Disney World often gets the same reaction Jim Hormuth had for Kentlands, a new residential development in Montgomery County that its designers say will help redefine the suburbs.
Standing next to his wife, Rosie, in the two-story foyer of a large colonial opened to prospective Kentlands home buyers recently, Hormuth marveled at the winding staircase, the palladium windows and the 10-foot ceiling.
"This is really something," he muttered, distracted as he ascended the stairs and took in the gilded framed pictures of red-coated fox hunters.
No less impressed was he by the Kentlands concept: A neighborhood that would bring back narrower streets laid out on grid, garages on the backs of houses, alleyways and everybody living near a corner store, post office or church.
It is a radical departure from the standard for post-World War II suburban tract housing forged by Levittown in Long Island and the Rouse Co.'s perfection of the cul de sac in Columbia.
The reasons may be rooted in an increasing disenchantment expressed about suburban living -- too crowded, too far, too alienating. Yet people keep moving there.
As spokeswoman Margie Valin put it, the hope is that Kentlands will offer an alternative to suburban sprawl by being "an urban oasis in the suburbs."
And one might ask, weren't the suburbs meant to be an oasis away from the city?
While Kentlands is in the heart of Gaithersburg, a Washington suburb in one of the nation's wealthiest counties, the plan is to make it anything but a typical suburban community.
Promoting the project much like a theme park, the Kentlands backers say it is a back-to-the-future effort at re-creating the 19th century, small-town flavor of an Annapolis, while offering road-weary commuters a place where walking is encouraged and conveniences are as close as the corner store.
A recent advertisement for one home builder at Kentlands posed the hypothetical, "Why You Can Name More of Your Childhood Neighbors Than Your Current Ones." The reason, according to the ad, is that the design of old neighborhoods encouraged people to walk their streets and get to know their neighbors.
Today's suburbia, in contrast, is made for the automobile. Subdivisions dot the landscape, as do strip malls and business parks, all distinctly separated from each other but connected by a growing maze of crisscrossing roads and highways.
In fact, so apparently tidy and appealing is the Kentlands' concept that the only thing that stood between Jim Hormuth's sense of marvel and a healthy dose of skepticism, was the price of the model home he previewed, which was tagged at $400,000 plus.
Still, the Gaithersburg residents who are looking for a smaller house when they retire in a few years said they were drawn to the idea of a neighborhood that offered a contrast to traditional suburbia.
"We all grew up with alleys in the back and private garages," said the middle-aged Hormuth. "The concept is very appealing, because these are things we need to get back to. The only problem is, I think it's too expensive for families and too big for empty-nesters."
Kentlands promoters point out that Hormuth was looking at an "executive line" of homes and the only model currently available for buyers to see. Later construction will include a mix of home prices and styles.
Not only will the community have the standard array of single family, townhouse and condominium developments, but garages are being equipped with granny flats and some stores will boast upstairs apartments.
Kentlands is the work of Rockville developer Joseph Alfandre in collaboration with noted Miami architect Andres Duany and his wife, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, who have developed the concept of the Traditional Neighborhood Development or TND. The couple have only one other TND to their credit, a small resort community on the Florida panhandle. But the 352-acre Kentlands project is expected to fully test the TND concept.
It has already caught the eye of officials in neighboring Howard County, who are searching for solutions to their own growth and traffic problems. Howard officials confirm they have spoken to Alfandre and say the developer is welcome to try something there.
Representatives for Alfandre will say only that they are 'u investigating the possibility.
In the meantime, Kentlands has become a priority not only for Alfandre, but also for Duany and Plater-Zyberk, who have set up offices at Kentlands, where they hope to establish a mid-Atlantic presence.
So far, only one builder has opened model homes at the site, but other builders are expected to follow soon. Six homes have been sold in advance, and 17 lots have had holds placed on them, Kentlands officials say.
The lots are modest, from 22 feet to 88 feet wide. All are 100 feet deep.
The homes will all be traditional, with nostalgia provoking features such as iron railed porches, bricked walkways and arched front entrances. And all the houses are built along a straight line, counter to the zig-zag pattern of newer subdivisions.