“We fell in love with the place at first sight,” David Fairchild recalled of that spring day in 1905 when he and his wife, Marian, chanced upon a sylvan tract of land just north of the town of Chevy Chase. She was the daughter of the eminent scientist and inventor Alexander Graham Bell, the “father of the telephone.” He was an internationally known botanist and explorer, credited with introducing more than 20,000 new varieties of plants to U.S. soil during the early 20th century. Together they would create on that 40-acre plot a wondrous blend of architecture and horticulture, a harmonious mix of man and nature. They also would plant the seeds of an idea that would blossom into one of the most alluring attractions in the nation’s capital.
Raised in Kansas, a thin and bespectacled Fairchild was 20 years old when he arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1889 and joined the plant pathology section of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Over the next half-century, through his own initiative and, eventually, as head of the USDA’s section of foreign seed and plant introduction, Fairchild would scour the four corners of the earth, seeking out plants of potential importance to domestic growers. Many of his discoveries, once utterly foreign to American farmers, soon became familiar homegrown produce. Avocados, mangoes, soybeans, water chestnuts, pistachios, date palms, Persian melons, kiwifruit, Japanese udo, Syrian figs, mangosteens and more were introduced to American agriculture by Fairchild.
Fairchild’s growing renown as a plant explorer gave him entrance into Washington’s elite scientific community, headed by the famously inventive Alexander Graham Bell. He invited Fairchild to join his “Wednesday Evenings,” when men of insight and intellect would gather at Bell’s in-town residence. It was there that Fairchild met the youngest of Bell’s two daughters, Marian—bright, inquisitive, 11 years his junior and with a passion for nature that rivaled his own.
The two wed in 1905 and, at the urging of Marian’s mother, Mabel, began searching for a homesite “away from the city streets,” beyond the boundaries of Washington. They found their paradise in a heavily forested parcel north of Chevy Chase and south of Kensington, near the present Connecticut Avenue exit off the Beltway. Specimens from Fairchild’s collection of exotic plants were brought to the site immediately after the couple purchased the property in 1906. In addition, he contacted old friend H. Suzuki at the Yokohama Nursery Company in Japan with a request for 125 flowering cherry trees “of 25 choice varieties.” Fairchild had first encountered the trees during a 1902 visit to Japan, and was taken by “the picturesque beauty of the cherry trees lining the country’s streets and waterways.”
The Fairchilds built a little village of rough-hewed buildings tucked beneath the tall oaks: a cottage, garage, nursery, laboratory, caretaker’s house and a studio for Alexander Graham Bell that was aptly called “The Retreat,” a quiet place on the banks of Rock Creek where he could escape the din of the city to think and create.
The cherry trees’ successful adaptation to the Washington clime prompted the Fairchilds to begin promoting the Japanese flowering cherry as ideal for planting in the District’s public spaces. Nearby townsfolk were so impressed that the Chevy Chase Land Company contracted with Fairchild in 1907 for the delivery of 300 trees to be spread through out the town—thus becoming the first community in the area to be so adorned. The following year, Fairchild contacted the D.C. public schools and arranged to have a cherry tree planted at every school in the District in celebration of Arbor Day. At the Franklin School ceremony, the Washington Star reported that Fairchild “aroused the enthusiasm of his audience by telling them that Washington would one day be famous for its flowering cherry trees.” First lady Helen Herron Taft agreed, and in 1909 proposed that an avenue of the trees be established at the edge of the Tidal Basin.
Hearing of her suggestion, the city of Tokyo offered a gift of 2,000 trees, and by year’s end a steamer had arrived in Seattle filled with the flowering cherries. The trees were carefully packed into refrigerated railroad cars and carried cross-country to waiting officials in Washington. “The crates arrived January 7, 1910,” Fairchild wrote, “and almost every sort of pest imaginable was discovered. Ghastly as it seems, the trees were all burned.” In February 1912, 3,000 more trees arrived—this time pest-free—and one month later, in a sparsely attended ceremony, the first lady and the Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador, planted two Yoshino cherry trees—the beginnings of a festival that now attracts more than 1 million visitors every spring.
