Six acres, two schools, a park and suburban continuity in Silver Spring

1958-bulletinjpgSuburbia has many critics and defenders. The former excoriate the space as wasteful sprawl and the latter defend its place in architectural and social history. Somewhere between the two extremes lie stories originating in suburbia’s mythically sterile origins and which celebrate the adaptations residents and entrepreneurs made to newly created residential spaces.

Silver Spring’s Alexander School and camp — the place where Bird Legs dwelled in underground caves — is one of those stories.

When developers finished platting residential subdivisions and building physical infrastructure and houses, they turned the spaces over to new residents: homeowners. These residents needed stores, schools, and other services to complete their new communities. Sometimes the builders provided these; other times it was up to the public sector and entrepreneurs. Continue reading

That infamous villain, Carolan O’Brien Bryant, comes to Silver Spring

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New York political boss William Tweed blasts Carolan O’Brien Bryant in the New York Times, July 20, 1877.

Four Corners was a sleepy Montgomery County, Maryland, crossroads hamlet in the late 1880s when Carolan O’Brien Bryant began buying large farm tracts from an old Washington family, the Beales. Bryant’s Gilded Age effort to build a large estate marks a false start in the transformation of Montgomery County agricultural communities into inner-ring Washington suburbs. Though nothing remains of Bryant’s sprawling estate, it is an intriguing chapter in Silver Spring history.

“That Infamous Villain, Carolan O’Brien Bryant”

"Boss Tweed in Court." Credit: New York Pulbic Libbrary.

“Boss Tweed in Court.” Credit: New York Public Library.

Born Carl Bryant sometime in the 1830s, his entire family changed their names in 1859 adding the O’Brien middle name. Bryant first appears in the historical record in the 1860s working as a journalist in New York City. He became part of the Democratic political machine, serving in municipal office and the state legislature before running unsuccessfully for Congress in 1864. During the 1870s Bryant found himself on the edges of Tammany’s Tweed ring as a self-described confidant of William “Boss” Tweed.

Bryant lived a life shrouded in mystery and bedeviled by controversy. In New York he made a living as a journalist, yet people wondered whether he was an attorney or a real estate speculator. Even his appearance was a topic ripe for gossip. “He possessed an uncommon personality, and for a long period affected an oddity of attire and manner that accentuated his otherwise unique appearance,” wrote the New York Times in Bryant’s obituary. “He usually wore his hair very long, and in later years it fell in profuse folds about his shoulders.” A witness in a lawsuit against Bryant once told the court, “He is a peculiar looking man, and any one who had seen him once would know him again.”

Though Bryant had friends and relatives among New York’s elite business and political crowds, most people beyond his immediate family described him as a dishonest and untrustworthy cad. In Bryant’s obituary, the New York Times did concede,

Although some men said harsh and unpleasant things about him, the relations between father and daughters always appeared to be of the most tender nature. Continue reading

Bird Legs Park

Camp-BulletinSometime after World War II a creature moved into tunnels beneath a nursery school and summer camp in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. The children who attended the Alexander Camp called it “Bird Legs.”

“There was a legend about a monster called Bird Legs,” said Kaye Giuliani. “Scared the hell out of everybody.” Giuliani is Ernest Kendall’s granddaughter. He founded the camp and nursery school in 1947 after nearly 20 years as the principal of the Capitol Page School in neighboring Washington. I was interviewing Giuliani in her Maryland home about the school and camp’s history when she mentioned Bird Legs.

The Alexander Camp occupied a six-acre tract in Silver Spring, Maryland’s, Four Corners neighborhood. For much of the last half of the 20th century, the site had been used as a private school and camp. In 1997 its last private owner sold the property to the Maryland-National Capital Planning Commission which had plans to redevelop it by expanding the neighboring North Four Corners Park.

Like much of the property’s storied past, the Bird Legs legend quickly faded once Montgomery County razed the school buildings and allowed the grounds to lie fallow for 20 years before completing the park expansion. But to former campers and students, the story lives on in personal narratives and in posts to social media sites.

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Former Alexander School and Camp site. The entrance to North Four Corners Park is where the school building originally was located.

“[My] memories are packed with stories about the summer overnight jambories [sic.] and the counselors story telling (birdlegs) around the night firepit,” wrote one alum in 2011. Continue reading

Fairway: Silver Spring’s ghost town

During World War II, the U.S. government built “temporary suburbs” throughout the United States. One of those suburbs was located just north of the District of Columbia in a part of unincorporated Silver Spring, Maryland, called Four Corners. For a brief period during the war, the development was a ghost town. At least that’s what some critics of the 238-unit public housing project called it.

