The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts about Silver Spring

Places


The dilemma for young people in Montgomery County

You're a Millennial working in Montgomery County. You want to be close to work, but you also want to be close to the action. Can you find both here? Sort of.


If you're a Millennial in Montgomery County, you might want to live in North Bethesda. Photo by the author.

That's something county leaders have been working on. Three years ago, Montgomery County began its Night Time Economy Initiative to bring in businesses by attracting the Millennial (or young adults born between 1982 and 2000) they wish to employ. Noting studies saying Millennials want to live in urban (or urban-lite) settings, the county has been redeveloping its town centers, building bike lanes, and revising liquor laws.

While the nation's largest generation isn't a monolith, there's some truth to the narrative. The county's young professionals tend to live near its job centers, transit lines, and favored hangouts. That generally means Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Rockville.

That said, for those who want the urban experience, the county has serious competition from other parts of the region, especially the District and Arlington. And if you work in Montgomery County, particularly outside the Beltway, you're forced to choose living in an urban neighborhood far from work or a more suburban area with a shorter commute.

I was thinking about that reading this recent email from Sky, a young teacher moving to Montgomery County and wondering where a Millennial should live.


Hello Dan (or Co.),
I recently read an article about millennials in Moco and am wondering if you would give me some advice about where to live.

I will probably be moving to the area to teach [in Gaithersburg] and would love to know where young singles live around the area.

Like your article said, I certainly want to be close to work, but I also want to have a thriving personal life.

If you have any suggestions, the would be much appreciated.

Thank you!

Awesome blog btw!

Here's how I responded:
Thanks for writing me and for the kind words! You've presented an interesting challenge: you work in Gaithersburg, but you want to be near the action. Those two things are (mostly) mutually exclusive, as much of the region's nightlife is in DC, 20 miles away. That said, this isn't an impossible situation. Of the 20- and 30-somethings I know who work in Montgomery County, they generally do one of three things:

  • Live in DC, and do the reverse commute. You'll have your pick of hoppin neighborhoods with lots of things to do and people to meet, and you won't have to drive home after the bar. You will, however, have to drive to work, though you'll mostly be going against traffic on your way out of the city. Consider neighborhoods like Columbia Heights, Dupont Circle, and Adams Morgan, which are both filled with young people and things to do, but also near major roads like 16th Street and Connecticut Avenue that you can use to get out of the city. This might be the most expensive option, since you'd be paying higher DC rents and paying for the cost of transportation.
  • Live in Gaithersburg. You'll be really close to school, and while Gaithersburg is a lot quieter than DC, there are a couple of areas with restaurants and bars. Kentlands is a nationally-famous neighborhood where you can walk to shops and restaurants. Old Town Gaithersburg has a growing number of Latino and African restaurants that are pretty great. And Rio/Washingtonian Center has a lakefront that's great for hanging out on weekends. The rents are generally cheaper than DC, though transit service is limited (there's no Metro station) so you will be driving a fair amount.
  • Live somewhere in the middle. The Red Line connects Montgomery County to DC and the rest of the region, and stops in several walkable neighborhoods in Montgomery County with lots of things to do and a large number of young people. You'll still get that reverse commute, though you'll pay a premium to live next to a Metro station. Three areas you might want to consider: Bethesda's more expensive, but has lots of places to hang out; Silver Spring (where I live) is more affordable, way younger, also has lots going on, and is closest to DC; Rockville is also more affordable and closer to Gaithersburg, but has less nightlife.
A few weeks ago, Sky let me know that she's moving to Rockville, which offers the best of both worlds: it's close to work, but also has a real downtown and access to the Metro.

For years, Montgomery County has encouraged the creation of more downtowns and town centers in places like White Flint, Germantown, and White Oak, while promoting the ongoing development of urban places like Silver Spring or Bethesda. That's great for people moving to the area like Sky, because it gives her more, and more affordable, choices for where to live. However, we still have lots of work to do in making these places attractive to new, younger residents, from creating more walkable and bikeable streets to streamlining our liquor laws to make it easier for restaurants and bars to open here.

