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

The curious history of Bladensburg’s Spa Spring

Open spaces are important parts of the cultural landscape. The Washington region is chock full of parks with histories as magnificent as the settings with which they are associated. The National Mall and Rock Creek Park are two notable examples. Other metro area parks have lesser-known histories or have been overtaken by development and erased from the landscape. Bladensburg, Maryland’s, Spa Spring is one example with close ties to Washington’s history.

Bladensburg is an 18th-century Prince George’s County town that hugs the east bank of the Anacostia River. Adjacent to the original town limits there was an undeveloped and frequently flooded tract with free-flowing springs. Today it includes property within the Maryland-National Capital Planning Commission’s Anacostia River Stream Valley Park and Bladensburg’s light industrial fringes. But 200 years ago it was part of Henri Joseph “H.J.” Stier’s 729-acre Riversdale plantation. Continue reading

The “Decatur Plan” revisited

Did Decatur, Ga., have a plan to turn its city all white as some urban legends and local rumors suggest? In a conspiracy theory sense, it’s not likely. But, the city certainly created an atmosphere through 35 years of official policies and resident actions that instilled in many African American residents a belief that there was a “Plan” to remove them.

[1] I told my mom recently that I don’t even want to live here any more because I can’t go to work in the morning without looking around, wondering which way I should go to avoid being stopped because I’m driving her car. I can’t come home at night without wondering if I should go down DeKalb Avenue or come down [Interstate] 20 and go through Kirkwood. I don’t know which way to even make it home and I can’t be comfortable. — Decatur resident, Decatur City Commission, 21 April 2014

[2] Decatur’s a great place. I love it. I love seeing the signs saying one of the ten greatest places in the U.S. to live. It makes me feel so good. But then I know there’s something under the carpet and y’all should know it and a lot of African American people do know it.

That we feel like we’re not wanted in Decatur.– Decatur resident, Decatur City Commission, 21 April 2014

[3] They’d be every day trying to get you to sell, to get out. I guess to get out so they can just finish so it will be all white. That’s what I think it is — Decatur resident, April 2012

The Decatur Plan wasn’t hashed out in a smoke-filled backroom in the towering former Decatur Federal bank building. Instead, it is a cluster of loosely fitting motifs or rumors built on a conspiracy theory originating in Decatur’s African American kitchens, living rooms, barber shops, and churches. Continue reading

Two Dukes, one building, and a whole lot of speculation

Curious coincidence? About 1913 young Edward “Duke” Ellington began hanging out in a pool hall operated by Frank Holliday in a building in the 600 block of T Street NW owned by Washington, D.C. physician Louis Kolipinski.

Howard Theatre vicinity, c. 1919. Arrow indicates former Frank Holliday pool hall location. Credit: Baist's Real Estate Atlas of Surveys of Washington, District of Columbia, Vol. i, Plate 32.

Howard Theatre vicinity, c. 1919. Arrow indicates former Frank Holliday pool hall location. Credit: Baist’s Real Estate Atlas of Surveys of Washington, District of Columbia, Vol. I, Plate 32.

Kolipinski was born into a Russian (Polish) immigrant family and he graduated from Georgetown medical school. He began practicing medicine in 1897 and by the first decade of the 20th century was investing in real estate throughout Washington. He owned several buildings in the 600 block of T Street NW including the two-story brick building where Holliday and later proprietors operated a pool hall. The Howard Theater, completed in 1910, is located across an alley to the east.

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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Silver Spring’s Perpetual Building may be historic …

Former Perpetual Building Association building, 8700 Georgia Avenue, Silver Spring, Md.

Former Perpetual Building Association building, 8700 Georgia Avenue, Silver Spring, Md.

… But not necessarily for the reasons preservationists suggest.

In 2007 Montgomery County, Maryland,  historic preservation advocates asked county leaders to add the former Perpetual Savings Association bank building in downtown Silver Spring to the county’s Master Plan for Historic Preservation. The designation would have ensured the 1958 building’s presence along Georgia Avenue in perpetuity. Instead, the proposed designation led to litigation and recriminations. The Perpetual case was precedential, examining the pitfalls of preserving buildings of recent vintage and the minutiae of due process in county master plan legislation.

The Perpetual Building Association was a Washington banking institution founded in 1881. It built branches throughout the District during the early 20th century and expanded to Montgomery County after World War II.  The bank became one of the leading local mortgage lenders, helping provide the capital for homebuilding in Washington’s rapidly expanding automobile suburbs.

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(Re)-Imagining Decatur: Gentrification, Race, and History in a Southern Suburb

A plaque outside Decatur's city hall proclaims it is a city of "Homes, Schools, and Churches ... settled by Scotch-Irish pioneers."

A plaque outside Decatur’s city hall proclaims it is a city of “Homes, Schools, and Churches … settled by Scotch-Irish pioneers.”

I was invited to present a paper at this year’s Delta Symposium at Arkansas State University. My paper is titled, “(Re)-Imagining Decatur: Gentrification, Race, and History in a Southern Suburb.”

From the paper abstract:

Decatur, Georgia, is an Atlanta suburb of about 20,000 people. Founded in 1823, the city is the seat of DeKalb County. Its history is much like other Southern courthouse towns and it follows a familiar path: farms, stores, slavery, Civil War, World Wars, and Civil Rights.

A Confederate monument is the most prominent historic object in Decatur's courthouse square.

A Confederate monument is the most prominent historic object in Decatur’s courthouse square.

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DC’s first tiny house movement was in the 1880s

Last fall, Washington, D.C., Councilmember Vincent Orange (At-Large) proposed building 1,000 “tiny houses” for low-income residents and millennials. His bill — “The Minimum Wage, Living Wage, and Millennial Tiny Housing Amendment Act of 2015” [PDF] — quickly drew criticism as being “gimmicky” and potentially discriminatory. What many don’t know is that Orange’s initiative wasn’t the first time District leaders sought to solve big housing problems with small houses.

Boneyard Studios Tiny House Village

Tiny houses. Photo by Inhabitat via Flickr.

In Washington’s earliest years, alleys housed horses and privies. As African Americans began streaming into the city during the Civil War, most alleys were converted to residential uses and many small wood shacks went up. These quickly became overcrowded and concerns about disease and crime followed. Continue reading