Town tries to stop time

Seclusion: Garrett Park, population 917, is surrounded by Montgomery County suburbs but wants to be left alone as it tries to `hold back progress.'

August 21, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

GARRETT PARK - It's a century-old town that residents wish time would forget.

Only one two-lane road runs in and out of tiny Garrett Park because the residents want it that way. There are no townhouses, the result of a public fight against them. And no home postal delivery. Residents pick up their mail daily at the post office because that's how they like it.

All this despite its perch in the midst of Montgomery County's booming suburbs, not far from the Capital Beltway and bustling Rockville Pike and the nearest Bloomingdale's, which can be reached without going through a traffic light.

"We try to hold back progress," said Marge Gott, a grandmother who has called Garrett Park home for 35 years. "It doesn't always work."

Case in point: A $2 million renovation project is scheduled to begin this fall at the town's solitary commercial building, a 114-year-old house that is home to the town office, post office, a cafe with outdoor seating, a beauty salon and a few other small businesses. The remodeling of Penn's Place, which started as a discussion about repairing the front porch, was in the works for a decade or more.

"It's been 10 years of reviewing the issues," said Mayor Nancy M. Floreen. "It's been studied and argued about for a long time."

Garrett Park grew up around the railroad, sitting right on the Baltimore and Ohio line that ran into Washington. The town was named for the president of the railroad, and it is still just three stops down the Maryland Rail Commuter line to Union Station. The original lots in the development were sold for $250 on payment plans of $5 down and $5 a month. Early literature promised it would be "the suburban town of the National Capital. It will be to Washington what Tuxedo Park is to New York, Bryn Mawr to Philadelphia, and Hyde Park to Chicago."

The official town of Garrett Park was incorporated in 1898. The reason for its existence, of course, was as a protest to progress.

Grace Spriggs, who lived on what is now Waverly Avenue, had installed plumbing inside her stately home, and neighbors were outraged. They formed the town just so they could outlaw what they called her "cesspool," which they considered unsafe and unsanitary.

"Of course, we got over that," laughed Floreen, a Rockville attorney and Democratic candidate for County Council in her time away from the unpaid post of mayor. "But in the classic Montgomery County way, we were formed in opposition to something."

A departure from the cookie-cutter mentality that has come to define suburbia, 100-year-old Victorian homes grace the leafy landscape alongside 1920s bungalows called Chevy houses because they came with an option of a Chevrolet in the driveway, 1950s ranchers and minimansions now being squeezed onto too-small lots.

Many of Garrett Park's older residents boast about how little they spent on their homes - and are amazed that houses are selling today for 10, 20 and 30 times what they paid.

"We had a lot of young kids" living in the neighborhood, said Ned Dolan, a retiree who bought his house for $23,500 in 1955. "They grew up, and we've got a lot of young kids again. Some of us have died. I raised six kids here."

Some are concerned that many buyers are being priced out of a real estate market where a charming six-bedroom house is on the market for $1.3 million, where the median home price in the recent census was $342,000 (and that report is two years old) and the median household income was $126,000.

"When I first came here two years ago, I never thought [places like] this existed anymore," said Donna S. Licorice, the town postal clerk. She lives more than 20 miles away in Damascus. She can't afford to live here.

Her postmaster boss moved to Garrett Park in a different, and far more affordable, era.

"You have to do very well for yourself to live here, but I can see why [people want to live in Garrett Park]," Licorice said. "It's all secluded back here - country-style living in the middle of the city. I wouldn't mind living here if someone gives me a house, but working here's good enough."

In the 1950s, Garrett Park residents decided they didn't want cars from other communities cutting through their town - so they put up barriers to ensure that every road but one would dead-end at the town border. In the 1960s, they fought vigorously against a proposed townhouse development. After a costly and protracted court battle, they bought up the land and turned it into a park.

One fight they can't help but think about every day is the one against that modern convenience of home postal delivery. In the mid-1950s, the post office announced plans to bring mail directly to the houses of Garrett Park residents and then merge the town's little post office with bigger neighbor Kensington. Residents protested. They were able to keep their little post office - and those daily trips to pick up their mail, something of a trade-off, but one that many of the 917 residents wouldn't do without.

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