A modernist Four Corners home

10016 Renfrew Road, Silver Spring. February 2016.


Last year a longtime South Four Corners resident took me on a brief walking tour of his Silver Spring, Md., neighborhood. I had reached out to him because I was researching the history of a temporary defense housing development that had been located there. One of his favorite houses in the neighborhood is a small one-story International Style home.

As we were standing outside the home, the woman who was renting it at the time arrived home. She told us the affectionate name she had for it: the art deco bunker.

I took a few pictures and filed the memory away for later use. Recently, the home’s owner posted a picture of the house in a Facebook group. I struck up a conversation with him that began online and ended in the basement of his home in rural Brinklow where he showed me family pictures taken in front of the house and he told me what he remembered growing up there. This post captures some of the home’s history and the atypical suburban environment where it was built.

Fairway

Edna Drake (1911-1978) and her husband Fred (1911-1994) moved to Maryland from Colorado in c. 1945. They both were in education: she was a schoolteacher and he was a librarian who later went to work as a cryptologist at Fort Meade. They had lived in a couple of houses in Silver Spring between 1945 and 1948 when the house at 10016 Renfrew Road was custom-built for Edna.

Edna Drake bought the vacant lot in the Country Club Park subdivision in 1946 with a $3,000 mortgage from the Suburban National Bank in Silver Spring. Country Club Park was a residential subdivision first platted in 1930 by the Fairway Land Company. Owned by Montgomery County’s Democratic political boss E. Brooke Lee, it was one of several subdivisions developed in the part of Four Corners that some developers called the “Country Club District” for its proximity to the Indian Creek and Argyle Country Clubs.

Country Club Park was sparsely developed when the United States entered World War II and it was one of several contiguous subdivisions in which Washington’s public housing authority in 1942 condemned land to develop temporary housing for defense workers. Dubbed the Fairway Houses, the federal government built 238 single-family “demountable” houses there.

Report of the National capital housing authority for the ten-year period 1934-1944.

These inexpensive buildings were constructed among existing period revival homes, many finished in the popular Cape Cod and Tudor Revival styles. After war, additional homes were built, including the one at 10020 Renfrew by James and Jacqueline Elliott. At first these new homes drew on the existing architectural vocabulary in the neighborhood: small homes finished in period revival styles.

Home built in 1946 by James and Jacqueline Elliott.

When the wartime demand for defense worker housing ended, the Fairway Houses were converted to affordable rentals for veterans. In early 1954 the federal government offered to sell the houses to the current residents and to veterans and by September 1954 bidding on the houses was opened to the public. The houses were sold and relocated and the lots were snapped up by developers and individual buyers. By 1960, the former Fairway lots were filled with more contemporary ramblers and split-level homes.

Real estate advertisement for infill houses in former Fairway Houses lots, The Washington Post, August 7, 1955.

“Penguin Split Level” home built c. 1955. Photographed September 1, 2017.

The Drake House

Drake house, c. August 1951. Photo courtesy of Jerry Drake.

Edna Drake bought lot number 11 in Block A of Country Club Park, Section 1 in July 1946. She and her husband in 1948 borrowed another $7,500, this time from the Citizens Building and Loan Association, to finance construction of their new home. At the time, Fred was a Navy veteran and Edna was teaching in local schools. They had two children, sons John (born 1943) and Jerry (born 1945). One of Jerry Drake’s earliest memories of living in South Four Corners was the move into the new home.

“Our house wasn’t ready on time,” he recalled. “And we had pitched a tent in the backyard … Our neighbor supplied us water and let us use their bathroom.”

Though Drake still has the neatly folded blueprints for his mother’s house, the title block simply identifies the project as “Dwelling for Mrs. Edna Drake.” No architect or draftsman is identified nor is there a date for the drawings.

Drake believes that his parents got the inspiration for the modernist house from their time in California. But, he said, “I don’t know which parent it was.”

Drake house, c. October 1952. Note the side addition. Photo courtesy of Jerry Drake.

The finished product was a small rectangular plan one-story building constructed on a concrete slab foundation. Distinctive exterior elements include metal casement windows and a curved corner with glass blocks lighting the dining room. A rounded projecting slab covers a terrace leading to the front door (south facade). The stucco-clad exterior lacks ornamentation except for broad window sills, concrete coping along the roof, and  a slight inset in the east (front) facade demarcating the break between the living room and master bedroom that provides some relief in the minimalist facade. The interior originally had a living room, dining room, kitchen, utility room, one bathroom and two bedrooms. Shortly after moving into the house, the family constructed a one-story bump-out addition extending from the south facade.

Their house stood out among the older Cape Cods and, at first, the wood frame Fairway Houses. It was such a novelty that Drake remembers playing in the yard as a pre-teen and strangers driving up and asking about the house: “Somebody’d pull up and say are your parents thinking about selling that house?”

Jerry Drake (far right) with Ricky Ensley, John Drake, Corky Ensley, and Fay Dixon (right to left). The children are on the sidewalk in front of one of the Fairway Houses. Undated photo, courtesy Jerry Drake.

Most of Jerry Drake’s new friends were children who lived in what he calls the “government houses.” The families who lived in them were not part of the same middle class suburban dwellers that the Drakes were.

“We were considered the rich family because both my parents worked, for one thing, and we had a house that looked kind of neat,” Drake said. “Most of the houses, the government houses, they weren’t much.”

Fairway house. Credit: National Archives and Records Administration.

Some of Drake’s most vivid memories of the neighborhood revolve around the removal of the Fairway Houses. Each house was constructed on concrete piers with a crawl space concealed by skirting. Drake explained, “Each house probably had about a dozen support columns underneath supporting the main beam of the house.” He added,

The columns lined up and they’d back a truck through the middle of them, knock the beams off in the middle and back a flatbed truck in there and then just go right down Renfrew Road and turn on Forest Glen and my neighbors would be disappearing.

Drake’s world shrank each time one of the houses left:

I’d come home from school and I’d see one of my neighbor’s houses going down the street on the back of a truck, you know, a large flatbed truck and I’d say, “Well, there go the Ensleys. I’ll never see them again. And there go the Masslers; I’ll never see them again.”

Eventually every Fairway House disappeared and briefly South Four Corners resembled a ghost town. “For about three years, our neighborhood was so desolate we didn’t get trick or treaters for Halloween,” Drake said. “It wasn’t worth the trouble. There was only a couple of houses here and a couple of houses at the bottom of the hill.”

Plat showing Fairway Houses (blue) and Drake home (red). Adapted from plat on file, National Archives and Records Administration.

The desolation didn’t last, though. Once the infill building began in the neighborhood, Drake quickly adapted. He sold lemonade to the construction workers and he made new friends as families moved into the new ramblers and split level homes.

Home built c. 1955 in a former Fairway House lot on Renfrew Road. This American Small House illustrates a transitional style between the period revival finishes common before World War II and ramblers built during the Cold War.

Drake’s parents split during the 1950s and his father moved to Washington along with his older brother. Edna Drake died in 1978 at age 67. She ended her teaching career after teaching for 23 years in Prince George’s County. Jerry Drake still lives in Montgomery County and the Renfrew Road home is now a rental property. It has never been sold outside the Drake family.

Drake house, September 2017.

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein

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