TAKOMA ARCHIVES • DIANA KOHN
The self-guided Takoma Park House and Garden Tour offers the opportunity to explore a dozen houses in the neighborhood developed by town founder B.F. Gilbert beginning in 1889. His newly-established suburb of Takoma Park was barely six years old when he turned his attention to the farmland along the B&O railroad line heading toward Silver Spring.
Trains were key to the town’s early development, providing federal workers with a direct link to their jobs in Washington DC. Gilbert wanted to capitalize on the railroad’s presence and laid out generous lots along Takoma Avenue facing the tracks. He hoped grand houses might one day entice passengers to settle here. Buyers were encouraged to purchase more than one lot, and many did.
As an added incentive, he arranged for a whistle stop platform between the Takoma Park station on Cedar Street and the one at Silver Spring, so future residents could step off the train closer to their front door. Today this area is Ziegler Park.
One of the earliest arrivals was Rosetta Douglass, eldest child of Frederick Douglass, the slave who became America’s great abolitionist. She and her husband Nathan Sprague bought five lots at the corner of Takoma and Baltimore Avenues. Their stay was cut short, and ironically restrictions were added to the deed barring purchase or sale to African Americans.
By 1930, trains had given way to automobiles. To accommodate the traffic, Chestnut Avenue, which divided North Takoma from Old Takoma, was targeted for widening. New construction tunneled under the railroad tracks and Piney Branch Road was extended north into Maryland, effectively wiping out several blocks of Chestnut.
Houses on the east side of old Chestnut were safe, but several houses on Takoma Avenue closest to Chestnut were in the way and marked for demolition. One family, the Dawkins, took a novel approach. They jacked up their entire house, transferred it onto log rollers and used horses to slowly drag it two blocks up Takoma Avenue for installation on a new foundation. The results can be seen as part of the tour.
The new road configuration left behind a small triangle park bound by Takoma, Eastern and Piney Branch. The townspeople turned it into a memorial park, complete with a 10-ton boulder, dragged out of Sligo Creek, as its centerpiece. On July 4, 1939, the newly-landscaped space was dedicated to Gilbert as town founder. The park will serve as “tour central” on May 6.
Meanwhile, the residential neighborhood was expanding with a mix of styles: Victorians, Arts-and-Crafts, American Four-Square, Greek Revival, and lots of bungalows, many of them Sears kit houses. Several examples appear on the tour.
Residents included Frederick Meyer, a botanist at the Agricultural Department and curator at the National Arboretum, who shared his workday and passion for azaleas with neighbor Benjamin Y. Morrison. Mystery writer Martha Grimes created her best-selling Richard Jury English whodunits from a cottage on Albany Avenue.
Thanks to the successful freeway fight of the 1960s, the neighborhood was spared, and historic district status added further protections in 1992. In addition, several of the Takoma Avenue homes were rescued from decades of neglect and alterations creating boarding houses and nursing homes, and restored to their original grandeur. Several new homes were carefully constructed on unused extra lots to fit into the historic streetscape.
The House and Garden Tour offers an up close glimpse into both old and new North Takoma. The tour runs 1-5 p.m, rain or shine. Advance tickets are $18, available online at www.historictakoma.org. On tour day, ticket central at Upper Portal Park will sell tickets for $20 and distribute the tour brochure, which identifies and describes the house locations. Proceeds from the tour support Historic Takoma.