A Tribute to Robert E. Simon

Sometimes giants do walk among us.

In 1984 I moved from Gaithersburg, Maryland to Reston, Virginia solely because I wanted to live in Reston. Earlier that year I had attended a science fiction convention in Reston. While the convention was not memorable, the time I spent in Reston was. Here was a planned community that was done right.

It was the architect Robert E. Simon who, at age 50, used the proceeds of the sale of Carnegie Hall in New York to buy what was then called the Sunset Hills Farm in Northern Virginia. He purchased 6,750 acres to create this unique planned community. This community he decided would be unlike anything done before. It would be a community that would be affordable to all income types. It would allow people to live close to where they worked. When housing was built the lots would not first be cleared of trees. Rather, housing would be built around the trees. Every resident would be within walking distance of a village center where they could buy the necessities of life. And neighborhoods would be connected to each other via trails that would wind their ways through the woods.

Beginning with the creation of Lake Anne Plaza in 1964 the community slowly blossomed. In the mid 1980s the rest of the world finally discovered Reston. Since then there has been no turning back. Reston has become a city with a cosmopolitan feel and a large, vibrant downtown. The Reston Town Center (what amounts to downtown Reston) is something of an oxymoron because there is no town called Reston. In fact there is no city called Reston. Reston is just a place in the middle of Fairfax County. It is wholly unincorporated. But there is an organization, the Reston Association, which ensures that Robert E. Simon’s vision for the town is maintained. The Association can be something of a pain to many residents but it has proven its value. Reston is now a very chic place to live. All those covenants and attention to detail have paid off in property values that are markedly higher than the areas around it. Although it was part of Simon’s vision to create a planned community affordable to all income ranges, I found in 1993 that I could no longer afford to live in Reston if I wanted to also live in a single-family house. Now I live in a nice neighborhood three miles down the road. But it is no Reston.

I miss Reston and I still feel it calling to me. Someday I hope I can go back and live there again. This nostalgic feeling returned this weekend when I (literally) got off my rear end and peddled up to Reston. I’ve been reacquainting myself with a bike lately. Last Thursday I biked to work. I’m finding biking is a convenient way to get the exercise I need. It is also beneficial to the environment. My employer, the U.S. Geological Survey sits at the southwest corner of Reston. It was one of the first employers of note to arrive in Reston. It sat largely by itself on a wooded campus when it opened in 1973. Now it is surrounded by high tech office buildings sporting a mixture of clean industries all very much in line with Simon’s vision for the community.

While I often pass through Reston on my way to somewhere else, and make regular trips to shop in Reston I haven’t really seen Reston in a long time. With my bike I am seeing and appreciating Reston anew. In doing so I feel both nostalgia and a deep hunger to live in Reston again. Yesterday I biked through an apartment complex where I used to live in the south side of Reston. I then biked down the trail that connected my old apartment building with the woods behind it. You can travel for miles on some of these trails and hardly see a house. Instead you feel the presence of nature all around you. I found it intoxicatingly delightful. It was hard to believe I used to take this for granted.

Today I felt more adventurous and biked all the way to Lake Anne Plaza where the community began. When I had first moved to Reston in 1984 my wife and I lived in an apartment complex across the street. We walked around Lake Anne many times. The community of Lake Anne has aged, but it is still a wonderful place. Townhouses, condos and a few single-family homes hug the shores of the lake. Ducks wander along the boat docks looking for handouts. A huge fountain perpetually blows water into the sky from the middle of the lake.

And there sitting on the bench by the dock is a bronze statue of Robert E. Simon. And as I sat there resting my keister on the bench who should amble on by past his own statue but Robert E. Simon himself. You see about ten years ago Bob Simon decided to spend his last years living in Reston. He walked by his statue without giving it a glance and invited a small group of friends waiting for him to join him in a pontoon boat tied to the dock. At age 90 he is stooped but walks around without a cane. He was relaxed and laughing as he piloted the boat out of the dock and into the lake.

This is not the first time I have seen Bob Simon in Reston. I have seen him a couple of times at the church I attend, the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston. While I don’t believe he is a UU, he has attended forums we’ve put together on the Middle East. As best I can tell he sits there otherwise unrecognized by us inhabitants of his community. He lives nearby in the Heron House, a tall dozen story high condominium that overlooks Lake Anne. I am sure he is a fixture both in bronze and in person on Lake Anne.

I wish I visited Lake Anne more often. And I wish today I had the presence to go down and introduce myself to him. I would have liked to thank him for his vision. But also I would like to thank him for leading by example. I am sure Bob Simon is one very rich man, but he chose to spend his last years as an ordinary citizen, enjoying the fruits of his labor. Reston is not a perfect place. It has become more commercialized than I suspect he would have preferred. And it can be expensive to live there. But it is still very much an oasis for the human soul: a place where one can live in some reasonable harmony with nature and feels its presence all around you.

Thanks Bob.