The rise, then fall, then rise again of a town that owes its start to a cantankerous steed.
The founding of Silver Spring is a tale involving a Washington, D.C. newspaper editor named Francis Preston Blair, his daughter, Elizabeth, and a fall from a horse.
As the story goes, the two Blairs were riding out on the capital’s old Seventh Street turnpike, now Georgia Avenue, looking for land on which to build a summer house away from Washington’s heat. The year was 1840, and according to one version of the story, Elizabeth fell from her horse, which trotted away and was later found drinking from a mica-infused spring.
Francis Blair liked the spot so much that he bought 250 acres and built his summer estate there. Taking inspiration from the water’s sparkling appearance, he named the place Silver Spring.
Today, Silver Spring is among the most venerated of Montgomery County’s towns, villages and communities. Walter Gottlieb, who has lived most of his life there, made a 2002 documentary, Silver Spring: Story of an American Suburb, celebrating the rise, fall and rise again of the unincorporated area. The film pinpoints the 1940s through the 1960s as a time when Silver Spring “had it all.” Silver Spring Historical Society President Jerry McCoy, a transplant who has lived there 17 years, thinks the “many historic as well as unique buildings” give the downtown character. He writes a column for the local Voice newspaper enabling the reader to “relive a Silver Spring that you perhaps never knew existed (and sometimes might wish still did).”
Even the normally dispassionate Maryland- National Capital Park and Planning Commission has singled out Silver Spring, declaring the 1920s-era Woodside Park, the leafy subdivision on the western side of Georgia Avenue, “probably the purest manifestation of the…suburban ideal to have been built in Montgomery County.”
Neighborhood historians like to say that Silver Spring’s early days can be summed up as the making of a “retreat for the elite.” Francis Blair’s son, Montgomery, built his own home, Falkland, on the western side of the Blair land. During the Civil War, the house was burned in the aftermath of Confederate Gen. Jubal Early’s unsuccessful attempt to capture Washington.
Conflicting stories are told about how that fire began. One account says it was punitive, that Rebel soldiers were determined to destroy Falkland because Montgomery Blair was postmaster general and thus a member of President Abraham Lincoln’s Cabinet. Another version has locals looting and torching the house during the chaos of the Confederate retreat.
Silver Spring’s growth was spurred by the 1873 opening of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad from Washington to Point of Rocks on the Potomac River. The first Washingtonians to move to the area bought 5- and 10-acre homesites. Among them in the 1890s were Benjamin Leighton, dean of Howard University’s Law School, and James Benedict, curator of marine exhibits at the Smithsonian Institution.
It wasn’t until the early part of the 20th century, though, that the community really took shape. E. Brooke Lee, greatgrandson of Francis Preston Blair, established the North Washington Realty Company in the early 1920s and built subdivisions such as Northgate, Colonial Village and Sligo Park Hills. A new five-room bungalow was priced at $6,000 in 1927.
Thanks to close connections to Democratic political leaders in Annapolis, Lee won approval for bonds that funded the widening of Georgia Avenue and the construction of other major roads such as East West Highway, which for the first time linked Silver Spring to Bethesda. (Some historians have noted that the latter road followed the edge of the Lee family’s extensive real estate holdings.)
Even during the Depression, Silver Spring continued to expand. The Falkland Apartments, named after Montgomery Blair’s original home, opened in 1938. It was the first such complex in Maryland to receive mortgage insurance from the New Deal’s Federal Housing Administration, and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt presided over the ribbon-cutting.
Brooke Lee’s road grid provided the structure for other major developments, including the Silver Spring Shopping Center, built in the late 1930s and hailed for its art deco design. So beloved was the shopping center and its matching Silver Theatre that activists saved the movie palace from the wrecking ball in the 1990s, and in 2003 it became the American Film Institute’s screening center.
Shoppers swooned in 1947, when the Hecht Company opened its first department store outside of Washington, D.C., at the intersection of Fenton Street and Ellsworth Drive. Other stores followed, including J.C. Penney and Sears, Roebuck & Co., making the downtown a pleasant, walkable destination for many. Restaurants and specialty establishments such as Gifford’s ice cream parlor completed the mix.
Meanwhile, Montgomery Blair High School gained a certain mystique thanks to high academic achievement, athletic victories and standout graduates including Goldie Hawn, Ben Stein, Connie Chung and Carl Bernstein (the last of whom nearly flunked out).
By the 1950s, boosters were proclaiming that Silver Spring, despite its unincorporated status, was Maryland’s second major city after Baltimore based on the volume of retail business.
As with many communities, the good times began to fade in the 1970s. Wheaton Plaza and the Beltway had opened, shifting traffic and business away from Georgia, Colesville and other main streets. Just as quickly as they had filled up with shoppers, stores emptied, landmark buildings were abandoned, and crime became a major concern.
With the opening of the county’s first Metro station in 1978, however, the scene was set for a downtown revival. There were a few missteps, notably a proposed mega mall to be named, with no sense of irony, the “American Dream.” But in 1999, county leaders broke ground for a redevelopment campaign that created pedestrian streets and brought major businesses to the area.
“For a while, it looked like downtown Silver Spring would remain a ghost town forever,” Gottlieb, the filmmaker, says. “Now there’s foot traffic again, a sense of life on the streets—like we used to have in the old days, but in an updated setting.”
Steve Dryden is a freelance writer who lives in Bethesda