After Years Capturing Area History, Museum to Upgrade

The Reston Storefront Museum is next to shops and below apartments in the Lake Anne Village Center. The museum houses maps and photos, below, chronicling the town's four-decade history.
The Reston Storefront Museum is next to shops and below apartments in the Lake Anne Village Center. The museum houses maps and photos, below, chronicling the town's four-decade history. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 6, 2007

On the waterfront plaza of Lake Anne Village Center, next to the pharmacy and across the way from the neighborhood cafe, stands a narrow storefront, and behind it the beginning of the story of Reston.

The Reston Storefront Museum overlooks a public square shadowed by apartment balconies and crowded with the tables and umbrellas of busy restaurants. Across the lake, townhouses evoke the narrow, waterfront homes of Portofino, Italy, whose striking beauty and urban vibrancy inspired Reston's founder, Robert E. Simon Jr., to create Northern Virginia's singular planned community more than 40 years ago.

The museum is little more than a collection of photographs and maps chronicling the history of one of the nation's boldest efforts at urban planning. But its keepers hope to make it much more. With grants of up to $250,000 expected from Fairfax County in coming months, the museum's officers plan to renovate the space from top to bottom and bring alive the community's history.

"We have a lot of stuff that we don't have room to display," said Victoria Wingert, president of the museum's parent organization, Reston Historic Trust. "We have oral histories on videos and would like to make the museum more interactive than it is today."

Tucked away in one of the leafier villages that surround Reston's more visible town center, the Reston museum attracts surprising traffic: about 12,000 visitors each year, Wingert said. Most are from other countries. And most are drawn to learn the story of the planned community that got started in 1961, when Simon, the son of a wealthy developer, used proceeds from the sale of a family property, Carnegie Hall, to buy 6,750 acres of Virginia farmland about 20 miles west of the District.

The price was $1,300 an acre, according to one museum display. Today, a single acre in the town center would bring what Simon paid for all of Reston 46 years ago.

The museum tells the story of Simon's utopian vision: a community where residents could live out all of their days -- in apartments for those with lower incomes, in single-family homes for larger families and in housing for the elderly. The community did something that was, at the time, unimaginable to the American landscape: It placed apartments and townhouses in the suburbs, alongside shops, offices and schools and cultural and recreation centers. Acres of natural areas and paths were preserved or built to encourage commerce and leisure in the same place.

Simon used the phrase "live, work and play" to describe his vision for Reston, which he named after himself. Reston combines Simon's initials with the English suffix for town.

Seven villages were planned, each with a village center, 55 miles of paths and hundreds of acres of pristine land. (Only five of the villages have been built. The latest, the town center, is more like a city, with its high-rise office buildings and parking decks just north of the Dulles Toll Road).

"This was revolutionary, to have this in the middle of Virginia farmland," Wingert said.

Symbolically, now is an appropriate time for the 10-year-old Reston museum to get a facelift. Reston has developed with remarkable faithfulness to its original master plan. And a new phase of its life is set to begin: redevelopment. With the town center's great success has come pressure to reconfigure some of the more suburban shopping areas nearby into more urban, pedestrian-friendly spaces.

With the prospect of Metrorail along the toll road by 2012 (a federal decision on funding is expected in the next few weeks), pressure to build even more office space, condominium units and retail will grow.

The town center's success is not universally hailed. The shopping and restaurants have robbed the smaller village centers, including Lake Anne, of some of their vibrancy. During a recent weekday lunch hour, only a handful of visitors walked through Lake Anne Village Center's plaza.

"In the summertime, it is still booming, but in the winter, it is slow," Wingert said.

The traffic at the Reston museum, however, is surprisingly steady. Four visitors came through in the space of a half-hour to browse the photographs and visit the museum store, where the pottery, photography and paintings of local artists are available for purchase.

"We're very fortunate," said David Jeffries, 75, a retiree from England who has lived six months a year in Reston for the past decade. He volunteers at the museum and lives in one of the apartments overlooking the plaza. "We wake up every morning and look out over Lake Anne. I find it to be an absolute delight to live here."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company