Being a longtime high-school drama teacher, Jean Barton couldn’t help but call up a line from one of the all-time great musicals, “Hello, Dolly.”
“Money is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around,” Barton said from the podium June 8 as Culpepper Garden celebrated its 50th anniversary with a reception and fund-raising auction at Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington.
(Why were they celebrating 50 years, given that the non-profit apartment complex opened in 1975? More on that in a minute.)
The festivities brought in more than $150,000, which will be used to help subsidize the rent of low-income seniors so none will ever have to be turned out because of inability to pay – providing security for residents, whose average age is 77 and average income is $18,000, mostly Social Security payments.
Never known as the shy type, Barton exhorted the 150 in attendance to “get out your checkbooks, get out your credit cards” as she turned the dais over to John Milliken, who served as auctioneer.
Milliken then worked the crowd into a bidding frenzy on a number of items. The highest bid – $3,100 – was received for a tour of the studios of WRC-TV (Channel 4).
On hand was longtime Channel 4 anchor Doreen Gentzler, who has a direct connection with Culpepper Garden. Her mother, an Arlington native and Washington-Lee High School graduate, lived there for the last nine years of her life.
“Culpepper Garden has been a godsend for her and for her family,” Gentzler said. “The staff are a bunch of angels. My family is very grateful.”
And now, back to the 50-year part of the story.
It was in 1969 that the Arlington Retirement Housing Corp. was founded by a group of local residents, aiming to purchase land and develop it to meet the needs of low-income seniors.
It was a somewhat revolutionary concept at the time. And even though the group reached a deal with Dr. Charles Culpepper to purchase his 4.7-acre tract close to Ballston, the needed county-government approvals were slow in coming and led to a battle-royale with residents of adjacent residential neighborhoods and those who wanted the tract left in its pristine state.
The entire affair – “a real doozy,” Barton recalled – wasn’t consummated until the County Board voted 3-2 for the necessary zoning changes allowing the project to move forward.
(For strictest accuracy, one could also argue that this could also be celebrated as the 55th anniversary, since it was in 1964 that a group of Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington parishioners first conceived the idea. “It’s wonderful to be in the birthplace,” Culpepper Garden executive director Linda Kelleher said at the reception.)
Since the opening of its initial building in 1975, more than 2,400 seniors have called the Ballston-area campus home. A number have made it into their second century.
In the spring of 2018, Culpepper Garden kicked off a $62 million reconstruction of the original wing, a project that includes top-to-bottom renovation of interior spaces, upgrades to mechanical systems and the addition of four new apartments, bringing the main tower to 210. Completion is slated for the spring of 2020.
Arlington Retirement Housing Corp. has partnered with Wesley Housing Development Corp. on the project. Federal, state and local resources, including loans and tax credits, are being used to support the project.
Originally designed exclusively for independent living, subsequent phases of the property have included assisted-living components. Peter Kant, a member of the Culpepper Garden board of directors, said the facility is “truly a model” for the nation, not just as a place to live, but one where seniors can stay engaged and involved.
That’s also the view of the Virginia Housing Development Authority, a state agency which on June 8 celebrated Culpepper Garden as the first of its kind in the commonwealth.