November-December 2009

Garrett Park

Envisioned as Washington's 'Hyde Park,' Garrett Park developed a personality of its own.

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In the mid-1880s, businessman Henry W. Copp had a vision of the perfect summer getaway for work-weary Washingtonians. He formed the Metropolitan Investment and Building Company in 1886, purchasing 500 acres between what are now Kensington and Rockville on land bordered by picturesque Rock Creek and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

The name of his town: Garrett Park, in honor of B&O President Robert W. Garrett, one of his company’s sponsors. It was, according to an 1887 brochure advertising lots for sale, to be “what Tuxedo Park is to New York, Bryn Mawr to Philadelphia, and Hyde Park to Chicago.”

Garrett Park, quaint and unassuming, didn’t quite turn out that way. Architect John L. Freeman and well-known landscape designer William Saunders mapped out the town in the style of a quaint English village, limiting commercial development and drawing many street names, such as Kenilworth and Waverly avenues, from the novels of Sir Walter Scott.

Construction boomed in the 1890s: Thirty-three houses, requiring down payments of $5 to $25, went up along with the Garrett Park Chapel (now town hall) and the railroad station, where MARC trains stop today. By 1900, 175 people were living in the town’s 37 homes.

Development continued in 1924, when a group of retired military men formed Maddux, Marshall, Moss & Mallory and set about building new affordable housing. The “four M’s” built 50 homes in less than 10 years, including the “Chevy” houses that you can still find scattered throughout the community. (The town’s Web site points to 10926 Clermont Ave. and 4517 Clermont Place as good examples.) For an extra cost, these tiny homes came with a Chevrolet already parked in the driveway.

By the 1930s, most transportation routes passing through Garrett Park, including the B&O, Kensington Trolley and the Garrett Park bus line, had either been eliminated or their service reduced. Through the years, residents have fought hard to preserve the resulting sense of seclusion.

Today, according to Town Hall Manager Elizabeth Henley, Garrett Park is known as an “activist community.”

Garrett Park’s townspeople have successfully fought home mail delivery service since the 1950s, when the postal service first approached them about changing the system. To this day, residents pick up their mail at the post office in the Penn Place building, formerly a 19th-century general store and now home to the town office and Black Market Bistro. “It’s the town gathering place,” says retired town archivist Barbara Shidler.

A 1968 proposal to widen Strathmore Avenue, the only road into town, was met with picketing and a resounding “no.” The town also introduced strict zoning ordinances to further restrict development. And in the mid-1970s it created an Arboretum Committee and a Historical Preservation Committee to encourage the protection of Garrett Park’s natural beauty and history.

Garrett Park’s quirky nature emerges in such events as the 18th Annual Town Softball Game. Years ago, the town accidentally held an 18th annual game two years in a row. Poking fun at its own math error, the town has had one every year since. Ask Mayor Chris Keller the type of person who’s attracted to Garrett Park and he’ll say: “Someone who’s willing to put up with all of our idiosyncrasies.”

Garrett Park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 and declared itself an arboretum in 1977. In 1982, Garrett Park declared itself a nuclear free zone, making the front page of The New York Times.

A former Bethesda Magazine intern, Madaline Donnelly is a senior at Georgetown University.