Albert Small's Big Vision
At age 88, Albert H. Small hasn't stopped developing. Except it's not buildings anymore, but ideas.
No, this is not the Army Navy Club where your publisher joined Albert for lunch the other day, but a three-week old health food eatery in a building he owns next door (1666 K St) that he wanted us to see first. The quinoa and chia berry yogurt bowls and fluffy scrambled egg white burritos drew a packed crowd despite the lineup of food trucks at the curb. Albert stays in touch with the trends, though a lot has changed from when he grew up in Chevy Chase DC, went to Wilson High, and then into the Navy at the end of World War II fresh from V-12 officers training at UVa.
His father, also named Albert but without a middle initial (so Albert H. is not a Jr.), was a mortgage banker and realtor, and on the board of the Bank of Commerce on 7th Street, which he convinced in the '50s to move to what he foresaw as a burgeoning Connecticut and K Street area. He joined with Morris Gewirz, Charlie Kaplan, and Bill Magazine to develop an office building called 1700 K, and over the years, as demand surged for office space, also built 1000 Connecticut Ave across the street (today renamed 1717 K) followed by 1801 L and (with Charles E. Smith) 1666 K. Here's 1700 and 1717 K as of yesterday, many changes later.
Meanwhile, Albert H., after leaving the Navy, finished at UVa, and went to work for a general contractor in SE DC and Falls Church. While his father focused on office, he went into residential. With Hermen Greenberg, he built single-family houses in Montgomery County, Fairfax, and Lake Barcroft, and later continued with Ralph Ochsman and Morton Funger. (That's Albert on the right.) He says they were lucky: No housing had been built during the War, and 16 million servicemen were returning who didn’t want to live with their parents, or in Kansas or Missouri anymore. The partners eventually built 20,000 apartments in Norfolk, Newport News, Richmond, Baltimore, and Alexandria. In Greenbelt, they joined Ted Lerner, Eddie Perkins, and Isidore Gudelski in creating Springhill Lake apartments, at the time, with 3,000 units, the largest apartment complex in America.
Inside the Army Navy Club, Albert consults his iPhone on the stock of Home Properties, to which the partners later sold all their apartments. As their parents' generation passed in the '80s, Albert H. and his generation (Bernie Gewirz, Eddie Kaplan, and Sheldon Magazine) took over the business, renovating the family properties. Surface parking lots were disappearing and they recognized the need for more garages. 15 years ago the partners (and their kids) tore down 1700 K and another building they bought next to it to create a single state-of-the-art office building with bountiful underground parking. They still get together at monthly partners meetings, an excuse for mile-high sandwiches in Bernie's office from nearby Paul Bakery.
Albert's no longer devoted to daily management, but to philanthropy, here getting the National Humanities Medal from President Obama in 2009. Yet he's not just giving away money, but pursuing a mission: trying to get citizens to learn and care more about their country. He's made major contributions to, and created celebrated historical document collections at UVa, GW, and the Smithsonian, and been recognized by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Library of Congress, and the National Archives.
As he told interviewer Chris Wallace last month, when Fox News Sunday named him Power Player of the Week, he thinks it would be great if young folks could spend as much time thinking about history and culture as they do sports and TV. To that end, he finances students and teachers to study the D-Day invasion of France and then to visit the beaches at Normandy and understand more fully the sacrifices necessary for freedom. He's also championing a public-private partnership to build major underground parking and a visitor center at the National Mall so visitors to the monuments and Smithsonian will have easier access to American history.
Son Albert H. Small Jr. (known as "Sonny" and whom we snapped back in 2008 with sister Susan Small Savitsky and their dad at Chip Akridge's annual lunch on the Mall) is working again with his dad, after being a developer many years building homes in Northern Virginia, then very successfully building and selling high-rise apartments in Reston. Sonny has a son, Albert N, who makes for the fourth generation in real estate, learning the retail development and leasing business at Rappaport.
The Somerset House condo towers in Chevy Chase is an enduring landmark Albert created with partners Greenberg, Ochsman, and Funger, between 1988 and 1999, still setting regional price records for re-sale today. Albert and his wife Shirley have lived nearby in Bethesda for 50 years, enjoying their stunning gardens, above. Still, Albert comes in to work every day. He shares the exact same birthdate with another perpetual power plant, Ted Lerner. Remember to wish them both a happy 90th on Oct. 15, 2015. But that's a long ways off, and they're busy men with a lot more to do.