They hailed from around the globe and boasted lives just as disparate: The Rockette, an actor, war veterans, nurses, teachers, artists and homemakers among them.

Short of two world wars and the Great Depression, they had little in common. What they shared was circumstance.

Unable to keep up with the rising cost of living, they moved, one by one, to Culpepper Garden, a home for low-income seniors in Arlington.

It wasn't the life any of them envisioned when they were younger, when planning for retirement seemed so far away. Some had lost spouses and needed support. Others simply couldn't make the rent each month as housing prices began to skyrocket in booming Arlington.

So they settled at Culpepper Garden, the county's first nonprofit retirement home, which opened in 1975 on North Pershing Drive to provide services to help seniors stay in the county as they aged.

In the years that followed, the facility grew and changed, incorporating federal housing subsidies, culminating in 2000 with the addition of an assisted-living wing. While assisted living was hardly a new concept at the time, Culpepper Garden's facility was hailed as the first in the country to be operated for low-income seniors in housing subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Officials overseeing the facility plan to release a book this month celebrating the diversity among the residents who have lived and continue to live in a facility they say is truly groundbreaking.

"It is still unique," said Caroline Eddins, fund development coordinator for Culpepper Garden.

Over the years, the facility has been recognized nationally for providing innovative, broad-service programs to its more than 350 residents, many of whom say they don't know how they would cope without the emotional and financial support they get at Culpepper Garden.

"Most of us didn't plan ahead," said Jim Barrett, 74. "I didn't think I'd live long enough to ever worry about it." Barrett was paying $1,500 a month to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Arlington before moving to Culpepper Garden five years ago. He now pays $750 a month for rent and utilities, and another $200 a month for food.

Barrett, a retired actor and director, is one of 29 residents, past and present, included in the newly published book "Culpepper Garden: Community Treasure."

Proceeds from sales of the $25 book will go to the Arlington Retirement Housing Corp., the corporate parent of Culpepper Garden, to support residents' needs. Initially, the book will be made available to friends and relatives of the center's residents; 10,000 copies were printed.

Last week, several residents profiled in the book gathered around a table in the center's conference room to share their experiences.

Most characterized themselves as low on income, not indigent, when they came to live at Culpepper Garden. It was a choice, many said, between moving out of the area to live with children -- a choice no one wanted to make -- or finding a new home in one of the facility's well-kept, no-frills apartments.

The desire for continued independence was a recurring theme.

"If this place didn't exist, I'd be living with one of my two sons," said Isabel Hibberd, 67, president of the residents association. "I love them to death, but I want to stay independent for as long as I can."

"I would have stayed with family," echoed Robert Bumford, 91, who recently transitioned from the center's independent-living center to the assisted-living wing, where he says he will be for "the long haul."

"I didn't want to go live with any of them and they didn't want me," Bumford said with a chuckle. "It's important to be independent."

Culpepper Garden is a community. Cliques are formed. Friendships are made, and if you don't like someone, you go your own way. Debate over the quality of the food is a constant, with longtime residents saying they preferred the food of yesteryear -- a diet of meat and potatoes -- to today's nouvelle entrees.

"The chef says he likes his vegetables crunchy," lamented Helen Rockey, 98, who is the facility's reigning veteran, having lived there for 27 years. "I like mine well done, the way they should be. But you can't please everyone," she said with a shrug.

"You have to realize everyone who lives here was once a gourmet cook," Barrett said with a wry smile. Others sitting around the table silently acknowledged that the new food is a welcome improvement.

Culpepper Garden is named for Charles Culpepper, a horticulturalist who agreed to make his lush, 4.7-acre property available to build a retirement community after he was approached in 1966 by Earl Bailey, an architect and member of Culpepper's congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington.

Bailey believed that many older people needed to be part of a caring and supporting community to overcome the isolation and loneliness that can be associated with aging. As a result, he urged the church to become a pioneer in sponsoring a government-subsidized housing facility for low- and moderate-income seniors in Arlington.

Culpepper Garden opened May 19, 1975, with 210 apartments, a dining room, a beauty shop and a clinic staffed by a nurse and doctor who visited once a week. First Virginia Bank (now BB&T Bank) provided banking services on site, and the Arlington Red Cross provided some transportation for residents.

Arlington County established a relationship with the facility before it opened, renting most of the basement for use as a county senior center, which still operates today. A second wing containing 62 apartments was added to Culpepper Garden in October 1992.

It was during the mid-1990s that HUD came under pressure to allow subsidized housing programs for the elderly to be used for assisted living. While HUD enacted a policy to provide rent subsidies, the applicant institution would have to assume responsibly for the cost of food and all other services.

Culpepper's board knew that applying for such a grant would mean raising substantial sums each year from private donors, but the board decided to plow forward, and in 2000 a 73-unit assisted-living facility was opened, becoming the first of its kind in the country.

Today, rents are based on a resident's income and are subsidized by HUD and Arlington County.

"For many people, changing needs as they get older have limited their choices and forced them to look elsewhere to live," said Arlington County Board Vice Chairman Chris Zimmerman (D), whose mother Pat, 76, moved to Culpepper Garden about a year ago. "It provides needed options."

Today, residents at the facility range in age from 62 -- the minimum age allowed -- to 98. The average age is 78.

Birthdays are celebrated, but with caution. One particularly well-lit birthday cake ended the one-candle-for-each-year tradition.

"If you see a glow in the sky, you know we've lit the candles," Barrett said jokingly.

While you'll be hard-pressed to find the Culpepper Garden book in your local Barnes & Noble, the photos in the book have a professional feel. The project was started by former Culpepper board member David Tilson, who began photographing residents and posting their photos in the lobby so they might get to know each other. Conversations with the residents led to the idea of a book.

It took several years to get the project published, and as a result, some of the book's subjects are no longer living.

Like Dottie Gatta, a Rockette who performed at Radio City Music Hall and later joined the Marines in 1943, becoming a military pilot flying single-seat Corsairs and P-38s from factories to Navy bases.

And Bob Arnold, who described himself as a "book designer, art director, art editor and internationally known portrait painter." Arnold, a retired major in the U.S. Army Reserve, served in World War II and in Vietnam.

In her interview for the book, Helen Rockey said she much prefers to focus on the future, not the past. To that end, she has done bookkeeping work for the center's bookshop since she arrived nearly three decades ago, expressly to keep busy.

In addition to those crispy vegetables, she has no patience for folks who use retirement as an excuse to be idle.

"People tell me, 'Oh, I'm retired, I don't do anything,' " Rockey said with more than a little irritation. " 'Fine,' I tell them. 'Sit on your bum and rot.' "

Daisy McGregor, 85, was born in Wales. She and her husband, Mac, were inveterate travelers, settling for good in the United States when their son got engaged.

Their arrival at Culpepper Garden was not a happy one.

"I never wanted to come to a place like this, but my husband was very sick" said McGregor, who moved to the facility with Mac in October 2002. He died a few months later.

McGregor said she has only recently started to explore the grounds and get to know the residents and the many activities available to her -- bingo, dance nights, exercise classes.

"Today I'm glad I came," she said smiling. "There's always someone you can talk to who's had worse troubles than you. I thank God for every day. It's a bonus."





From left, Daisy McGregor, 85, Isabel Hibberd, 67, and Helen Rockey, 98, are three of the residents featured in "Culpepper Garden: Community Treasure," a recently published book about the people who live at the complex. Proceeds from sales of the book will help to support the facility, which opened in 1975.HELEN ROCKEY