Blueprint of the Past
The Bethesda area has a wide range of residential architectural styles. Here's how they came to be.
On the historic Milton estate, along Allandale Road in Bethesda, stands what is believed to be the oldest home in the area, if not the county: a small stone house dating to about 1706. Built deep in the untamed forest, dozens of miles from the nearest settlement, it was the most basic shelter—one story with a loft, two small rooms on either side of a massive, central stone chimney laid up in ragged stone that was quarried nearby. A small staircase led to the rooms above.
The little house stood at a time when Native Americans still traversed the land, traveling on a trail that would eventually become Wisconsin Avenue, carrying barter goods down to the Potomac—the river’s name loosely translated as “place of trade.”
The stone dwelling served a succession of tenants until 1847, when Nathan Loughborough, comptroller of the U.S. Treasury during President John Adams’ administration, built an adjoining 2½-story stone main block and converted the old home into a service wing—still prevailing and privately owned today.
The progression from subsistence housing on the fringes of civilization to relative comfort in a stable farm community played out on countless area estates during the 18th century, as life for many evolved from one of frontier uncertainty to agricultural prosperity. The homes became more than shelter. They became a reflection of the occupants’ rising status, of a growing style consciousness, and of an evolution in construction techniques that would make even the wildest design dreams possible. It is a pattern of architectural transformation that would recur over the course of more than 300 years of Bethesda area residential building.
No Gain, an 18th-century estate that still stands along Brookville Road in Chevy Chase, typifies the movement. The first home on the property was a small log cabin with a crudely framed center door and a roughly constructed stone chimney at the gable end. Believed to have been built in about 1760, the simple dwelling was supplanted 20 years later by a commodious frame house, two stories high with a saltbox roof sloping from the ridge down to a single story in back. Tobacco planter Zachariah Maccubbin, who built the house in the 1780s, lost the property in 1798 in a bankruptcy sale, and a few years later was imprisoned for his debts.
By the mid-18th century, homes of the wealthier farmers had begun to feature a range of handcrafted, stylistic touches, such as columned porticos, elaborate entablature, cornices embellished with decorative moldings, and pedimented dormers, all applied by a growing class of design-and-build artisans inspired by a burgeoning interest in Roman architecture. British designer Robert Adam helped popularize the style through a series of books interpreting the works of Italian Renaissance master architects, including Andrea Palladio. The style later became known as Georgian, named for the succession of English kings who reigned during the style’s heyday.
In 1767, the Rev. Alexander Williamson, curate of the Anglican parish that included lower Montgomery County, built a stylish house for his 16-year-old bride. Located on present-day Manor Road in Chevy Chase, the home was christened Hayes Manor. Owned today by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, it is considered one of the finest Georgian manor houses in the state of Maryland. The solid brick home exudes a sense of permanence and presents perfect symmetry, its porticoed center door flanked by two nine-over-nine sash windows set within segmented arches. The brick courses of the main façade were laid up in headers— or short ends of the bricks —facing outward, with a belt course of projecting bricks between the first and second floor. A denticulated cornice ran beneath the gable roof.
Inside, the floor plan expanded on the traditional two-over-two room arrangement, placing four down and four up. A delicate, open stairway rose gracefully along the side of the front hall, leading to the sleeping chambers on the second floor. The interior trim, which included rails and moldings in the formal lower rooms, reflected a refined sensibility. Fireplaces in every room became important decorative elements, as well. As Isaac Ware, an English architect and translator of Palladio, put it in 1750: “No article in a well-furnished room is more essential [than a fireplace]. The eye immediately falls upon it on entering the room.”
Following the Revolutionary War, the decorative embellishments of the Georgian period would be replaced by a plainer, more sedate architecture known as Federal. The shift was, in part, an effort to create a new national style that broke with the royal excesses of the Colonial era. The stripped-down design persisted in the area for nearly half a century, as many farmers found satisfaction in the forthright style of their forefathers.
