For those who think that all rental communities are impersonal and plagued with transient staff, take a look at Arlington's Fillmore Garden Apartments.
The 23-acre apartment community, bordered by the thoroughfares of Walter Reed Drive and Columbia Pike, offers something beyond solid brick buildings, a quiet setting and large green spaces reminiscent of a compact college campus.
Those who work at Fillmore Gardens enjoy a camaraderie not unlike that of faculty members who have been together for years.
In fact, eight of the office and maintenance employees have a combined 164 years of service at Fillmore Gardens. The complex's managing general partner, Elliott L. Burka, has been on the county's tenant landlord commission for more than 20 years and served three terms as president of the Northern Virginia Apartment Association. "Being in property management is a 24-hour-a-day job, but I've been blessed with excellent people. When I go home, I know everything is in good hands."
Burka likes to promote from within. Doug Sparks joined the maintenance crew 17 years ago and is now the chief maintenance engineer. Sparks, who spent his early years building custom homes with his father, said Burka gives him the freedom to order whatever he needs for the task. "We do it right the first time," he said. "There's no jury-rigging."
Throughout the informal office, conversation flows easily. Visitors, residents and even the mail carrier, who has been delivering to the apartments for 22 years, are often included in the banter.
When a community has been around since the 1940s, like Fillmore Garden has, some stories become legend. Years ago, maintenance workers were stymied by leaks in one of the flat-roofed buildings, until they learned that an enterprising tenant had used the roof for cross-country ski practice during a snowfall. Everywhere the ski poles hit the roofing membrane, a leak formed.
Newcomers comment on the contrast in atmosphere between other rental communities and Fillmore Gardens. "Homey" and "welcoming" are words frequently used to describe the community.
Even after living in her previous apartment for 15 years, Debra Szumlinski said she felt as if she were only a rent check there. However, at Fillmore Garden, "The second time I called, they already knew my name," she said.
Fillmore Garden offers cozy one- and two-bedroom apartments. Built before central air conditioning, each unit has two outside walls with double-hung windows for cross-ventilation. Each unit has one window air conditioner.
The compact kitchen has a window and a gas stove. "It's not full-size, but a cookie sheet can go in there the right way and you can actually close the door," Szumlinski said after pulling out a dozen blueberry muffins.
The one nod to the times is the addition of high-speed Internet, with each phone jack accommodating several lines.
With rents topping out at $970, utilities included, Fillmore Garden has gained a reputation for affordability. Tenants say it's also service-oriented. Put your trash outside your front door on weekdays by 8 a.m., and maintenance will pick it up and cart it away. Deborah Broadus, who just graduated from Gallaudet University, moved to Fillmore Garden in April. "I didn't like the high-rises I saw elsewhere," she said. "Word of mouth brought me here, and it's just what I wanted.
For walkers, Fillmore Garden is well situated.
Szumlinski, a self-described obsessive reader, said having a well-stocked county library a block away is a big plus. The Arlington Career Center -- where the county fair is held in August and where evening adult vocational, technical and enrichment programs are offered year-round -- shares the block with the library, as does Patrick Henry Elementary School.
Said Peggy Sylvain, a Fillmore Garden leasing consultant whose son just finished second grade at Patrick Henry, "Where else can you work and watch your son on the playground?"
At the corner of Walter Reed and Columbia Pike is the Arlington Cinema 'N' Drafthouse, where patrons sit in swivel chairs and enjoy beer and light fare as they watch movies. An international array of restaurants lines Columbia Pike. Groceries, pharmacies and other shops are within a few blocks of Fillmore Garden.
Frequent bus service makes commuting a breeze. Within one mile are the Navy Annex, Henderson Hall and the back gate of Fort Myer. Ballston and the Pentagon are within two miles. Reagan National Airport is within three miles. "People don't like to hear about how low my gas bills are," said Szumlinski, who works for the Drug Enforcement Administration on Army Navy Drive.
Dorothea Anderson lived at Fillmore Garden in 1958 when her daughter was born. After she and her husband relocated with the military several times, they returned to the community in 1965, and she has lived there ever since. "It's close, comfortable and convenient," she said. "I have a lot of friends among the staff and anything I need is close by. I've always been grateful for that."
Longevity and loyalty are rewarded at the Fillmore Garden Apartments. When one resident reached her 50-year mark as a tenant, she was given a year's free rent. She lived there for another 10 years, said Burka, adding that long-term employees are given special consideration, too.
"If they can't work anymore, they have a home here," he said. "We don't kick them out."