We'll have to follow up with Sky once she gets settled in. But in the meantime: What would you tell a young person interested in moving to the county?

Bicycling


These detours will help you bike during Montgomery County's SafeTrack closures

As part of Metro's sixth SafeTrack surge, trains are single tracking between Silver Spring and Takoma. To help those who use those two stations as well as the ones north of Silver Spring, Montgomery County has laid out a bike route that takes riders to the West Hyattsville Metro station, where trains are operating normally.

Metro's sixth SafeTrack surge is the first to take place in Montgomery County, and on top of the single tracking, trains up to Glenmont and down to NoMa are only running 25% as often as usual. Officials are encouraging the 94,000 riders affected by this surge to seek alternatives like taking the bus or riding a bike, as well as teleworking.

As part of the effort, Montgomery County's bike planners designed a route that directs people from the Red Line stations affected by the current surge toward the Green and Yellow Line's West Hyattsville station.

At the Glenmont, Wheaton, Forest Glen, Silver Spring, and Takoma stations, MCDOT designed and placed large wayfinding signs to guide people on bikes around the track work and along the route it designed.


Dennis Avenue at the Sligo Creek Trail. Photo by the author.

From Forest Glen, Silver Spring, and Takoma, the route runs almost directly to the Sligo Creek Trail, a trunk route whose end is near the Northwest Branch Trail, which runs next to the West Hyattsville station. Signs direct riders along a slightly more complex route from Glenmont and Wheaton.


Map from Montgomery County.

The signs, designed by MCDOT just for this period, are the size of a political campaign sign, in bright colors, and placed conspicuously anywhere there is a turn in the route. They are temporary (and not made to withstand serious weather), so they'll be gone at the end of the surge.

Anecdotally, the signs have been helpful to occasional and first-time bike commuters on Monday morning, filling in known gaps in the permanent wayfinding signs on both county and park property. Also, one person I spoke to wished there was additional information on the sign, or a link to it, such as a web site or QR code.

There aren't directions west along the Georgetown Branch Trail to Bethesda because service is still slightly reduced on the western portion of the Red Line, but the bike route from Silver Spring to Bethesda is already marked with permanent signs.

For Surge 7, which will mean single tracking between Shady Grove and Twinbrook starting August 9th, the signs will highlight a single route from Shady Grove, through Rockville, and on to Twinbrook, where normal service will resume.

Elsewhere in the region, Greater Greater Washington contributor Joanne Pierce noted that she recently saw this handmade sign directing people toward the Huntington Metro Station:


Photo by Joanne Pierce.

It's not totally accurate—only the Yellow Line runs there—but it still lets people know how to get to the Metro.

Have these signs helped you? Are there upcoming events where similar temporary wayfinding for people on foot and bike would be helpful?

Politics


You can help shape Silver Spring's urban future

Silver Spring isn't a city, but it faces the challenges of one. Its Citizens Advisory Board, which advises the Montgomery County Council, has eight empty seats. If you want to help shape Silver Spring, from how it grows to how people get around, joining the board is the best way.


The Silver Spring Civic Building, where the advisory board meets each month. Photo by the author.

After decades of decline, Silver Spring is booming. Thousands of new homes have been built in the past few years, and more are still coming. We're home to well-regarded local brewers, butchers, and ice cream makers. A new civic building, town square, and library have given this community places to gather and celebrate.

Yet this rebirth is fragile. Rising home prices have led to worries about displacement and gentrification. Years of Purple Line construction could disrupt local businesses. There are ongoing concerns about crime and homelessness. And there's a tension between the reality of an urban, diverse, and inclusive place and some neighbors who want it to be suburban and exclusive.

Silver Spring looks like and functions as a city, but like most communities in the DC area, it's unincorporated, meaning all local government takes place at the county level. We have a County Councilmember, Tom Hucker, who represents all of eastern Montgomery County. But downtown Silver Spring and adjacent neighborhoods don't have a mayor or city council to speak for them exclusively.

