A Rail Town Takes Stock Of Its Future

By Joan McQueeney Mitric
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, February 20, 1999

Born as a summer tent community for Methodist revival meetings in the 1870s, tiny Washington Grove is in the throes of its own end-of-the-millennium rebirth.

During the last two years, this incorporated railroad town has seen more turnover in its housing stock than most of its 437 residents can remember.

"Thirty-two new families have moved here in the last two years," said Ann Briggs, mayor of the sylvan settlement known poetically as the "town within a forest." Some newcomers are singletons, some young couples expecting their first child and some are older and drawn to the Grove for its potential as a quiet retirement retreat.

"It's such a special place," said Libby Maffre, a real estate broker with Realty Executives One in Gaithersburg. "Many properties are sold in a matter of days."

"This community just hugs you," said Tanya Anisimova, a Russian-born cellist who has lived in the United States for about eight years and moved here with her artist husband, Sasha Anufriev, in November. "The woods and small houses reminded us of Russian dachas in the countryside outside Moscow," she said. "We found it very, very cozy."

Anisimova and Anufriev have studios at home--"the setting inspires us," Anisimova said. The couple is renting with the hope of buying a house of their own.

With 200 wooded acres, more walkways than paved streets and a plethora of parks and open space, Washington Grove may be Montgomery County's closest replica of the Utopian communities of yore. A mayor and council govern, but any decision can be overturned by the townspeople at an annual town meeting.

In the 1870s, the oldest part of the town was laid out like spokes in a wheel around an odd-shaped central polygon called "the Sacred Circle." Here, in a tabernacle long since demolished, preachers held forth to weekend crowds of up to 10,000 while hundreds of horse-drawn buggies and cabs parked on the settlement's back alleys.

Gradually, these tent dwellings with their canvas sides were covered with wood. With their steeply pitched roofs, the narrow houses came to embody an American version of the romantic Gothic cottages so popular in rural mid-19th-century England. Today Washington Grove is an eclectic mix of Victorian cottages, brown shingles, cabins, bungalows and contemporary ranch-style houses. In 1980, the entire town was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Richmond Clapperton, 78, remembers coming to Washington Grove starting in 1923, when his mother bought a summer cottage there. The family would take the train from Washington, through the other railroad towns along the old Baltimore & Ohio line: Takoma Park, Capitol View, Kensington, Garrett Park. "When we'd get off the train in Washington Grove, it was like entering another world," he said. Fifty years ago, Clapperton converted the family cottage to a year-round home for himself and his wife.

The sensation of arriving in a different kind of place is still present here today, especially in full summer when the massive 200-year-old white and red oaks, the tulip poplars and the thick woods to the west and north canopy the town like a band of friendly sentinels. Trees, in fact, are a kind of protected species in Washington Grove: Roads divide around them, residential additions incorporate them, and everyone treasures them.

The Poplar Porch One much-photographed old cottage catty-cornered to the town hall has a huge poplar growing up through the porch floorboards and out the roof. After the recent ice storm, and in fact with every ferocious summer thunderstorm, "people spend a few anxious days thinking a lot about cutting down or limbing trees," said Briggs, a resident for over 30 years. But then, she added, they calm down. "Trees are really seen as part of our legacy."

After deciding not to merge with the City of Gaithersburg just to its north, the biggest battle in Washington Grove has been fending off the suburban sprawl pushing up and over from Rockville Pike (Maryland Route 355). The coming of Metro in the early 1980s accelerated up-county growth, as did the arrival of a fleet of large employers now lining Interstate 270's high-tech corridor like so many battleships. From 1984 to 1995 the area, which includes Gaithersburg, Germantown and Clarksburg, grew by 89,239 people to 174,800, according to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. That translates to at least 40,000 new housing units up-county in the same period.

Washington Grove has its own planning and zoning powers--tools that make it the envy of other incorporated townships--which it uses to great effect to keep this growth at arm's length. One legendary fight involved a multimillion-dollar suit threatened by Southland Corp., which owns the 7-Eleven chain, when the town restricted its business permit because it believed the 24-hour convenience store brought the wrong kind of activities to its tiny commercial strip. More recently, the town decided not to allow residents to run bed-and-breakfasts or guest houses in their homes because of concerns about added traffic.

Homeowners are allowed to rent out rooms, but there is a 30-day minimum because "we want to encourage people to come who will make some kind of investment in the community," Briggs said.

Besides its unique configuration and the fact that cars take a back seat here, Washington Grove tries hard to create a sense of genuine community. In March, mayor and clerk-treasurer Mary Challstrom will flip flapjacks at a Welcome Breakfast for new residents. In summer there is a community-run camp at Maple Lake, operettas and other musical offerings, town auctions to benefit area homeless shelters and the all-year, all-volunteer Acorn Library for children.

"Many parents have worked out novel day-care arrangements where they share a sitter or their house," said Challstrom, who has lived in her 1939 rustic cabin-turned-ranch house for 20 years.

But Washington Grove's bucolic setting and small-town ambiance are not for everyone. "You have to be an old-house-type person," said Cindy Houston, who together with her husband, Buddy, is expecting the couple's child in April. "The house styles are eclectic and often close together. You have to not mind that."

Growing up in an old country house outside Damascus, Houston remembers coming to Fourth of July picnics in the Grove and attending music weekends here. "I just like rustic." When the couple--both elementary school teachers in Silver Spring--moved in about a year ago, "it was a fantasy come true. There is an amazing array of really talented musicians, and the couple next door has a new baby," Houston said.

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