by Diana Kohn
CASA de Maryland celebrated its 25th anniversary with the grand opening of its new Multicultural Center in Langley Park. The three-story brick building sits four blocks east of University Avenue at the end of 15th Avenue, in the midst of the 400-unit Willowbrook apartment complex.
CASA’s new headquarters was originally built in 1924 as the country residence for American heiress Henrietta McCormick-Goodhart and her British nobleman husband on 565 acres of Prince George’s County farmland they dubbed Langley Park, after the Goodhart ancestral lands in Kent. The $13.8 million renovation of the 28-room Georgian Revival house brings Langley Park’s past and present full circle.
Henrietta McCormick was born into wealth in 1854. Her grandfather Robert McCormick was the tinkerer who created the first reaper that enabled farmers to mechanize the harvesting of grain. Her uncle Cyrus and her father Leander perfected and patented the invention that laid the groundwork for the family’s fortunes.
photo courtesy Casa de Maryland
CASA director Gustavo Torres addresses the assembled politicians and crowd; “Maryland is not Arizona.”
Her memoir, “Hands Across the Sea,” describes her childhood in frontier
Chicago, surviving the Great Fire, and annual treks to the West Coast
or England. In 1883, the same year that B.F. Gilbert was buying his
first parcel of land for Takoma Park, Henrietta married Frederick
Goodhart. By decree of Queen Victoria in 1899, Frederick officially
added Henrietta’s family name to his own, a fact that the New York
Times gleefully boasted was the first (and perhaps only instance) where
an American was so honored.
The McCormick-Goodharts were constantly on the move between his family
in England and her extended family in America but they decided to take
up residence in the U.S. following World War I. They purchased 565
acres in the rural countryside just outside Washington DC, and hired
George Oakley Totten, one of the premier Gilded Age Washington
architects, to design their manor house.
photos by Joseph Sherrock
The mansion was ready by September 1924, but tragically Frederick died
before the year was out. Henrietta lived there until her death in
1932, turning the house into the center of the British social scene.
Following World War II and the conversion of University Lane to
University Avenue, the push to build housing for the returning veterans
and their families prompted Henrietta’s sons to sell the first parcel
of family land in 1949 – for 1540 apartment units along 14th Avenue.
Soon after more than 1000 single-family houses were built north of
By 1955, the 200,000 people were living within a three mile radius, and
the crossroads at the junction of University and New Hampshire Avenues
had been transformed by three major shopping centers. Langley Park
Plaza opened in 1955 on ten acres of the northwest corner as the second
largest strip mall in Maryland, anchored by Lansburgh’s Department
Store. It joined Langley Park Shopping Center, which had debuted four
years earlier, occupying the center section, with a Dart Drug, Hot
Shoppes and Langley Theatre. Hampshire Langley Shopping Center on the
opposite side of University Avenue was added in 1960.
Meanwhile the mansion and the surrounding 25 acres, which had been
serving as a seminary for the Eudist Fathers since 1947, finally
succumbed to development in 1963. The 400 units at Willowbrook
Apartments engulfed the elegant Georgian building.
photo by Joseph Sherrock
Steel drums and stilt dancers entertained at opening day for the CASA center.
From 1950 onwards, Langley Park has been home to returning war
veterans, then European Jews, then African Americans migrating north,
and finally refugees from Central America and other Latinos attracted
by the large number of family-friendly housing units.
The arrival of the Central Americans coincided with the civil war strife of the 1980s. And that brings us to CASA.
By 1985, local churches and the immigrants themselves recognized the
need for an organization to assist the influx of refugees. The Central
American Solidarity Association was born. Housed at the Takoma Park
Presbyterian Church, two staff people and many volunteers began
providing emergency food and immigration assistance. Twenty five years
later, CASA is the largest Latino and immigrant service provider in
Under the leadership of Gustavo Torres, who has been Executive Director
since 1994, CASA has expanded beyond the original focus on Central
American refugees to address the needs of those arriving from every
corner of the world.
Currently 25 percent of CASA’s clients are
Africans. The mission has expanded too. CASA now has day laborer
centers in Silver Spring, Langley Park, Wheaton, Rockville and
Baltimore as well as an array of education programs, legal and health
services, and a focus on community advocacy.
Photos by Julie Wiatt
Mariachi violinist helps set a new tone for the CASA mansion on opening day.
Local kids recite the pledge of allegiance.
It was their advocacy on behalf of tenants that indirectly led to CASA
acquiring the McCormick-Goodhart mansion. After years of working with
the Sawyer Realty, owner of Willowbrook Apartments, the subject of what
to do with the deteriorating mansion in the center of the complex came
up. Home to Willowbrook Montessori School in the 1990s, it was now a
daycare center badly in need of repair. A deal was struck: CASA
acquired the building on a 99-year lease for $1 a year provided it paid
for the renovation. Then, at the 2007 ceremony kicking off the
campaign to raise funds for renovation, Sawyer went one step further
and signed over ownership to CASA for $1.
With CASA in control, federal, state, and Montgomery and Prince
George’s county politicians, along with nonprofit and private partners,
committed funds to return the building to its original splendor, to add
an underground auditorium, and to update the interior – qualifying for
Gold LEED certification in the process.
McCormick-Goodhart family members, including one grandson who retains
ownership of Langley Park Plaza and is therefore a neighbor, have
expressed their approval of the resulting transformation.
With the renovation complete, it was time for the official grand
opening. A festive atmosphere prevailed as more than 1500 gathered on
Saturday, June 19 for their first look inside the new center.
Fifty immigrants from around the world solemnly took the oath of
citizenship on one stage, while music from a second stage filled the
air. Water bottles proliferated in the 100-degree temperatures. The
official ceremony took place on the steps of the mansion with the
three-story fluted columns as backdrop.
One by one every local elected official from Senators Barbara Mikulski
and Ben Cardin down through Maryland District 20, and both Montgomery
and Prince George’s County Executives and Councils stepped forward to
applaud CASA and reaffirm their commitment to CASA’s efforts on behalf
of low-income Latino and immigrant families. The long string of private
partners, including Bank of America and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg
Foundation (whose name graces the building) as well as local nonprofits
echoed their sentiments.
Meanwhile the 20 protestors with their anti-immigrant placards were
barely noticed as they marched two blocks away at the edge of the
Then the moment came for many hands to cut the ribbon, and the crowds
filed through the mammoth double wooden doors. While some guests toured
the building, marveling at the restored interior, CASA staff
immediately set to work interviewing clients and fielding their