However, there are Montgomery County's five Citizens Advisory Boards, each of which are appointed by the County Council to be that community's voice to the county government. They're similar to the District's Advisory Neighborhood Commissions in that they don't make laws, but they have some influence on issues you might care about if you read this blog, including transportation, economic development, housing, young people, and the environment.

However, unlike the ANCs, they're not elected, and they represent a much bigger area, sometimes as many as 200,000 people. Each board member serves a three-year term. They don't get paid, but they can get reimbursed for travel costs.


Montgomery County's 5 Regional Services Centers.

There are five Citizens Advisory Boards in Montgomery County: Silver Spring (which includes Silver Spring inside the Beltway, Four Corners, and Takoma Park), Bethesda-Chevy Chase (which includes Potomac and Rockville), Mid-County (Wheaton, Aspen Hill, and Olney), East County (White Oak, Colesville, and Burtonsville), and Upcounty (Gaithersburg, Germantown, and beyond).

The Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board has eighteen seats for people who live or work in Silver Spring and Takoma Park. Right now, there are eight empty seats. If you want to see this community continue to grow, attract new businesses, retain its diversity, and be a better place to get around, the board is an excellent way to get involved.

If you'd like to be on the Citizens Advisory Board, go here to learn more or send your application. You've got until August 1 to apply.

Once applications are in, Montgomery County executive Ike Leggett will appoint board members, and the county council will approve them.

Public Spaces


Silver Spring could get a big, new, temporary park

Downtown Silver Spring could get a big new park as part of a massive redevelopment of the Blairs, an apartment complex across the street from the Metro. The park will be temporary, but eventually several larger parks will take its place.


Plan of the new park from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

First built in the 1950s, the Blairs are a complex of apartments, offices, and a strip mall across from the Silver Spring Metro station. Owner Tower Companies will redevelop the 27-acre superblock over the coming years, replacing a massive parking lot with 1400 new apartments (there are 1400 there now), new retail, and four acres of new parks.

The first new apartment tower, called the Pearl, is under construction, but much of the new stuff won't arrive for a decade. In the meantime, Tower wants to create a park over one acre in size on the site of a future apartment building.


The Pearl under construction. The temporary park would go in front of it. Photo by the author.

Located near the corner of Eastern Avenue and Blair Mill Road, the new park would have a big lawn and a wood stage for performances. A playground and adult-sized fitness equipment would let people of all sizes work out, while a "fitness trail" would loop around the entire site. The park would also include a community garden and a temporary building that might house a leasing center.

While the park is set to go on private property, it would be open to both Blairs residents and the surrounding neighborhood. The park would be a welcome addition for neighbors who have clamored for more open space in the past. Silver Spring doesn't lack for parks, but many of them are either too small or designed to be unusable.


One of several new parks that will eventually come to the Blairs. Image from Tower Companies.

This wouldn't be the first temporary park in downtown Silver Spring. Over a decade ago, residents and visitors alike fell in love with "the Turf," an artificial grass lawn on Ellsworth Drive, and protested when it was removed to build Veterans Plaza. Possibly hoping to avoid the same result, Tower Companies will place signs at "visible locations" around their temporary park "informing both residents and visitors that the temporary green is the future location of a residential building, and that it is not permanent."

Bicycling


Some Silver Spring residents are against bike lanes that haven't even been proposed yet

Big plans for bike routes in Montgomery County are underway, and Silver Spring is a focal point. When one group of neighbors learned that the county is studying the possibility of a new bike lane near their homes—a far cry from considering any actual plans in detail—they immediately voiced vehement opposition that overstates the downsides and understates the benefits of bike lanes.


Sharrows at the intersection of Silver Spring Avenue and Fenton Street. Bike lanes on Fenton could make the area even more bike-friendly. Photo by Dan Reed.

Silver Spring has been designated as a Bike and Pedestrian Priority Area, meaning it's getting extra funding for bike infrastructure improvements. So far this has resulted in plans for separated bike lanes on Spring and Cedar Streets, with construction set to begin this year.


Planned Spring/Cedar Street bike lanes. Map from MCDOT.

