Seventy-five years before Robert E. Simon purchased 6,750 acres of Northern Virginia countryside in 1961 for $13 million — and turned it into what is known today as Reston — another wealthy entrepreneur also attempted to build a self-named, utopian community in the same area.
His name was Carl Adolph Max Wiehle.
Today, the Wiehle name lives on most notably as an avenue and a Metro station expected to open in Reston next year. But only three original structures of Wiehle’s 19th-century planned community remain: Wiehle’s mansion, Wiehle Town Hall and the Robert Wiehle house.
That’s according to historian Karen Washburn, who gave a lecture, “Dr. Max Wiehle and the Town of Wiehle,” in Reston on March 22.
The lecture, attended by about 100, was part of the Reston Historic Trust’s ongoing series of Reston’s past that meets at 7 p.m. the fourth Thursday of every month at the Reston Community Center at Lake Anne.
In 1881, Wiehle — a successful, German-born doctor from Philadelphia — retired from general practice at 35 and brought his wife and children to the District, Washburn said. Once here, he soon discovered the nearby Northern Virginia countryside that would eventually become Reston.
It took less than an hour to get there from the District on the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad line, which today is the W&OD Trail.
“Land was just beginning to become expensive in Washington at that time,” she said. “The recovery of Northern Virginia after the Civil War, on the other hand, was very, very slow. Land was cheap, and people were willing to sell.”
Wiehle formed a partnership in 1886 with Gen. William McKee Dunn to buy 6,450 acres of heavily forested land in Fairfax along the railroad in the area (near Sunset Hills Road) for about $20,000, or about $4 per acre, Washburn said.
“Believe it or not, that really wasn’t a great bargain back then,” she said.
Washburn said the land was equally divided between Wiehle and Dunn, who later developed the area known as Dunn Loring. Wiehle took the 3,228 acres north of the railroad tracks, where he eventually built his home, a post office and a town hall.
In 1892, he hired a German city planner to draw up plans for the town of Wiehle, which was to include 800 residences laid out along a grid of streets and avenues named after famous locales, such as New York and Paris.
“Much like Reston today, he envisioned the area as a planned community where people could work, play and live, and to be able to do it in a healthy way,” Washburn said. “Washington at that time was pretty unhealthy, and there were frequent outbreaks of cholera and other communicable diseases within the city.”
But, Washburn said, only 12 of Wiehle’s 800 planned residential lots were ever sold, and, of those, only about half ever had homes built on them. Only one remains today, and is privately owned.
“You have to remember that this was an area where in the 1890s there were only about six people per square mile,” Washburn said. “And there was nothing else out here. The town of Herndon was not far away and was already thriving at that time, so not many people wanted to live out here in the woods.”
Wiehle died of pneumonia in 1901 at 54 and never got to see his vision of his “healthy” town fulfilled.
Loren Bruce, special projects administrator for the Reston Museum, said that although only a few of the streets of the town of Wiehle were laid out, the Wiehle post office, constructed in 1887, remained until 1923.
“The original Wiehle Town Hall later became a storage warehouse for bourbon after Prohibition and is one of the remaining original buildings,” he said. “It is located on Old Reston Avenue, and you can see it from Sunset Hills Road.”
Simon said that when he planned to purchase the area in 1961, he looked over some old town maps that Wiehle had commissioned.
“They were geometric maps and not topographical ones,” he said. “I knew that he had tried to set up a town, and so I looked at his ideas for it. I discovered that if we tried to use the same license for setting up a new town, Fairfax County would not give us access to sewer hookups, so we instead just became part of the county.”