The old Radio Building in Arlington, Va. The Courthouse Tower office building, erected in 2000, now sits on the site. ( Michael Horsley)
Columnist

Years ago, I rode the Metrobus through Clarendon on my commute into D.C. A little east of the Courthouse Metro, on the south side of Clarendon Boulevard, was an office building boldly labeled “The Radio Building.” It is gone now. I guess for no other reason than my interest in radio, I always wondered about the significance of the name.

Michael F. McNea, Centreville, Va.

It is hard to overstate the wonder that once surrounded the magical medium of radio. Voices delivered to your home by unseen means! We’ve had many technological innovations since then, but Answer Man can’t imagine a developer naming a building after them. The Internet Building? The WiFi Building?

Sadly, the Radio Building — erected in 1947 at what was then known as 2030 N. 16th St. in Arlington — did not look much like a radio. It was a rather nondescript, unadorned five-story limestone-faced building, with strips of windows across its facade. It cost $300,000 to build and was designed by architect John M. Walton, who had his office inside.

When tenants started moving in, it was billed as “Arlington’s largest and newest office building.”

Why Radio Building? That’s because of another tenant: WEAM, a station that broadcast from the basement.

WEAM — 1390 AM — has a warm place in the heart of many Washingtonians and Arlingtonians. In the 1960s, before FM took over, it was one of the area’s most-popular Top 40 stations.

Its birth was a little rough, however. The station was launched in April 1947 by J. Maynard Magruder, an Arlington businessman and member of the Virginia House of Delegates. Magruder co-owned the Radio Building. His fellow investors in WEAM included a real estate developer, a lawyer, two theater owners and two building contractors.

The group spent lavishly, importing talent from other local stations and handing afternoons over to Little Jack Little, a bandleader and pianist who had been big in the 1930s. Little’s salary was anything but. WEAM was said to be paying him $700 a week — roughly $7,000 in today’s dollars — to tickle the ivories, sing, chat and play the occasional record.

Little’s signature composition was called “Hold Me.” WEAM didn’t. He lasted six months. In its first year, WEAM reportedly lost close to $63,000.

The original WEAM owners sold the station. Prospects improved when it gained a license to broadcast around the clock, not just during the day.

WEAM may have been the Radio Building’s most visible — or at least audible — tenant, but, of course, there were many others. There was a mix of professionals, including developers Wm. W. Johnston and J. Wesley Buchanan, and real estate agents Shannon and Luchs. Carroll Bickle Insurance had an office there. So did the IRS and Bache & Co., a member of the New York Stock Exchange. In 1952, the Eisenhower for President Club was organized in the Radio Building. The Arlington Marine Corps League met there regularly.

But back to WEAM: Radio is a scrappy business — or was — and in the 1950s, WEAM was a scrapper. In 1951, it was sued by competitor WWDC for horning in on one of that station’s promotions.

Every day, WWDC would announce a six-digit number. Listeners with a Social Security number or driver’s license ending in those six digits could win $100. WEAM started broadcasting the same number shortly after WWDC did, advising listeners to contact WEAM. When they did, listeners were told to go to 1627 K St. NW to collect their 100 bucks.

That was WWDC’s address.

WWDC was furious. WEAM general manager Howard Stanley claimed he was merely striking a blow for quality. “We believe it is not good radio to attract listeners with money when it is our responsibility to serve and entertain with thoughtful programming,” he told The Washington Post.

Ten years later, WEAM made news with an announcement that it was constructing a second set of transmitting facilities at an underground site near the Arlington-Fairfax County line. Why? In case of nuclear attack.

The subterranean fallout shelter would include broadcasting equipment, bunks, a 30-day supply of food, Geiger counters and a connection to well water. In the event of an attack, engineers could raise a buried emergency tower and broadcast at full power.

Answer Man wonders who would be around to listen.

By the late 1960s, WEAM had moved its studios to its transmitter location in Falls Church. The Radio Building had lost its namesake tenant.

In 1985, it lost its address: That stretch of North 16th Street was renamed Clarendon Boulevard. And then, radio silence. The Courthouse Tower office building, erected in 2000, sits on the site of the old Radio Building.

(Special thanks to John Stanton at the Center for Local History at Arlington’s Central Library.)

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Twitter: @johnkelly

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