Memories of 1950s Arlington

By Rita O’Brien

I moved to Arlington in 1952 with my sister and parents from Bedminster, New Jersey. While it was a good opportunity for my father’s career, it must have been a bit of a shock for my mother leaving behind a big house with 88 acres that had been General Knox’ headquarters during the Revolution for a two-bedroom apartment in Lee Gardens (now Woodbury Park). My sister and I, however, despite trading fields, a barn and a hayloft for playgrounds, friends, and even storm sewers, found it great fun and loved it from Day 1. Our brother was born in 1953, and my sister and I, at the ages of 9 and 10 were allowed to take him in his stroller to Lee Shopping Center on Pershing Drive at Route 50 to pick up groceries for my mother at Lee Market. My father would stop at Lee Bakery for doughnuts after church on Sundays – and birthday cakes and other celebrations always consisted of baked goods from Lee Bakery. Years later, they catered my wedding. 

We moved to Lyon Park in 1954, which as I remember looked pretty much the same as it does now, with the exception that houses were not being torn down to be replaced. Neighborhoods were tree-lined with sidewalks to ride bikes and skate. There were some businesses in Lyon Park at Pershing Drive and Washington Boulevard – a restaurant that we always called “Eat” due to the sign outside (it’s now Texas Jack’s – and a favorite of ours). I remember my grandfather and uncle coming to visit and telling my mother they’d take my sister and me for an outing. They gave us money for ice cream, but it turned out we spent the whole time waiting for them in the car while they went into “Eat” for beer!

We loved Lyon Park, with its proximity to the shops: in Clarendon – JC Penney’s, Murphy’s, Sears, shoe stores, etc.; Virginia Square shopping center with Kann’s Department Store, where I worked while I was in college, as well as the bus line down Wilson Boulevard where we would catch the bus to go into Washington to shop. Rosslyn, as many people will remember, was mostly pawn shops. My only recollection of Rosslyn as a child is the streetcar, which we would take to meet my father downtown at his office for dinner. Parkington (now Ballston), I remember for more shopping – I worked at McCrory’s while in high school, and of course, Hecht’s, with its huge wall of glass with messages – and probably ads.

I went to St. Charles from second through eighth grade, then to Bishop O’Connell for high school. Schools (at least mine) were racially segregated during the 1950s. I remember our first black classmate in 5th grade. Sister Marion explained ahead of time that this young lady was joining us, and we were expected to treat her with respect. I remember friendship with her was something to which we all aspired. Back in the 1950s during the Cold War, we would have air raid drills fairly often, where we would have to crouch down under our desks with our hands behind our necks. Looking back, I wonder why educators put us through that trauma (and it was, and to some extent remains) as I sincerely doubt that exercise would prevent harm in the case of a nuclear attack.

We rented in Lyon Park, moving to our 4-bedroom house in Ashton Heights in 1960, and I believe my parents paid about $17,000; they sold it around 1970 for about $26,000. My husband and I purchased our first house nearer to Falls Church in 1967 – a 3-bedroom, 1-1/2 bath – for $28,000, and my father was shocked that we paid so much!

We lacked a lot of what kids these days have. Most moms – not all – stayed home; as a rule, families had one car and one television. We did not have structured activities but were free to roam and to play what and with whom we wanted. It was an amazing place to grow up – and for that matter, it’s an amazing place to grow old!