by Diana Kohn
Places, like people, have an official moment when they come into existence. For Takoma Park that moment was November 24, 1883.
On that day a deed was drawn up between B.F. Gilbert and Joseph & Sarah Burr. In exchange for $6,500, Gilbert pur-chased 93 acress of abandoned farmland from the estate of Gottleib Grammar.
Gilbert had no interest in farming. He was a real estate developer who envisioned houses nestled among the close-set trees, offering middle class families an alternative to the unhealthy living conditions that were their only choice in the District.
These 93 acres were the first of 14 parcels of land that would be stitched together to form Takoma Park.
The world has changed so profoundly in the last 125 years that it is hard for us to imagine life in 1883. Queen Victoria, who gave her name to the whole era, still had more than 20 years left as monarch of the British Empire.
Gilbert’s first purchase was the Grammar parcel, land once owned by Charles Carroll of Bellevue, brother of Daniel Carroll of Duddington who provided most of the land in Federal City, including the National mall and Capital Hill. Writing in 1890, the Washington Post extolled the “purely rural, untamed chatter of the forest there, in the depths of which the town has been laid out.”
Along with no cars, airplanes, air conditioning or television, we would have to get along without yet-to-be-invented Lifesavers, cornflakes, Hershey chocolate bars, and Coca-Cola.
Telephone lines were just now stretching between New York and Chicago. Edison was still investigating tungsten as the secret to creating an electric light bulb.The newly-opened Brooklyn Bridge and the first 10-story skyscraper in Chicago gave glimpses of the future, while Remington was revolutionizing business with its new-fangled typewriter.
Treasure Island, Huck Finn and Sherlock Holmes were delighting readers everywhere while the National League resumed baseball games suspended since 1876. And the railroads agreed to create four time zones.
The American nation was barely 20 years beyond the wrenching turmoil of the Civil War. Chester Arthur had assumed the Presidency in the wake of Garfield’s death from a crazed madman’s bullet.
The Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the Civil Rights Act of 1875 which attempted to guarantee all persons equal treatment in “public accomodations” and then declared that American Indians were not citizens.
The Washington Monument was finally nearing completion. It stood alone on the marshy fields that would one day be the Mall. The Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials were decades away. The city proper ended at K Street for all intents and purposes, though Boundary Street (Florida Avenue) marked the furthest reaches of development. It took most of a day to travel from Georgetown to Baltimore by horseback.
The Capital itself was flooded with post-war workers, eager to join the ranks of the government. Clerical jobs were now possible thanks to the Civil Service Reform Bill of 1883. Examinations and a merit system made it fairer. The presence of these workers who deserved healthy living prompted the 42-year-old Gilbert to undertake his radical scheme.
This was not Gilbert’s first development project. Born in upstate New York in 1841, he gravitated to the Capital as a young man. Over the previous decades he had tried his hand building rowhouses on K Street, and in a visionary attempt to develop the area now known as Dupont Circle (which failed when his fellow investors got cold feet).
But “suburb” was still a relatively new concept. People lived either crowded together in cities or isolated in the vast rural stretches. Gilbert envisioned a combination – men working in the city while their families grew up in the healthy air of the countryside. He realized that the new Baltimore & Ohio railroad provided a way to link the city job and country home.
Moreover, this would free families from the crowded tenaments and dangers of malaria and unsafe drinking water which plagued the marshy District.
The Grammar tract ran from the intersection of Piney Branch & Blair Rds., NW southeast on Blair to Willow Street, NW, then NE along Willow to Valley Hill in Maryland and west to Chestnut.
He jumped on the train to see what he could find. Six miles north of the Mall, he found the Grammar estate. The parcel included one of the 1791 boundary stones marking the District-Maryland border which divided the parcel in half. It was a distinction that he disregarded, an attitude which continues to this day among some residents.
Gilbert, a stickler for healthy living was attracted by other amenities: a multitude of underground springs not to mention Sligo Creek a mile north promised pure drinking water. A ridge of land (following today’s Cedar, Carroll and Ethan Allen) stood 300 feet above the District’s marshes and guided him laying out the streets. The tract, though densely wooded, was crisscrossed by Indian and tobacco trails that provided access.
The only thing he didn’t like was the name given to the train stop: Brightwood. But that was solved when one of his fellow guests at the DC hotel he called home, made a suggestion. Ida Summy offered “Takoma” – as an Indian word meaning “high up” or “near heaven.” He immediately adopted it, adding “Park” to complete the image. Fittingly enough, Ida and her husband soon joined Gilbert in the new community.
His first sale, however, was made on November 24, the same day he took title. Amanda Thomas purchased four lots (within a year she and her husband Isaac would occupy the first completed house in the suburb).
Gilbert offered lots at 5 cents a square foot (versus 50 cents in town), making home ownership a reality of dozens of families. Despite his real estate experience expansion was slow. By the end of the first year 70 souls (counting children) called Takoma Park home. By the end of 1886, there was a population of 100 in a total of 16 houses.
Each year brought more residents, who began to turn their attention to amenities like churches, schools, paved roads, a public water system. By 1890 the town incorporated as a Maryland municipality, with Gilbert elected as first mayor.
His last years were less successful. Buying additional parcels of land, com-bined with unwisely undertaking the construction of a 160-room hotel in North Takoma, left him overextended when nationwide financial panic hit in 1893.
Gilbert never recovered and spent his declining years as an invalid, dying in 1907. But the community he founded was ready to stand on its own.
The independent nature that Takoma Park residents consider their hallmark, was nurtured in the wilderness of early Takoma Park and is Gilbert’s most enduring legacy.
Diana Kohn is the Education Chair of Historic Takoma. To commemorate the 125 anniversary of Gilbert’s first purchase, Historic Takoma has asked the City Council to declare November 24, 2008, as B.F. Gilbert Day.
Catch more history: Jerry McCoy’s “Then and Now” column in the Silver Spring Voice relates the tale of Montgomery Blair’s mansion at Falklands. Pass columns of both “Takoma Archives” and “Then and Now” and are available online at takoma.com and silverspringvoice.com.