Junkyards, motels, industrial sites, a run-down ice-skating rink and an airport drive-in theater once sat along a stretch of highway in Virginia, south of Washington.
It was desolate and ugly. But local developer Robert H. Smith saw beyond the dilapidation sitting west of the Potomac River. He saw that it was right next to what is now Reagan National Airport. He saw that the Pentagon was within spitting distance. He saw that downtown Washington was a short drive away. He saw that people could live and work there.
“He had basically seen the land, visited the site . . . and saw great potential in it,” said Anthony Fusarelli, assistant director of community planning, housing and development for Arlington County. “If you basically ignore the Potomac River, this was almost a natural extension of the Washington, D.C., downtown core. That was his vision. That’s how he saw it.”
In the early 1960s, Smith embarked on a years-long plan to transform the area. First, he negotiated a long-term deal with the Washington Brick and Terra Cotta Co., which owned much of the land in the area and in neighboring Pentagon City. Then he began to build.
His first project was an apartment building on the west side of the highway. He wanted to give it a name and a brand, so he installed an elaborate crystal chandelier in the lobby and called it Crystal House, The Washington Post reported in 2009.
Then he built Crystal Gateway, Crystal Towers, Crystal Square, Crystal Plaza, many of which were located on Crystal Drive, where Smith lived in a penthouse apartment.
And that’s how the once-barren wasteland known only as Route 1, after the highway bisecting it, became Crystal City, an Arlington County enclave with its own transportation hub and lined with restaurants, high-rise apartment buildings, and government and corporate offices. On Tuesday, Amazon announced that it has chosen Crystal City as one of two locations for its second headquarters — a development that would again transform this urban neighborhood.
“He identified Crystal City before anyone else. His career is nothing short of astonishing,” Benjamin R. Jacobs, founder of JBG Cos., told The Post in an interview about Smith after he died in 2009.
Smith’s father, Charles E. Smith, was against developing the area.
“I think his father basically told him that he’s crazy and that it was a bad deal and he should get out of it,” Fusarelli said. “But he followed through on his vision.”
From the 1960s to the 1980s, Smith’s family business developed and rented more than 40 buildings in Crystal City. He lured renters with modestly priced rents. A one-bedroom apartment at Crystal House, for example, cost $145 a month, including all utilities. And he offered bargain lease rates to lure federal government offices out of the District and into Crystal City, Fusarelli said.
“For the first time in the ’60s, we were starting to see office developments jump the river coming to Arlington,” Fusarelli said.
Now, nearly six decades after Smith first surveyed the area, Crystal City will undergo another transformation — and a re-branding.
Amazon.com announced Tuesday that it is building its headquarters in National Landing, a newly branded neighborhood that encompasses parts of Crystal City and Pentagon City in Arlington, and Potomac Yard in Alexandria. Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.
Nine years after Smith died of a stroke at 81, the first apartment building he built — Crystal House ― still stands. Roseland Residential Trust bought it in 2013 and renovated it four years later. The elaborate crystal chandelier no longer adorns the lobby.
“The vision that he brought to this area at a time when there wasn’t really any of this development in the surrounding area, his ability to kind of see the potential . . . that he can build dozens of mid-rise, high-rise offices, that there’d be a market for it . . . I think that was one of his greatest legacies here,” Fusarelli said.
“In large part because of that legacy,” he said, “Crystal City is what it is today.”