaggio.

"I don't know," replied the ticket agent. "But aren't you Bob Peck?"

Bob Peck died in 1998 at age 84.

Last week, just two days before the shutdown of Bob Peck Chevrolet, the mood was subdued inside the dealership. A big "going-out-of-business sale" sign hung on the front window, and salesmen listened to Muzak, waiting for customers to buy the last of the dealership's fleet.

Don Peck said that he has no heir to take over the business and that, really, retirement isn't such a bad idea. Sales have slipped over the years. Last year, his crew sold 300 cars, half of what it sold in 1994. Peck said the dealership has traditionally made about a 2 percent profit on sales, in line with the national average, and it hardly seemed enough to justify holding on to the wildly valuable property, he said.

"The land got to be too valuable," he said, noting that other dealers have moved out of Arlington in the last decade, succumbing to the same market forces.

Still, Peck is sad to see the business close and say goodbye to loyal customers, even if it will mean more time to play golf with his wife.

"It's a big mistake!" moaned customer Archie Delalian, 72, who knew Peck's father, remembering a time when the road in front of the dealership was gravel, not asphalt. Over the years, Delalian has purchased numerous cars at the dealership, both for himself and for family members. He owns three Chevys purchased from the lot. "A lot of customers don't know what they're going to do now," he said. "I'm sure going to miss this place."

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