Fairway Houses location. Adapted from Google Maps.

Fairway Houses location. Adapted from Google Maps.

In 1942, Washington’s slum clearance agency (the Alley Dwelling Authority; later, the National Capital Housing Authority) began scouting sites in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties for temporary defense housing sites where migrants to the metro region could live while working in government agencies and defense-related industries.

The agency selected two sites in Prince George’s county where it built one 500-unit project near College Park and another 315-unit project near Suitland. After hitting considerable opposition to a proposed 800-unit development near Kensington in Montgomery County, the ADA settled on building in Four Corners. Twenty-eight acres north of Forest Glen Road and south of University Blvd. (then known as Old Bladensburg Road) in scattered sites were condemned. The Montgomery County project was called the “Fairway Houses,” a name derived from surrounding residential subdivisions.

Map showing Alley Dwelling Authority projects.

Map showing Alley Dwelling Authority projects. Fairway is highlighted. Report of the National capital housing authority for the ten-year period 1934-1944.

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Modernism in the ‘hood: The Four Corners Safeway story

Unless you’re a big fan of mid-century modern architecture, the Four Corners Safeway store in Silver Spring, Maryland, probably doesn’t seem like anything special. It’s just the neighborhood supermarket. But if you’re a 20th century architecture aficionado, the neighborhood Safeway store is a true gem.

Located about 1/2-mile north of the National Capital Beltway, the Four Corners Safeway is one of a dwindling number of distinctive supermarket buildings that the chain built in the Washington area after World War II. Architectural historians have dubbed the distinctive curved roofline and vaulted interior space “Marina Style” after the chain’s 1959 prototype store built in San Francisco’s Marina neighborhood.

Four Corners Safeway opening advertisement. The Washington Evening Star, October 4, 1962.

Four Corners Safeway opening advertisement. The Washington Evening Star, October 4, 1962.

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Living in a salad bowl suburb

Last year we moved back to Silver Spring, Md., after living for nearly four years in the Atlanta metropolitan area. Atlanta — the city and its many sprawling suburbs — is one of the most racially and economically divided places in the United States. That point was quickly driven home in our experience with Decatur, a suburb that is undergoing rapid demographic inversion and gentrification becoming whiter and wealthier.

Since 1980, Decatur has lost more than 60% of its African American population, mostly through displacement. That process and the complicated history the city has with Jews, African Americans, and the politics of history and memory is the subject of a book I am completing.

Northwood-Four Corners Civic Association newsletter editor Jacquie Bokow asked me to write about demographic changes in our neighborhood. This post is derived from the article I wrote for the October 2015 issue.

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Silver Spring’s Read house

In February 2013 I got an email from Jacquie Bokow, editor of the Northwood News. “Hey, Dave! Do you know anything about the property at 503 Dennis Avenue?,” Jacquie wrote. The property is in our old Maryland neighborhood and late last year signs were posted that the property was under subdivision review and that the early 20th century home there may be demolished.

William Read house, December 2012.

William Read house, December 2012.

The research I did on the 1939 World’s Fair Home and the neighborhood’s 1950’s cooperative subdivision included documentation on the pre-suburban properties prior to subdivision in the early 20th century. I wrote a brief article and sent it to Jacquie. It was published in the Northwood News in April 2013 and it is reprinted below along with additional illustrations not included in the printed version.

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North Four Corners places and buildings collage

As I finish the edits on next Monday’s post on new Silver Spring McMansions, I put together this collage showing the older building stock in my North Four Corners neighborhood juxtaposed against a map with some of the earliest subdivision plats and their dates as an overlay.

© 2010 David S. Rotenstein

Silver Spring World’s Fair Home Featured at National Building Museum

Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s is a new exhibit opening Saturday at the National Building Museum and running through July 10, 2011. The exhibit includes a section on a house built in the North Four Corners part of Silver Spring: Washington’s 1939 New York World’s Fair Home. As far as the available evidence suggests, the Silver Spring developers who received a license from the New York World’s Fair Corporation were the only ones who built an exact duplicate using the plans and material specifications for the demonstration home that was on display in the Long Island fair in 1939 and 1940. Continue reading