In 1910, the Fairchilds hired Washington architect Edward Charles Dean to design a fitting permanent residence for “In the Woods.” Dean had received his training at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and was well versed in the classical styles then in vogue for residences. The Fairchilds, however, envisioned their new house to be a radical departure. “Our life in the little, one-story frame cottages, close to the ground, surrounded by vines, trees and shrubs had given us fascinating pictures from our windows,” Fairchild wrote. “We therefore determined that the new house must also be a rambling affair, a house from which the owner could step directly into the garden from his drawing room or bedroom.”
The house that Dean designed for the Fairchilds reflected their personality in its eclectic mix of architectural elements from around the world. The entire house was laid up in concrete block and stuccoed over with earth-toned cement, much like the smooth exterior of a Mediterranean villa. The front entrance was covered by a large pergola, with two brick columns supporting a timber trellis, over which Fairchild grew kiwi vines—the “fruit of the future,” he believed.
Low wings extended from each side of the two-story center block, while a long, one-story wing ran out to the rear. There were large casement windows everywhere, admitting an abundance of natural light into the rooms. French doors opened onto terraces all around the house, with grass growing between the paving stones. Nearly 40 trellises encircled the dwelling, each one supporting a different kind of vine, mostly imported from China and Japan. Here and there were architectural elements inspired by the couple’s globetrotting, “an outdoor flight of steps Oriental in suggestion, a round arch similarly used in many Moorish houses,” as one observer noted.
Smooth plaster walls with arched openings defined the interior spaces, while the main stairway, encased in vertical wood paneling, featured cutouts of butterflies in flight ascending the balustrade to the second floor. Off the Fairchilds’ bedroom was a sleeping porch, with screened-in sides and a glass roof, enabling the couple to view the stars at night. “A house more closely fitted in with the landscape could scarcely be imagined,” noted The Craftsman magazine in 1913.
The Fairchilds split their time between Chevy Chase and their winter home in Florida, purchased in 1916 and located close to the experimental USDA plant station near Miami. But as the years progressed, they found their time at “In the Woods” diminishing. A little more than a decade after the house was built, Fairchild noted, “our life had readjusted itself, with nine months out of the year spent in Florida, and three months at Baddeck,” the Bell family estate in Nova Scotia. On Oct. 14, 1924, David Fairchild made a final entry into his garden notebook: “Alas! We are selling In the Woods with all its memories and all these precious trees and plants which Marian and I planted on it with our own hands. Life moves on and we cannot keep it going anymore.”
They found solace in the sale of the property to Dr. Edwin A. Merritt, a noted radiologist at Garfield Hospital—now Washington Hospital Center—and a horticulturalist himself who pledged to safeguard Fairchild’s prized cherry trees. Merritt would propagate and introduce a number of new hybrid azaleas that bear his name today. Merritt died while on vacation in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1946. David Fairchild died in Florida in 1954; Marian died at the family’s Florida estate in 1963.
By the 1950s, “In the Woods” had passed into the ownership of the Chevy Chase Recreation Association, a swim and tennis club founded for the enjoyment of area residents. Already, in 1952, Merritt’s widow, Dessa Ratbone Merritt, had rented the house to the Outdoor Nursery School, founded by Chevy Chase resident Bertha Belt in 1933 and originally run out of her house on Meadow Lane. The nursery school continued to lease the property after its purchase by the Recreation Association, and still occupies the house today. Eventually, much of the property to the south of the dwelling would be subdivided and developed—with the lane leading to the house renamed Spring Valley Road. But the old home survives, as do many of the specimens planted by the Fairchilds, including a scattering of the original cherry trees, now reaching 50 feet in height, preserving a portion of the couple’s natural wonderland and creating a sylvan oasis in the midst of modern suburbia.
Mark Walston is an author and historian raised in Bethesda and now living in Olney.