In the middle of the Depression a young man named Gustave Ring approached six New York-based insurance companies with a proposition. He wanted a loan to build a garden apartment complex on a 55-acre tract located between Rosslyn and Clarendon.
All six companies turned Ring down because, in the words of one, the property was "too far out in the country."
Ring finally found a financial backer and in 1935 built Colonial Village, the first FHA garden apartment complex in the United States which some observers say is the most widely copied piece of real estate in the country. The apartment complex, valued at between $10 million and $50 million, is bordered by Lee Highway and Wilson Boulevard on the north and south and N. Veitch and N. Quinn Streets on the west and east.
With the expansion of the Metro subway system, the planned construction of I-66, sky-rocketing land prices and the demand for rental housing close to Washington, the value of Ring's investment in Colonial Village continues to soar. The property, Ring said, is debtless and costs $1.5 million per year to maintain.
Although reports have circulated for years among tenants that Colonial Village was about to be sold, they always proved groundless. This time, however, they may be accurate. Ring said this week that negotations with a "very large company" - whose identity he would not disclose - are in a "serious state" and Colonial Village may be sold within a month.
This sale would mean "absolutely nothing" to the tenants Ring said, because the purchaser would agree to continue present operations for several years.
The apartment complex consists of woods, landscaped areas and red brick apartment buildings, some of which contain as few as four apartments. All buildings face courtyards and give the complex a spacious, open look. Francis Koenig of McLean, one of two architects who designed Colonial Village, recalled, "Nobody had ever spread out over so many acres of ground as at was a completely new field."
"People kept telling me I was crazy to build over there," Ring, 74, a multi-millionaire who has built a string of area apartment and office complexes recalled. "But people thought it was crazy when I built an office building here (at 28th and M Streets) in 1946. Some of the supply houses refused to do any business with me. They thought I was an idiot. I never had any doubts."
"I've had lots of offers to take it to condos which I do not want. It's not ripe for redevelopment right now. It'll be ripe in two or three years after the Court House Metro station opens," Ring said, noting that this is the first time negotiations with a "qualified purchaser" have occured. "It would probably take capital of $100 to 200 million to redevelop it the way I want," he added.
The kind of redevelopment Ring envisions is precisely what many tenants moved to Colonial Village to avoid. "I think it's a prime site for a multi-story, multi-use complex. It's a much better site than Crystal City because of location," he said.
Arlington County planning director Robert Wheeler said, "esthetically the county would be losing a lot" if Colonial Village were sold and redeveloped the way Ring would like.
While many of its imitators have deteriorated badly or, like Fairlington Villages, are being converted into high-priced condominums, Colonial Village continues to provide unusually inexpensive housing for about 2,200 tenants, including this reporter. Several of the residents have lived there since the project was built.
enants in the 1,092 apartments must forsake amenities like a pool or central air-conditioning standard equipment in many newer high-rise buildings. But many say that the attraction consists of price, proximity to Washington, maintenance and a sense of community not generally found in high-rise buildings.
Rents range from $160 for a one-bedroom to $194 for a two-bedroom apartment. There are no leases. Some tenants have adopted pieces of land outside their buildings and cultivate elaborate herb and flower gardens. According to Ring, the management has never advertised nor has a day's rent ever been lost on a vacant apartment. Rental manager Elizabeth Wolfe, who has lived and worked in Colonial Village since 1936, says prospective tenants have had to wait for apartments from four months to a year since 1935.
Emily Reynolds and her husband have lived in Colonial Village since 1938 when they moved here from California and rented a two-bedroom apartment for $46.25 per month. "We didn't think we'd be here very long," she recalled, "but I feel like we own half of it now, we've been here so long."
Reynolds said she has stayed, partly because of community ties. "We had considered getting a house but the years just went by. We've never been house-crazy."
Like Arlington County itself, Colonial Village is a microcosm of the problems and trends facing older changing communities in the metropolitan area as more affluent tenants move out and are replaced by younger and sometimes poorer residents, many of whom are recent arrivals to the U.S.
In 1973, Ring was sued by the Justice Department for allegedly refusing to rent to Asians thereby "perpetuating the virtually all-white character of Colonial Village." The case was settled by a consent decree, an out-of-court settlement under which the management agreed not to discriminate in the future and to take prospective tenants off the waiting list as they applied rather than give preference to former tenants or those recommended by friends.
"We thought the way to preserve the value was to rent to tenants on as high a scale as we could. I never thought I had any social obligation to rent to people from the bottom, but that's the government's theory," Ring said.
Ring said he didn't know the number of Asian tenants in Colonial Village, but conceded that blacks currently occupy fewer than eight apartments. Many of the older, long-time residents, who say things like "the class level has been lowered" in recent years, are fond of recalling an era when tenants included philanthropist David Lloyd Kreeger and several members of the Marriott family and when Colonial Village published its own bi-monthly newspaper, "The Colonial Call."
In those days, Elizabeth Wolfe conducted surprise inspections and the management evicted tenants whose housekeeping was judged inadequate.
"I had to go all over the village once a year," she recalled. "Some people would be thrilled to death and others would be very upset that they hadn't been notified. I would tell them I was on inspection and some would get very nervous about what I was writing. I can check apartments pretty quick, just like I size up people who walk in here.
"It's an excellent idea," said Wolfe of the practice which was abandoned 15 years ago. "But today we'd have half the village out. You know how young people keep house."
Mary Isaacson, 26, is typical of many of the younger people who the management says are moving into Colonial Village in increasing numbers, replacing older tenants. Isaacson, a French teacher and her husband Richard, a physicist, have lived there three years.
"As long as we live in the Washington area we'll live here. Even when th rent goes up its cheaper than anything else. To buy a house seems absurd. You wouldn't be able to do anything else. Now we spend our money on travel and art.
"We've also gotten to know older people which we wouldn't have otherwise, and have gotten to be friends with some of them. It's a more normal mix than in a lot of places where there are just a lot of young people. Richard always says it reminds him of his old neighborhood in the Bronx with an old lady looking out the window," Isaacson said.
A large section of Colonial Village is served by veteran mailman Rufus Youngblood who performs a variety of services for those on his route. "I know all the people," said Youngblood, who has 600 apartments on his route. "A lot of people get old and can't see, so I read their mail to 'em. Some of 'em can't get out so once or twice a week I'll go food shopping."
Several years ago Youngblood said he applied for a transfer to a regular residential route closer to his home. "I lasted one day. I just didn't like it."