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River House:
Island of Calm in a Retail Swirl

By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 16, 1995

As anxious holiday shoppers descend upon the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City this week, they may have one goal in mind -- to quickly get in and out of the mall. Few are likely to notice the high-rises and thousands of people who live in the Arlington neighborhood.

While most Washingtonians think of Pentagon City as a retail complex rather than a residential property, there was plenty of life before Nordstrom, the Gap and Macy's.

"I was assigned to the Pentagon and my wife worked on Capitol Hill. We moved in in November of '58 because of the convenience," said retired Air Force Lt. Col. George W. Bodecker, who lives at the River House apartment complex.

"I've never lived in a house. I have no talent for putting out fires when they arise. Here I don't have to worry about it; I just call downstairs and they take care of it," Bodecker said.

River House opened as the first rental high-rise in Northern Virginia in 1957. Bolstered by its immediate success, two more high-rises were added by 1961. These three triple-wing buildings, named the James, Ashley and Potomac, make up the modern River House.

Some residents who shun homeownership have been in River House for decades.

Helene D. Engle, who has lived at River House since 1963, echoed Bodecker's sentiments. "It's convenient," she said. "My husband worked at the Pentagon and could walk to work. It's close to everything. There's a bus service and I can walk to the {Fashion} Centre. I've loved living here for 32 years."

Though many of the early and current residents have military-related jobs, River House is not exactly like living in a barracks. "It's very diverse ethnically and culturally. It's a nice mix of elderly, students and young professionals," said resident Charles Jones, an international specialist for AT&T Corp.

Jones, 34, moved to River House more than a year ago from downtown Washington because he was concerned about crime, and has had few regrets.

"I like it from the standpoint of convenience and accessibility to downtown. The mall, cinema, dining and amenities all make it an excellent place to live. And it's safe," Jones said.

As quick as he is to note the advantages of River House's location, Jones also cited one rather large disadvantage -- National Airport.

"It's too close to National Airport," he said. "The planes make it really hard to sleep in on weekends. Also, there's highway noise from {Interstate} 395."

River House is situated on a 36-acre patch of wooded land nestled between Army-Navy Drive and South Joyce Street. The three buildings contain 1,670 apartments with 38 different floor plans. The units range from efficiencies to three-bedroom units and rent for $640 to $1,410 a month.

River House, owned by Cafritz Co., has been extensively renovated in the past three years. The facade of the James building was removed and replaced, while the Ashley and Potomac only required touch-up work. Internally, the original lobbies and hallways, which were often described as dark and dreary, were revamped to give them a more modern feel.

"It was all right, it just needed some perking up," Engle said.

As a service to the current residents and as an attraction to future residents, River House also has added more modern amenities. Chief among these is a $1 million fitness center and pool in the middle of the complex. Four new lighted tennis courts have been added to the existing ones so that residents can play well into the night. And a new jogging trail with exercise stations winds through the grounds.

In keeping with the modernization, River House recently installed its own television station. The station reaches into each apartment through a master antenna system and serves as an electronic bulletin board. The management is able to alert residents to maintenance work and remind them when the rent is due. The management also hosts several parties, including summer barbecues and a holiday gathering, throughout the year.

"We wanted to tie all the buildings together and give it a campus feel," general manager Bruce MacQueen said of the renovations. "No other property in the area has that."

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