In addition to these and other planned lanes, Montgomery's department of transportation has examined important downtown Silver Spring corridors. For example, there has been mention of studying possible bike lanes along Fenton Street, which could conceivably be implemented in conjunction with a massive PEPCO dig project on Fenton Street that will take place in the next several years.

But even with the study not underway yet, some nearby residents expressed loud opposition to any possible bike lanes. They created a petition with the following claims (all the capital letters are part of the original):

  1. Not necessary because there is CURRENTLY A DESIGNATED COMMUNITY BIKE ROUTE—"Grove Street Bike Route"—THAT PARALLELS FENTON STREET along Cedar Street, Bonifant Street, Grove Street and Woodbury Drive.
  2. A Fenton bike lane REMOVES PARKING and DELIVERY TRUCK LOADING AREAS from the Fenton Village businesses.
  3. A Fenton bike lane INCREASES MORE UNWANTED PARKING ON NEIGHBORHOOD ROADWAYS (Bonifant Street, Easley Street, Thayer Ave, Silver Spring Ave and Grove Street) because Fenton Village customers will seek parking on the neighborhood roadways adjacent to Fenton Street instead of in parking structures.
  4. A Fenton bike lane FORCES MORE UNWANTED LARGE DELIVERY TRUCKS, INCLUDING 18 WHEELERS, ON NEIGHBORHOOD ROADWAYS adjacent to Fenton Street for loading / unloading to businesses in Fenton Village.
  5. A Fenton bike lane INCREASES TRAFFIC ON THE NEIGHBORHOOD ROADWAYS, particularly on narrow Grove Street, a neighborhood roadway outside the Silver Spring CBD.
This level of vehement opposition is out of proportion to any impacts of possible bike lanes. Many of the concerns are also misplaced. To address all of them:
  1. The current bike route goes through minor neighborhood streets and consists almost entirely of sharrows since it would never have enough bike traffic to warrant protected lanes. Lanes on Fenton would serve as a much better connector for the Downtown Silver Spring bike network and would also make it easier to get to shops and residences along Fenton.
  2. There are four public parking decks and three public lots within a block of this route, in addition to adjacent private lots for shoppers. We should definitely work to develop strategies to better direct people to parking if that is a concern, but there is no shortage of parking. Moreover, MCDOT plans to carry out a parking study to identify any issues with parking in and around the Fenton Street corridor, with any findings informing the ultimate proposal.


    Public parking garages (in green) and lots (in orange) along Fenton Street. Image from Montgomery County.
  3. Parking in nearby residential neighborhoods is easily addressed with neighborhood parking permits, which Montgomery County seems to enforce quite well. East Silver Spring already has such a system, and it seems to work smoothly.
  4. We should definitely have a discussion about how best to accommodate delivery trucks, but there's no need for that to start with "NO BIKE LANES!!"
  5. Fenton is already quite congested at rush hours, and it's not at all clear how bike lanes would divert more traffic. More importantly, MCDOT plans to carry out a traffic study before making any proposal. And finally, a wealth of previous research has shown that well-designed bike lanes don't cause congestion.
In many cities both in the US and abroad, merchants have been shown to overestimate both the proportion of their customers arriving by car and the negative impacts of removing street parking spaces. In city after city, researchers have found little evidence of any negative effect of new bike lanes, and in some cities they have found significant increases in sales.

The opposition to these potential bike lanes also ignores that if the proposal were well-designed and implemented in conjunction with the PEPCO project, the benefits of the bike lanes could come at very low cost, with concerns about parking and congestion mitigated.

But we're never going to get that far if we allow loud opposition to shut it down before MCDOT even has the chance to make a proposal.

How to get involved

If you live in downtown Silver Spring or one of the nearby neighborhoods, you will have likely opportunities to hear from MCDOT representatives and provide feedback. Keep an eye out for meetings of your local civic associations and, should the process move forward, meetings hosted by MCDOT.

