AT HOME IN SILVER SPRING • BY STEVE KNIGHT and KAREN BURDITT
We like thinking of history as a series of layers. The layers are the different eras, events and people of our past that can be peeled back to discover the Who, What, and Why of our current condition. Knowing our history gives us a sense of place and belonging. This sense of belonging is our heritage.
This article reviews some of the early history that shaped the community as we know it today and we will touch on some of our older neighborhoods.
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Too often our interaction with history is on a very piecemeal basis. Days, events, people and buildings from long ago come to us in bite sized portions. While there is nothing wrong with the warm glow of nostalgia recollecting these things gives us, it oftentimes weakens our connection to the past rather than reinforcing it. This is why we have a fascination with maps. We study them because they give us a sense of connection to a larger whole. Because of their layered nature, maps show both the past and the present, and studying them can help us to reinforce those connections and build on our sense of heritage. We are grateful to our friends, architects Dan and Melanie Morales of Silver Spring Park, for developing the historic map you see here, outlining the major features of the present: the routes, boundaries, natural features and core neighborhoods.
While we love history, we are not historians. We are offering only a broad brush sketch of the community’s history. There are plenty of others who have thoroughly documented this: The two Images of America books by Jerry McCoy for Silver Spring and one for Montgomery County by Michael Dwyer plus The 300 Year History of Silver Spring, Maryland by Richard Jaffeson are just a few of the sources we would recommend you read. We are grateful to them for sharing so much about our history.
Blair, Gist, Selim, Noyes and Falkland are familiar place names for us. Blair Road, Gist Avenue, Selim Road, Noyes Drive and the Falkland Apartments are all part of our current community, but these names go much further back to the origins of Silver Spring by the principal land owning families in the area. The Blairs, Lees and Carrolls were major land owners in the immediate area of what we now consider Downtown Silver Spring. Arriving in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these families built large rural estates, but arrived here in large measure because of their connection to the new federal government.
To the north, the Daniel and Eleanor Carroll Family purchased property stretching from Rock Creek to Sligo Creek in the area that now includes Forest Glen. Their eldest son Daniel was commissioned by President Washington to survey the original boundaries for the District and their second son, John, was an ordained priest and is credited with founding Georgetown University.
South Silver Spring was an undeveloped patch of land when Francis Preston Blair arrived in the mid-1800’s. He and his wife Eliza Gist Blair developed a country estate on the northwest corner of Eastern and Georgia Avenues that stretched to what is now Colesville Road. A fixture in Washington for most of the 19th Century, Blair was an advisor to presidents Jackson and Grant. His city home, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, is now known as Blair House. As one version of the story goes, Blair was inspired to buy the property here after a country ride in which his horse, Selim, discovered the original spring while looking for water and may have bucked him off in the process. Due to the presence of mica in that spring, Silver Spring became the name of the Blair’s country estate. Like many of us today, but on a grander scale, Blair was a commuter into DC, the Silver Spring estate a weekend and summer retreat, visited by numerous prominent Washingtonians, diplomats and even presidents. The most notable of his sons was Montgomery Blair, also a key Washington figure, attorney for the Dred Scott case, Postmaster General under Abraham Lincoln, and a founder of the Republican Party. Blair developed his own Silver Spring country estate: just north of his parent’s, also on the west side of Georgia Avenue and known as Falkland. That house was burned by Confederate General Jubal Early during the Civil War, was rebuilt and was burned again in the 1950’s. The Victorian house stood where the parking lot for the Giant is today.
As these first families and properties aged, and with the expansion of the B&O railroad down to DC in the 1870’s, blocks of land were sold off to developers and soon became the core neighborhoods of Silver Spring. Within a couple of generations the first suburban developments grew from these original estates. We will now turn our attention to downtown and the core neighborhoods that surround it.
