Honoring a father’s legacy: Transforming Tony’s Auto to senior living

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Honoring a father’s legacy: Transforming Tony’s Auto to senior living
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By James Matheson | jmatheson@alextimes.com

Tony’s Auto Service, built on the hard work of an Italian immigrant and the relationships he forged, is being transformed by his family into a different kind of business this summer.

Establishing a community with Alexandrians will remain a primary effort as Alate, a new senior-focused apartment building, replaces its predecessor at the corner of First and Fayette Streets.

Antonio “Tony” Damiani emigrated from Abruzzo, Italy, in 1957 to work as a mechanic and manager of a regional Fiat dealership in Washington, D.C. Unsatisfied, he left Fiat and worked for a one-bay car repair operation in Del Ray.

Tony quickly impressed with a deep knowledge of automobiles and built a reputation in the community as a highly skilled mechanic who could repair any make and model of vehicle. In May 1968, he opened Tony’s Gulf Service on Commonwealth Avenue.

“He had a very loyal customer base. His customers knew they could trust him. His reputation as a hard working and honest mechanic drove the shop’s success,” Tony’s son, David Damiani, said. “He worked to make sure that there was trust and accordingly, he built generations of loyal customers throughout Alexandria and beyond.”

While raising his two sons, Anthony and David, and daughter Marylisa, on Fontaine Street in Braddock Heights, Tony also regularly employed family members in the shop on Commonwealth Avenue.

Tony’s wife, Donna, did the bookkeeping; his brother-in-law, Fred Acree, drove the tow truck and Tony hired his brother, Gabe, upon his immigration to the United States in the late 1960s.

From the beginning until the last payroll, Donna recorded the daily business at Tony’s Auto Service from both the shop and home in addition to raising their three children while Tony worked six days a week at the auto shop.

David recalled the family waiting for Tony every night until 9 p.m. to eat dinner. David said he often fell asleep under the kitchen table and woke up in his bed the next morning for school.

“He was a dynamo and very passionate about building his business,” Tony’s other son, Anthony, said.

The grown members of the Damiani family weren’t the only ones who worked at the shop. The three Damiani kids and their cousins made themselves useful by pumping gas, sweeping and doing other odd jobs before graduating to more complicated tasks.

Today, Anthony and David are lawyers in practice together with their firm, Damiani and Damiani, P.C. in Alexandria. Marylisa co-owned Fireflies, a longtime restaurant in Del Ray, and now lives in the Shenandoah Valley, according to David.

Tony’s Auto Service grew rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s. The business moved to First Street in 1978 to accommodate its enlarged client base; it was there that the business really took off.

Tony’s Auto Service storefront. (Photo/The Damiani family)

David and Anthony said some of their fondest memories from childhood were riding their banana seat bicycles to the shop, pumping gas and interacting with the employees.

“The shop was filled with characters not only from the neighborhood but from all over the world, including Italy, Greece, Thailand, Afghanistan and Central America,” David recalled. “It was a true melting pot. It grew from a somewhat smaller operation to one that had over 30 mechanics and was brimming with energy.”

“The breadth of relationship that Dad built while working at the shop was truly amazing,” Anthony said. “He knew people from NASA. He knew congressmen. He knew politicians. He knew the poorest person down the street. It seemed like he knew everybody.”

According to David, his father had contracts with seemingly all of the letter agencies in the region. The expert mechanic had CIA clearance to enter their headquarters and work on federal vehicles. Tony even inspected the fleets of five different presidential inauguration campaigns and worked on the caisson that was used to transport former President Ronald Reagan’s casket during his 2004 funeral procession.

David said his father would often set up payment plans for customers who could not afford the cost of vehicle repairs based solely on trust. This reputation spread: A car mechanic with both the ability to work on luxury and federal vehicles while simultaneously providing customers with flexibility in payment options when needed is hard to come by.

The Damianis were a soccer family who regularly traveled up and down the East Coast for tournaments on weekends. The kids would be met with high praise for their father.

“We would be in a tournament in Canada, and someone would run into my dad and be like, ‘Hey, Tony, I got to get the Buick in this spring.’ And these were customers that had relocated to Toronto,” David said. “His customer base was incredible. As people left the D.C. area, many would still regularly bring their cars back to him, even if it meant coming from a long distance.”

Tony was diagnosed with stage four cancer in 2019. He died in 2021 at age 82 from complications. David said that as Tony grew older, his family had been exploring development options for years even before Tony fell ill.

The corner lot that formerly housed Tony’s Auto Service will open as Alate early this summer; currently, there is not a set opening date. The Damianis still own the property and have partnered with Bonaventure, an Alexandria-based real estate company, for the project.

Bonaventure CEO Dwight Dunton and David grew up alongside each other as lifelong Alexandrians. They said they were often in the same house as children due to their mutual friends.

“When I was very young we used to take the car there when the business was actually in Del Ray,” Dunton said. “I’ve been going there since I was a kid.”

Those associated with the new apartment complex said they know there is a large imprint to fill. But the blueprints for Alate, in addition to the emphasis on providing a community that seniors choose out of desire rather than necessity, is motivation as they try to establish a new community, Dunton said.

“Think about some of your family members and think about how their life would be if they got to live here out of choice, rather than waiting for a long period of time and having to make a decision out of necessity because of medical needs,” Dunton said.

Construction began on Alate in 2022, according to Gretchen Price, assistant project manager at Bonaventure. The 133-unit luxury apartment will feature several amenities, including a restaurant open to the public, a salon, spa, art studio and a kids’ room.

Renderings of an aerial view of Alate in Old Town. (Photo/Bonaventure)

Residents will be offered daily events, have access to dozens of social gathering spaces, are encouraged to come and go as they please and welcome guests as they choose. According to Price, the 92 one-bedroom units and 41 two-bedroom apartments were designed with specific intent to be able to host family, grandchildren and friends.

“That’s what a lot of people are missing in life. They don’t realize that these communities are an option because of what they have to offer,” Dunton said. “They just think, ‘Oh my gosh, I would be going to assisted living, that’d be horrible.’ What we say is these communities are for people living and enjoying their life.”

David said this outcome was always what his pa-rents intended.

“It was always my parents’ dream to develop the property. As the First Street area gentrified over the years – and given its proximity to the Metro and Old Town – it became clear that the property was probably being underutilized as a single-story service business,” David said. “Dad would be absolutely thrilled with the development. Our family is excited that Alate will continue his legacy by offering an incredible service to the community. ”

This dream is coming to fruition with a business the family trusts. They remain involved in the development of the property as it nears completion.

“One of the things that we do at Bonaventure is build communities within established communities,” Dunton said. “We wanted to bring something that would be part of the fabric of the community as Tony’s was.”

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