Montgomery County residents can also join the Action Committee for Transit (ACT), or sign up to receive the agency's email alerts—ACT advocates for bike and pedestrian improvements in addition to transit. Another way to stay informed about land transportation options, such as bike lanes, is to sign up for updates from the Coalition for Smarter Growth to hear about improved bicycle facilities in Silver Spring and elsewhere in the region.

Development


Washington ranks #2 in walkable urbanism; Maryland and Virginia outshine other cities' suburbs

The Washington region is second in the nation in having housing and jobs in walkable places, a new report says. A real stand-out for our region, compared to other similar cities, are the walkable places even outside the center city like Silver Spring and Reston.

The report, by Christopher Leinberger and Michael Rodriguez from the George Washington University School of Business, ranks the US's 30 largest metropolitan areas based on their "WalkUPs," or "walkable urban places."

A WalkUP is, in the report's methodology, a place with at least 1.4 million square feet of office space or 340,000 square feet of retail, and a walk score of 70 or better.

We're #2

The Washington region ranks second on this measure, after New York. The other top metros are about what you'd guess: Boston, Chicago, the SF Bay Area, and Seattle. The worst in the nation: Las Vegas, Tampa, San Antonio, Phoenix, and Orlando.

In Washington, 33% of office, retail, and multi-family residential space is in one of our 44 WalkUPs. In San Antonio, Phoenix, and Orlando, it's 3%; San Antonio has only 2 WalkUPs.

Fortunately, even in the lowest-ranked metros, that share is increasing, as new development is at least somewhat more likely to be in WalkUPs than old (in Las Vegas, 11% more likely; in Washington, 2.79 times; in Detroit, over 5 times as likely).

We have lots of walkable urbanism outside the center city

This region also shines on the share of walkable development in jurisdictions outside the (or a) traditional center city. In the Washington region, half of the walkable urbanism is not inside DC, but in places like Silver Spring, Reston, and Old Town Alexandria.


WalkUPs in Greater Washington, from a 2012 Leinberger report.

Not only are there some quite urban places outside DC (and suburban ones inside), but many of those weren't historically urban. Historic cities outside the region's center city like Newark (or Old Town Alexandria) have long been walkable, but Arlington and Silver Spring weren't. Very suburban land uses dominated not so long ago, and governments in these areas deliberately transformed them in a walkable direction.

In some other metro areas, that's not the case. The report notes that "the 388 local jurisdictions in the Chicago metro that control land use have many times stifled urbanization of the suburbs." Portland, New York, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Philadelphia all get mention in the report for high levels of "NIMBYism" in towns outside the center city.

That's not to say Washington's non-downtown job centers are perfect. Places like Tysons Corner have a long way to go before they really feel oriented around the pedestrian, and will likely never equal a historic center city in that way. But the governments of all counties around DC are really trying.

Even if they may move slowly, Fairfax County has a policy of making Tysons more walkable (and it did just get Metro). The same goes for Montgomery and Prince George's, and even a lot of folks in Loudoun, Howard, and so forth. Walkable urbanism isn't a fringe idea around here. Meanwhile, many of the SF Bay Area's towns downzoned the areas around BART stations to block new development when rail arrived, and a lot of those towns' attitudes haven't changed.

So, let's give a round of applause to Maryland and Virginia leaders, both in the 1970s (when Metro was being planned) and today, for at least being way better than their counterparts elsewhere in the country.


(Las Vegas is an outlier because it has very little walkable urbanism in the city, but the Strip is outside and counts as "suburbs" in this analysis.)

Walkable urbanism is also good for equity

The report also looks at how WalkUPs affect equity. In all of the metro areas, being in a walkable place commands higher rent (191% higher in New York, 66% higher in Washington, and only 4% higher in Baltimore, last on this list).

However, in the cities with more walkable urbanism, moderate-income residents living in walkable areas spend less on transportation and live nearer to more jobs, even if they may spend more on housing.