The intersection of the Brookeville and Washington Turnpike running north-south and the Sligo and Colesville Turnpike running east, now the intersection of Georgia Avenue and Colesville Roads, was the area’s original downtown and was called Sligo for most of the 1800’s. It was home to a general store and the area’s first post office. Continuing south along Georgia Avenue, we would find the Blair estates to the west and additional sparsely developed farm land to the east. The southern end of downtown was capped by the newly extended Baltimore and Ohio railroad (B&O) which was an at-grade crossing until the mid-1920’s. Because one had to cross the gate and pay the toll for the Brookeville Turnpike at what is now Ellsworth Drive to go to the post office, there was strong motivation by a subsequent member of one of the founding families, Gist Blair, to open another post office south of the gate. The first post office named for Silver Spring was opened across Georgia Avenue from the B&O railroad station in 1899. The original Sligo post office eventually closed and commercial development ensued along Georgia Avenue between Colesville and the District line to become the spine of what we now think of as downtown.
Silver Spring Train Station Photo by Steve Knight and Karen Burditt
Woodside is the oldest neighborhood in Silver Spring. Dating back to 1889, it developed concurrently with other suburbs served by the B&O Metropolitan Branch Trail, such as Takoma Park, Kensington, and Garrett Park. Extending from the train tracks to Georgia Avenue, Woodside was laid out with a regular street grid that included 1st and 2nd Avenues. The original larger Victorian homes lining Georgia Avenue changed to smaller lots closer to the train tracks. Many of the later 1920’s homes were built from Sears mail order plans. Woodside was developed to appeal to federal workers, many of them managers and administrators.
Silver Spring Park
Silver Spring Park was the next to develop in 1905. Marketed as a suburban neighborhood for workers in Washington DC and convenient to the Forest Glen Trolley line, it had several convenient aspects still evident today. In an era before car ownership was common, Silver Spring Park was within walking distance of the commercial core along Georgia Avenue. There were sidewalks and utilities, and the lots were small and the houses tight and economical. As we explored in a previous article the houses were often kit homes from a mail order distributor, shipped on a rail flatcar and carted to the site. Much like Woodside, the housing styles are varied, including bungalows, shingle style, colonial and romantic revival.
Woodside Park was once the Alton estate of Crosby Noyes, owner and publisher of the Evening Star newspaper in Washington DC. Alton Farm was a show place of the nation’s capital with scenic vistas and landscaping. Like the Blairs, the Noyes played host to prominent Washingtonians, including President Theodore Roosevelt. After the death of Mrs. Noyes the estate was sold by the heirs for development in 1922. The new development ‘Wood side Park’ was specifically designed as a high end community with houses on 1 acre lots. A landscape engineer laid out the lots to preserve the existing terrain and trees. It is a more romantic style of suburban planning, inspired by the Garden City planning movement, where the typical street grid gives way to curving streets that follow the existing contours. Homes are set back from the streets a bit more and rendered in a variety of romantic revival styles, including Tudor, colonial and Dutch colonial. Sidewalks were less prevalent as more people had access to cars and a desire for picturesque roadways.
Seven Oaks was the last of the core neighborhoods to be laid out in 1923. By this time Silver Spring was firmly established as a community for federal workers. Here we see the trends mentioned in Woodside Park developed further. Sidewalks have mostly disappeared and the gently curving streets are again the settings for homes in a variety of revival styles and the neighborhood takes on a more suburban character.
There are of course other neighborhoods we have not mentioned, due largely to the lack of space here.
For over 150 years Silver Spring has been home to the people who help make the federal government. It has seen presidents and diplomats, authors and actors, and a great many unsung civil servants. This shared bond with Washington DC is one of the things that make the history of Silver Spring so compelling. Even though Silver Spring may not have the sheer quantity and density of historic fabric of places like Georgetown or Alexandria, there is a strong sense of heritage all around us and underfoot. And yes, a few presidents did sleep here.
Re-posted from the April, 2012 Takoma Park/Silver Spring Voice