The farmhouse of Samuel Perry, built in 1854 and still standing along Rockville Pike near Locust Hill Road in Bethesda, exhibited the same appearance and finishes as those found in earlier homes: the wood-framed and clapboard-sided building structured as a simple rectangular block, its front door sheltered by a columned portico flanked by windows on either side and surmounted by a small, three-part window on the second story.
Despite the conservative adherence to the old, new trends would appear throughout the 19th century, trends that would radically redefine the Bethesda home. A renewed interest in ancient Greek culture ushered in a rush of new design approaches, creating a revival of style elements espoused in such popular books as The Architect, or Practical House Carpenter by Asher Benjamin, published in 1830, and The Beauties of Modern Architecture by Minard Lafever, published in 1835. (The movement exerted a greater influence on businesses and churches in Montgomery County than residences, though. The Bethesda Meeting House, built in 1850 and still standing on a hill above Rockville Pike, was a conspicuous adherent of the new Greek style, reflected in the front pilasters of its gable forward temple design.)
American designers set out on grand tours of the Old World, scouring the European countryside for the next important architectural style. They returned from England with Gothic; from Paris with the Second Empire; from Provence with the Romanesque; from Florence with the Italianate. And a profusion of revival houses followed, all freely incorporating elements from a variety of periods, often in a single dwelling, and creating fanciful styles that came to dominate the suburban developments growing up around the area.
None of these fanciful styles would have been possible, though, without a corresponding development in construction. By the middle of the 19th century, uniform building materials and standardized lumber sizes—the 2-by-4, the 4-by-4, the 3- inch floorboard, the 12-inch plank, the shaped novelty siding—had become available. And so had intricately jigsawed but mass-produced ornamental elements. With the development of the balloon frame— the modern means of wall construction— designers could create complex angles, interesting slopes, polygonal spaces and a whole range of devices unimaginable to earlier builders.
In 1880, local resident and early real estate developer Lewis Keiser built one of the area’s earliest suburban expressions of the new architectural liveliness. Keiser’s home, which he called Alta Vista, meaning “high place,” was a mélange of protruding bays and revival detailing. The house, which still stands along presentday Beech Avenue in Bethesda,was a precursor to the even higher-style composite homes that would rise along the tree-shaded avenues of Bethesda’s growing suburbs.
Loose interpretations of Gothic cottages, minor French chateaux, Italian villas, Queen Anne manor houses and more appeared alongside Colonial-inspired Cape Cods, Dutch Gambrels and Southern Greek Revival plantation houses, creating a riot of towers, turrets, columns, balconies, oriels, broken pediments and mansard roofs. Along Leland Street in Bethesda in 1892, just two blocks off Wisconsin Avenue, the Offutt family built a commodious interpretation of the Queen Anne Revival style, with an octagonal turret, forward-facing gable and wrap-around porch. The house, originally oriented toward Wisconsin Avenue, signified the exuberance to come.
A year later, the exclusive suburban community of Chevy Chase opened. Its borders eventually would encompass the Offutt house. Chevy Chase imposed stringent building restrictions on new suburban dwellings within its boundaries, enacted to ensure the “quality” of its homes. Residences along Connecticut Avenue could cost no less than $5,000, while homes on side streets had to cost at least $3,000. The prices fostered a community of homes built to the highest standards.
One of the development’s earliest homes, designed in 1892 by village architect Lindley Johnson, was built along Connecticut Avenue in 1893 as a “model cottage for the Chevy Chase Land Company. The house blended revival elements, with a prominent Tudor-style, half-timbered gable and a pair of large Romanesque arches dominating the façades.
Variations of this mixed architectural approach became known as the Shingle Style, so called from its generous use of seamless wooden shingling to unify the irregular outlines of its façades. As the 19th century turned into the 20th, the pace of change in domestic technologies quickened: The wash basin and pitcher were replaced by the bathroom sink and faucet; the kerosene light, by the electric bulb; the wood stove, by the gas range. By the end of the 19th century, low-cost cast-iron radiators would bring central heating to America’s homes,with a coal-fired boiler in the basement delivering hot water or steam to radiators in every room, liberating space from the tyranny of the fireplace. The perfection of flush toilets and septic fields brought an emphasis to a new space: the bathroom.