The report says:

This research has reached the counter-intuitive conclusion that metro areas with the highest walkable urban rankings have the highest social equity performance, as measured by moderate-income household spending on housing and transportation and access to employment. Of the top 10 metro regions ranked by social equity, eight also ranked in the the top 10 for current walkable urbanism The most walkable urban metros also have the most social equity.
Washington rated second in equity, again after New York. Washingtonians making 80% of the area median income spend just 17% of their income on transportation have access to an average of 56,897 jobs. In Tampa, meanwhile, such people spend 30% of their incomes on transportation and are near just 19,205 jobs.

Even housing in WalkUPs isn't as expensive here as in many metros, controlling for income, according to the report: Moderate-income households living in WalkUPs spend 36% of their income on housing, on par with Houston and St. Louis. In Tampa, that's 44%, and hits 52% in Miami. (It's 47% in New York and LA and 42% in the San Francisco Bay Area).

Places


Join us in Silver Spring for happy hour with Montgomery County's planning board chair

It's time for the next Greater Greater happy hour! This month, join us in Silver Spring with special guest, Montgomery County Planning Board chair Casey Anderson, who will tell us about challenges and opportunities facing the county and how to get involved.


Photo by Joe Flood on Flickr.

The Planning Board oversees Montgomery County's departments of Parks and Planning. It is responsible for approving new development, crafting master plans that shape how and where new development gets built, deciding where new roads and transitways go, and managing the county's parks and open space. If you're interested in any or all of these things, the Planning Board is where you can give feedback or input.

Tuesday, June 21 from 6 to 8 pm, join us at Bump 'N Grind, located at 1200 East-West Highway. While it may look like a coffeeshop, it's also a record store and one of the Washington Post's most underrated bars.

Bump 'N Grind is a five-minute walk from the Silver Spring Metro station (Red Line). If you're coming by bus, it's a few blocks from the 70/79 stop at Georgia and Eastern avenues, or the S2/S4/S9 stop at Georgia Avenue and Kalmia Road. There's also a Capital Bikeshare station right outside the bar. If you're driving, there's free parking both on the street and in the public parking garages on East-West Highway and Kennett Street.

This year, we've held happy hours in Adams Morgan, H Street, and Edgewood. Stay tuned for happy hours in Prince George's County (at long last!) and Northern Virginia.

History


One of Silver Spring's earliest schools had a merry-go-round, boat rides, and a carnival

Once houses had gone up in postwar suburbs, communities needed stores, schools, and other services. Sometimes builders provided these, but other times it was up to the public sector or entrepreneurs. That's how Silver Spring's Alexander School came to be.


The Alexander School, c. 1955. The Ferris wheel, bought used from a Pennsylvania carnival, is in the foreground. Photo courtesy of Kaye Kendall Giuliani.

Meeting suburbia's need for childcare and schools

In Silver Spring's Four Corners community at the intersection of Colesville Road and University Boulevard, suburbanization began in the 1920s and accelerated through the 1930s and into the war years. By 1942 enough families had bought homes that Montgomery County met the demand for new schools by building Four Corners Elementary School. Plans to build 238 temporary houses for wartime workers exacerbated the need for more educational infrastructure.

For younger children and to provide daycare during the summer, Hilda Hatton bought a six-acre former farm, one of the area's last remaining large agricultural parcels, and founded the Benjamin Acres School. Named for the colonial land patent out of which the property was carved, the Benjamin Acres School opened in the summer of 1943 as a day camp and nursery school for children ages four to 14.

Hatton operated the school until 1947 when she relocated to Annapolis and reopened it as a boarding school. She sold the property, which by that time included a two-story residence that had been converted into a school building and a swimming pool, to Ernest L. Kendall. Kendall (1906-1990) was an Oklahoma native and educational entrepreneur who had just resigned from his position as principal of the Capitol Page School in Washington.


Ernest L. Kendall teaches a history class at the Capitol Page School. Library of Congress photo.

Ernest Kendall goes to Washington

Kendall arrived in Washington in early 1931. He was a graduate of Southwestern Oklahoma State University. After school he began working in public education and by 1930 he was the superintendent of schools in Granite, a small Oklahoma town south of his birthplace, Weatherford. Kendall worked briefly in sales while he acquired his District of Columbia teaching credentials while studying part-time at the George Washington University.

