From the Ground Up
Generally, It helps to understand the present when we know the past.
With eight decades of past behind us, it’s hard to tell the story of Blake Real Estate without also telling the story of Washington, DC.
Since its founding by Jack I. Bender as a construction company, Jack and his three sons forged one of the largest general contracting firms in America and forever changed the horizon over the capital of the United States.
The list of Blake-built buildings includes some of the most prestigious projects in the Washington area, but it also includes projects from Massachusetts to Florida on the east coast, and as far west as Colorado and California. The range of building types is equally as broad: office and apartment buildings, schools and hospitals, embassies and research laboratories, shopping malls and hotels, courts and libraries, athletic facilities, metro stations, utility structures, power plants, military installations, municipal centers, industrial and manufacturing plants, and even rocket launch pads at Cape Kennedy.
Over the years, Blake Construction has built millions of square feet and billions of dollars worth of buildings. But the value of a building should always be more than the dollars spent to construct it. Buildings are monuments to the architects, engineers, and builders who helped design and construct them, but they are also the stone and steel record of the values of our communities and nation. Our founder, Jack I. Bender, believed in those values and set high standards and high hopes for the future of our city.
Jack I. Bender never finished the 7th grade. He dropped out of school to help support the family after his father died, finding work as a painter’s apprentice.
In 1933, Jack left his hometown of Passaic, New Jersey, and moved to the District of Columbia with his wife, Dorothy, and their three sons, Stanley, Howard, and Morton. By the end of WWII, Jack painted most everything in Washington, including the White House and the Pentagon.
Jack knew more than just painting. In 1947, Blake Construction, Co. (“Blake” being his wife’s maiden name) began when he took his first $9,000 remodeling contract for a Maryland hospital.
Soon after, Jack’s sons joined the family business, helping their dad build mostly schools and hospitals, including the Western Maryland State Hospital and the Dewitt Army Hospital at Fort Belvoir (now the Alexander T. Augusta Military Medical Center).
In 1953, Blake extended its competence beyond schools and hospitals, helping to construct the nation’s first vertical-launch missile test facilities at Cape Canaveral. A few years later, Blake won its largest job yet – a $12.9 million bid to build several Maryland State office buildings and a power plant.
Between 1958 and 1962, Blake Construction worked with the US government, major developers, and award-winning architects (including Chloethiel Woodard Smith and I.M. Pei) to build the government’s first redevelopment projects of Southwest Washington under urban renewal – the Capital Park Apartments (now the Potomac Place Tower), the Town Center Plaza East apartments (pictured), and the now-demolished Waterside Mall (now Waterfront Station).
A Dream and A Gamble
More than just a government contractor, Jack always wanted to build something of his own. Every two weeks for 15 years, Jack would walk out of the barber shop in the Mayflower Hotel and gaze at the row of shops on the other side of the street. “What a building site that would be,” he would say to himself, pausing to admire the site that would one day become the Bender Building – his legacy building.
He recalled that when he began acquiring the site, which eventually cost $1,840,000 in 1956, friends warned him he was taking a gamble. “I didn’t think so,” he said, “and I went ahead anyway.” Ten parcels of land were purchased involving more than 25 owners – at the time, it was the largest private land grab in DC. Construction began in November 1958, with as many as 400 men at work at a time. Costing $12 million, the Bender Building was more than 80% leased even before its official opening.
A Heritage of Growth
During the 1960s, the Benders continued to build for themselves and the federal government, completing seven of the eleven buildings Blake still holds today, as well as numerous large-scale private and government building projects, including:
- Inova Alexandria Hospital
- Sibley Memorial Hospital
- Five of the National Bureau of Standards buildings (now the National Institute of Standards & Technology)
- Three of the National Institutes of Health buildings
- The US Court of Claims (now the National Courts Building)
- The New Executive Office Building
- The James Forrestal Building
- The International Inn Hotel (pictured, now the Washington Plaza Hotel)
In 1966, at the age of 59, Jack I. Bender passed away due to complications from heart disease, leaving a lasting legacy and his three sons to continue his dream.
So how does a painter with a seventh-grade education rise to become the head of a construction empire? “As long as I can pay,” he often said, “I can hire all the brains I need.”
More importantly, though, Jack believed in sheer grit and determination. “Guts,” he would say. “Anybody who’s willing to take some chances can go into business for himself. You save a few dollars…and you take the plunge. If you’re wrong, you lose your shirt and start saving for a fresh start. But you’ve got to have the courage to act.”
Today, Blake buildings dot the landscape of the city and the surrounding area, offering tangible proof of what a man with little formal education can do when he has a steel-beam determination to move forward.
A New Horizon
Following the passing of their father, Jack’s sons continued to win bids and by 1970, Blake Construction was one of the largest general contracting firms in the United States, securing contracts for some of the most notable buildings in the area, including:
- Walter Reed Hospital
- The MLK Library
- The J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building
- The Hew Humphrey Building
- American University’s Bender Library and Bender Arena
- Georgetown University Law Center
- Smithsonian’s Museum of African Art and the Museum of Asian Art
- The US Holocaust Memorial Museum (pictured)
- The Portals Phase I & II
- WMATA Metro Stations & Segments (18 separate projects)
After several decades and countless construction projects in and around the DMV, there’s no denying that Jack and his sons – Stanley, Howard, and Morty – forever changed the horizon over the capital of the United States.
By the mid-90s, however, the market had shifted away from new construction, the sons began to retire, and Blake began to focus solely on the professional leasing and property management services it now offers through Blake Real Estate.
Continuing the Legacy
In 1983, Howard Bender put his son, David, to work digging ditches. Like his father before him, Howard wanted his son to learn the business from the ground up, getting his hands dirty “down in the holes and up on the ladders”.
Over the years, David served in numerous positions within Blake, gaining valuable experience and knowledge in leasing, development, field construction, property management, and project management. So when it was time to name a successor to lead the company, David Bender was the obvious choice.
Today, David brings a third generation of the Bender’s family leadership to the ongoing and future success of Blake Real Estate.