By Wendy E. Harris, Volunteer Associate Archivist
In our last two articles, we used concepts borrowed from the world of historic preservation to discuss whether Washington Grove’s woods could be considered historic. Once again we return to the world of historic preservation and borrow the term “streetscape, ” which refers to “ . . . the character of a street, or how elements of the street form a cohesive environment.” If we take this as our starting point it becomes apparent that the character of Washington Grove’s streetscape is historic and its elements worth preserving.
Our streetscape, comprised of alternating streets and pedestrian walkways, with the Circle anchoring its center, is a remarkably intact reminder of Washington Grove’s camp meeting period. For the uninitiated, it is also remarkably confusing (readers may want to consult the map located in the Town’s directory). Its so-called “avenues” are grass or gravel covered and reserved for pedestrians only, while vehicles are directed to streets that are its so-called “roads.” Adding to the confusion, most of the avenues and roads share a name; for example Grove Avenue (walkway only) and Grove Road (drivable), Chestnut Avenue (walkway only) and Chestnut Road (drivable).
The streetscape’s most unusual component, a radial-centric street layout lying at its core, is based around a central open space (the Circle), with avenues radiating outwards like the spokes of a wheel. With the exception of Washington, D.C. and Detroit, Michigan, the radial-centric street design was employed exclusively at camp meeting grounds, most notably at Wesleyan Grove, a National Register of Historic Places designated Historic Landmark located on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.
According to Ellen Weiss’s 1998 book devoted to the history of Wesleyan Grove, City in the Woods: The Life and Design of an American Camp Meeting Ground on Martha’s Vineyard, there are only eight surviving examples of Post-Civil War camp meeting grounds with radial-centric street layouts. Washington Grove is among them. We know from historic newspapers and Washington Grove Camp Meeting Association records housed in our archives that this original core of our streetscape was in place by 1875. During the initial camp meeting seasons, its central open space (the Circle) would have been the site of open air preaching and conversions, holding perhaps a speaker’s platform and benches. By 1877, a tabernacle had been constructed within this space, able to accommodate 500 worshippers.
Grove Avenue, originally a path or rough roadway, connected the train depot to the Circle. Disembarking from the train and entering the well-shaded grounds, camp meeting participants were also entering a world that was distinct from the hot and crowded everyday world in which most of them normally lived and worked. As described by Ellen Weiss, in Wesleyan Grove’s Historic Landmark nomination, camp meeting grounds were worlds “ . . . with a different spiritual intent.”
Progressing down Grove Avenue they would soon catch sight of the Tabernacle, set in the distance within its circle of consecrated ground. This sense of otherworldliness would be somewhat compromised as Washington Grove’s seasonal canvas tents gave way to more solid and permanent cottages. We know from the Board of Trustees’ meeting minutes that the Association was moving forward with what were described as “improvements.” By 1886, Grove Avenue had been platted and cottages constructed along its sides. Nonetheless, the trustees sought to set aside Grove Avenue for other than utilitarian purposes.
In an 1889 Association Grounds Committee Report, plans were presented for removing large trees, including “one large oak,” that were apparently growing in the middle of the avenue, described as “ . . . a 20 ft. wide corridor. ” In their plans for the avenue’s future, the committee members envisioned “ . . . a public promenade only . . . a proper and ample walk through the center. . . ” By 1890, three other avenues had been opened, South (now Brown Street), Chestnut, and Maple. Within a few years arrangements were being made for “the perfecting” of various other “roadways,” an effort that was finally completed in 1896.
Association records describe how this work was accomplished at what had become known as “Grove Avenue walk.” Initially the avenue was “ . . . well rounded with clay so as to shed water from the center.” After this new clay surface was “rolled,” it was then topped with two to three inches of “fine stone” purchased by the Association and delivered to Washington Grove by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Having compacted the layers with a “heavy roller” (most likely steam powered) the job was considered done.
During the years immediately before and after the turn of the century additional avenues were laid out and “perfected.” The details of this history suggest that the avenues lying between the train depot and the Circle, together with the avenues centered around the Circle, were the portion of the streetscape created to serve a primarily “spiritual intent.”
Washington Grove’s alleyways can be seen to be the portion of the streetscape created with more secular purposes in mind. In Association records dating from 1897 to 1912 there are indications that Washington Grove was moving towards banishing certain activities (i.e. bicycle riding, carriages, and rubbish collection) from the avenues and restricting them to the narrower and less well maintained alleyways. We believe that the present-day streetscape’s design of alternating streets (former alleyways, now called “roads”) and pedestrian walkways (our “avenues”) is rooted in these early distinctions.
Sources from Washington Grove Archives (including library books and reference materials): Edwards, Philip K., Washington Grove, 1873-1937 (1988); Grounds Committee Reports, 8/9/1889, 5/28/1890, 5/30/1895, 9/1912; Montgomery County Maryland Planning Department Historic Preservation Office, “Design Guidelines for Historic Sites and Districts;” “President’s [M.D. Peck] Report to The Stockholders of Washington Grove Camp Meeting Association,” 5/30/1896; Washington Grove Camp Meeting Association Board of Trustees Meeting Minutes, 7/31/1893, 3/9/1896, 7/5/1900.
Other Sources: Baltimore Sun, “Washington Grove Camp,” 8/9/1875, pg. 4, NewsBank; Weiss, Ellen, City in the Woods: The Life and Design of an American Camp Meeting Ground on Martha’s Vineyard (1998), Wesleyan Grove National Historic Landmark Nomination (2005), https://npgallery.nps.gov.