Desperate for full-time employment, Kendall approached Oklahoma Representative James McClintic. The legislator suggested Kendall join the Capitol police force or that he start a school for pages. Kendall chose the latter. The District of Columbia School Board accredited Kendall and the school, a dank space in the Capitol basement, where Kendall developed a rigorous curriculum and extracurricular activities, including sports teams.

In 1946, Congress assumed control over page education and transferred administration of the Page School to the District of Columbia. Kendall received a contract to continue as the school's principal through June 1947. At the end of that term, Kendall and all of the other staff were dismissed. Four months later, he bought Hatton's Benjamin Acres School, renamed it the "Alexander School"—to get a top listing in telephone directories—and set about navigating Montgomery County's tortuous regulatory mazes to transfer the existing school license and to embark on an ambitious construction program to enlarge the school's facilities.

"He had a vision of what he wanted to have as school. So he wanted [it] to be a wonderland type of place," recalled Kendall's son Fred, who began his career as a camp counselor and who later became the Alexander School's principal. "It was exciting because there was a swimming pool there. Beautiful, beautiful grounds with old trees and things." Kendall built age-specific playgrounds and added an auditorium wing to the existing building. "He added a merry-go-round. He added a boat ride, like you see at carnivals and stuff, smaller version. And a merry-go-round and a Ferris wheel, small [in] nature," explained Fred Kendall.


Former Alexander School/North Four Corners Park Location. Base map from Google Maos, inset from Sanborn Fire Insurance.

Suburban amusement park, or school?

The Kendalls believed that their students needed a well-rounded education that included rigorous coursework, lots of healthy play, and exposure to the performing arts. The auditorium Ernest Kendall built was outfitted with professional lighting and sound systems. During the school year children performed in elaborate productions and in summers it was filled with cots for naptime.

Alexander School students and campers and many Four Corners residents recall an unparalleled recreational facility. Students got a quality education and exposure to the arts. Parents found a safe place for their children during the workday. And, Four Corners children used the school grounds after hours as an unofficial park.

"The school was not so much elitist as it was working parents," explained Fred Kendall. "His idea was that he had customers or clients who had to go to work. And if they had to go to work, they had to have childcare." A 10-bus fleet outfitted with radios provided transportation to the school. Kendall remembers that the school opened very day, even in bad winter weather: "If you had to go to work, we were going to send the bus."


Newly renovated North Four Corners Park and former Alexander School site. Photo by the author.

Ernest Kendall sold the school in 1983 to the Yeshiva High School of Greater Washington. Twelve years later it was again sold, this time to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission as expansion space for the neighboring Four Corners Local Park. The expansion plans, which included constructing a large soccer field, stalled for more than a decade as neighborhood activists opposed the agency's plans. During that time the vacant lot became a fallow field that neighborhood residents used as a playground and popular dog walking location.

Construction on the new park began in 2013 and was completed in 2015. The new space represents not only an improved Montgomery County amenity—increased parklands—but it also marks a new era of suburban recreation in the space first begun nearly a century ago.

History


Read about Silver Spring's ties to Tammany Hall

For a short time before the turn of the 20th century, a little bit of New York political intrigue played out in rural Montgomery County. A man named Carolan O'Brien Bryant, who tried (and failed) to build an estate in Four Corners also had ties to one of our nation's paragons of political corruption.


New York intrigue found its way to Silver Spring in the 1880s. New York Times, July 20, 1877.

In 1887, O'Brien Bryant began buying large farm tracts from an old Washington family, the Beales. Bryant began building a large estate where he hoped to enjoy old age and host national politicos drawn to Washington. Instead, his brief time there turned out to be a false start in the transformation of Montgomery County agricultural communities into inner-ring Washington suburbs.

Though nothing remains of Bryant's sprawling Four Corners estate, it is an intriguing chapter in Silver Spring history.

Born Carl Bryant, 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 the infamous Tammany Hall's Tweed ring as a self-described confidant of William "Boss" Tweed.

