The History of Kensington

The History of Kensington

A onetime country retreat became a classic Victorian-era community.

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Kensington native Susan Houser grew up near the town mill. It wasn’t Plyers Mill, though, as in the Plyers Mill Road that runs from east to west through the center of town. There probably never was such a place.

In the late 19th century, Plyers Mill Road was the byway from Wheaton Postmaster George Plyer’s property to the Newport Mill on Rock Creek, about a half mile from the center of Kensington.

There was, however, a small, family-run grain mill in town—Wheatley Mill—and Houser, 68, remembers it well. “I remember three old men…who sat on the [mill’s] front porch most of the time,” she wrote in a 2000 recollection for the Montgomery County Historical Society. “Most of us stayed on the Farragut side of the creek as it was obvious one of the men was ‘not right,’ according to my parents.”

In the 1930s and ’40s, Howard Avenue was the town’s “main street,” with a small grocery store, McKeever’s ice cream parlor and the two-room Kensington Bank. Across the street was the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad station.

Houser walked with her mother to Kensington’s modest, but handsome, Noyes Library (today, the county’s only library exclusively for children). Built in 1893, the building got its name from an endowment of 1,600 books by Evening Star newspaper publisher Crosby S. Noyes.

During Houser’s childhood, the Wheatley Mill and its water wheel, though no longer running at the time, still stood on St. Paul Street near the intersection with Farragut Avenue. Kensington Branch, a tributary of Rock Creek, flowed past the wooden mill building, which was eventually torn down and replaced by a private home.

“All of the neighborhood children loved to play, wade and fish in the [Kensington Branch] creek,” Houser recalled.

Houser literally lived on the other side of the railroad tracks from the affluent part of town and the handsome Victorian homes that today lend Kensington its appeal. The train line was the reason the community began to grow in the years just after the Civil War. The town was then called Knowles Station, after George Knowles, a farmer who sold some of the land to the railroad company.

The Knowles Station stop allowed farmers in the area to send dairy products and produce to Washington. And the first commuters rode to work in the capital. Yet the population in 1880 was no more than about 70.

The tiny community began to take off after Washington financier Brainard H. Warner bought several parcels south of the railroad line and recorded a subdivision he named “Kensington Park,” after the London suburb Kensington Gardens. The year was 1890, when a development boom was underway around the capital.

Warner built handsome houses in a verdant setting that served as a summer retreat for Washington’s well-to-do. The styles included Queen Anne, Georgian Revival, Victorian Cottage and Dutch Colonial, with wraparound porches, stained glass windows and curving brick sidewalks. These houses can be seen today on Prospect Street, Calvert Place, Montgomery Avenue and other quiet roads. The area was listed in 1980 on the U.S. Interior Department’s National Register of Historic Places as exemplifying a Victorian-era community.

Kensington residents successfully petitioned the Maryland General Assembly in 1894 to allow the town to be incorporated so it could better handle the demands for civic improvements.

Warner dominated the Kensington scene for many years. He owned the local newspaper, the Montgomery Press, built a grand house (later converted into a nursing home at 10231 Carroll Place), and joined with his friends to erect a town hall. The Warner Memorial Presbyterian Church was built on land he donated, and named for his father. But when he reached for a bigger prize, running for Congress in 1908 as a Republican, Warner didn’t make it past the primary.

In the pre-automobile era, Kensington residents used horse and buggy on the unpaved roads in the area, though a trolley line opened in 1895 along what is today Kensington Parkway. This allowed trips to Chevy Chase in a small trolley car known as “Dinky.”

As Kensington grew, promoters painted an attractive picture of a country retreat, typified in this excerpt from a sales pamphlet at the turn of the century:

“Come to Kensington! The Pasadena of the suburbs in the rolling hills of Maryland. Your children will avoid the contaminating influences of city life.… Its people are people of culture and essential refinement.”

A panoramic photograph from that period shows a classic small town, with handsome homes and church spires nestled amid trees and surrounded by grassy fields. Fitting right into this atmosphere of middle-class respectability was the privately run Reinhardt Home School for Little Deaf Children, which operated from 1907 to 1935 on St. Paul Street and later Armory Avenue. The building burned in 1963, and the site is now a park named for Anna Reinhardt, who ran the school.

Yet Kensington was hardly an enclave of white-collar exclusivity. Adjacent to the railroad tracks were the busy work yards of the Mizell Lumber & Hardware Co., founded in 1922 and still thriving today. A concrete manufacturing facility operated nearby for many years.

A working-class, African-American neighborhood called Ken-Gar, located close to Rock Creek just outside the Kensington town line, formed during the first decades of the 20th century and still exists. Residents had to vigorously petition the county government in the 1960s to force landlords to improve housing conditions.

After World War II, an auto repair sector sprang up on the western side of Connecticut Avenue, near the fire station. Known as “Gasoline Alley,” the businesses attracted customers from all over southern Montgomery County. The “alley” was also home to the DC Dragons and the Silver Spring Ramrods, two hot rod clubs whose members tinkered with their Corvettes and other souped-up cars at all hours. Today, the area still features numerous auto repair and body shops.

In 1945, Kensington had a population of about 1,500. It would increase slightly in the 1950s and 1960s, by which time the incorporated, less-than-one-square-mile town was built out. Today, the town has about 2,000 residents, although the unincorporated part of Kensington includes thousands of other homes and addresses, including high-rise apartment buildings, outside the town limits.

Steve Dryden is a freelance writer who lives in Bethesda.

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