Even as this was occurring, though, the extravagances of machine-driven domiciles inspired a new design ethic: A number of English and American designers began advocating a return to the simplicity of handcrafted styles. From this came the Arts and Crafts movement, which encouraged simple forms and natural materials. Honesty in construction was championed by Gustav Stickley. His popular magazine, The Craftsman, published between 1901 and 1916, provided plans for simple, economical homes that were easily replicated by area builders in a style that became known as Craftsman houses.
Homegrown interpretations of the style—1½-story bungalows with long dormers and exposed rafter ends—appeared along Hawkins Lane off Jones Bridge Road in Chevy Chase. They were built for one of the area’s earliest African-American communities, founded after the Civil War by freed slave James Hawkins.
Rather than dominating the building scene, though, the Arts and Craft house simply became one more style in the arsenal of home designers. By the early 1920s, Bethesda subdivisions such as Bradley Hills, Battery Park and Greenwich Forest were quickly filling with an eclectic mix of English cottages, Tudor-style dwellings, Craftsman bungalows, New England Cape Cods and Italian villas.
Still, American and European architects railed against the strangulating ornamentation and mangle of intersecting planes and angles that characterized the suburban home. With the Art Moderne movement—a term often interchangeable with the more popular art deco— designers again stripped the house down to the basic geometry of the right angle and the arc and happily incorporated such modern materials as plastic, Formica, black glass and chrome.
In the late 1930s, a small enclave of art deco bungalows was built along Rosedale Avenue in Bethesda. The rigid, draftingtable square boxes were devoid of ornamentation, their exterior walls covered in smooth, clean stucco. Casement windows formed the corners of the main floor, in sharp contrast to the front-facing sash windows of their older neighbors. Relatively inexpensive to build and within reach of the middle-class worker, the houses were perfectly suited to the somber economics of the Great Depression.
But such decidedly modern styles were not fully embraced by conservative suburbia, particularly in the unsettling years of the Depression and World War II, when homeowners sought refuge in the past. The Colonial-inspired house remained a stalwart of new developments, even as it was redefined by modern materials and construction methods. Locust Hill Estates, built between 1941 and 1946 by the Straight Improvement Company along Locust Hill Road in Bethesda, offered an entire planned community of homes exuding traditional style and modern conveniences: substantial brick and wooden houses with slate roofs and a modicum of Early American details, all reassuringly familiar.
A decade later, in the 1950s and ’60s, the radical design philosophy of the modern styles touted before the war yielded to the ranch house and the rambler. A product of California architects, the ranch house was simple and unpretentious.
With its large ground coverage perfectly suited to the sizable tracts available on the fringes of suburbia, it was modern but not too modern, traditional but not too traditional. If an extra story on a level lot was required, the ranch was “raised,” becoming the split-level.
What made the ranch possible was, in part, the rise of residential central air conditioning in the 1950s. Cooling technology would have a profound influence on building design, eliminating the need for front porches and wide eaves to provide shade, ushering in their stead picture windows and sliding glass doors heedless of the hot summer sun.
Carderock Springs, located on a heavily wooded tract out River Road, represents the pinnacle of the area’s early modern suburban communities. Developer Edmund J. Bennett Associates opened the first section in 1962 with a collection of contemporary split-levels and modern ranches built in natural materials with earth-tone colorings. Inside, the houses were open and free flowing, with little definition between kitchens, dining areas and living rooms. The community’s real appeal, however, was a site plan that preserved the forest, an environment that contrasted with the open cornfield developments then sprouting around the area.
As the original sales brochure touted, “The curvilinear streets, non-circulating cul-de-sacs, underground utility lines and the absence of TV antennas and on-street parking combine to make Carderock one of the nation’s best looking communities.” Even with its ultra modern appearance, though, the community held to the nostalgic ideal of the suburban home that persists today: Comforting and picturesque, its stone walkways and manicured lawns lead to a quiet refuge from the hustle and stress of modern living.
Mark Walston is an author and historian raised in Bethesda and now living in Olney.