"That Infamous Villain, Carolan O'Brien Bryant"

Bryant lived a life shrouded in mystery and bedeviled by controversy. In New York he made a living as a journalist, yet people speculated whether he was an attorney or a real estate speculator. Though he had friends and relatives among New York's elite business and political crowds, most people beyond his immediate family described him as a dishonest cad.

Even Bryant's 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."

In 1866 Bryant married the daughter of millionaire Manhattan tobacconist, John Anderson. Amanda Anderson Bryant died less than a decade into their marriage and Carolan began raising their two daughters and son alone, splitting his time between homes in Tarrytown and the city. Anderson died in late 1881, leaving two wills and kicking off more than a decade of legal battles over the estate, most of which turned on Anderson's alleged insanity.


Cover from the 800-page New York appeals court case file in the Grand Union Hotel Case.

Anticipating his windfall via his daughters, Bryant moved with them in mid-1882 into a Manhattan hotel. The owners extended Bryant credit for room and board in exchange for a promise of payment with interest once Anderson's estate settled. They also fronted money for the children's education, clothing, and other expenses. "I well recall the circumstances under which the defendants, Bryant, father and daughters, came to [the] Grand Union Hotel," owner James Shaw told a New York court in 1885. "They were in destitute circumstances."

After three years, in 1885, the hotel owners wanted to collect the debt, which they claimed exceeded $19,000. They had learned through newspapers that funds from Anderson's estate for the Bryants were available and Bryant had refused to settle his accounts.

A sumptuous estate

The Bryants left the hotel in April 1885. By late 1887, as the hotel lawsuit was working its way through New York appellate courts, Bryant was in the Washington area. He bought two large tracts in Four Corners at the intersection of Bladensburg (now University Boulevard) and Colesville Roads. At the time, Four Corners was a sleepy rural crossroads hamlet with a few stores, a church, and homes.


Four Corners, c. 1894, showing Bryant's properties. Library of Congress map.

Bryant quickly began preparing the land to build a large mansion. He constructed a sawmill and used an existing home on the property as temporary lodging while construction proceeded. Local legends preserved in early 20th century newspaper stories suggest that Bryant salvaged stone and wood from New York mansions and recycled the materials in his new estate. The New York Times described it as a "large and expensive home" and the Washington Evening Star wrote that Bryant had built "a costly and elaborate house [with] fine grounds all around it." Others described it as a "palatial residence."

No photographs of Bryant's Four Corners mansion are known to have survived. Observers described it as lavishly furnished with a full library and art works. As for the grounds, one account noted that Bryant had built a conservatory.


New York World, November 8, 1894.

In 1894, Bryant lost the final Grand Union Hotel appeal and the New York press reported on his "$22,000 Board Bill." Despite the legal and financial setback, Bryant continued work on the Four Corners property. Three years later, he decided to sell the unfinished manse to a trio of Washington speculators.

The sale was completed August 13, 1897; less than a month later, Bryant died in Washington. Born sometime in the late 1830s, he was in his sixties when he died. His daughters, Amanda and Agnes, inherited what was left of his estate, and they lived the remainder of their lives in Allegany County, New York.

Bryant's mansion was destroyed in a "statutory burning"

As for Bryant's Four Corners mansion, it burned to the ground one week after his death. Officials determined that the fire was arson and the new owners were arrested in Washington and brought to Rockville for trial on charges of "statutory burning." Shortly after their arrest, two additional men were arrested and charged with conspiring to blackmail one of the accused arsonists. The criminal and civil cases spanned more than a decade.


Woodmoor subdivision, Silver Spring. Photo by the author.

Bryant and his daughters are buried in Rock Creek Cemetery. By the second decade of the twentieth century, the former mansion site was little more than an overgrown ruin. The property passed through several owners until the 1930s when a Washington developer bought it and began developing the Woodmoor subdivision. Once conceived as a grand Victorian suburban retreat, Bryant's property became an ordinary residential subdivision with no physical clues to its storied past.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City
CC BY-NC