The History of Bethesda
Advances in transportation transformed a rural wayside stop into a bustling metropolis.
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Despite the industrial growth, a rural quality prevailed in the village. Horses grazed in empty lots, and sheep and cattle roamed the fields on either side of Wisconsin Avenue. But soon a revolutionary presence arrived on the road—the automobile. Industrialist Henry Ford had introduced his affordably priced Model T in 1908, and within the first year of production, more than 10,000 were sold. By 1926, nearly 15 million Fords were rolling down America’s streets—and engendering the rise of the new automobile suburbs.
The trolley had jump-started growth, but the auto threw it into high gear. All around the village center suburban communities rose, vying with one another as they promised luxurious homes in beautifully landscaped surroundings just a short car trip to and from downtown D.C. offices. Early subdivisions such as Drummond, Bradley Hills, Battery Park, Kenwood and Leland competed for a rising upper-middle class of home seekers, noting in their advertisements that “adequate and proper restrictions will be placed in the deeds” to insure “a high character of development.”
In 1912, local real estate magnate Walter E. Tuckerman purchased 185 acres at the southwest corner of the pike and the old Georgetown road, carved it into 250 lots and created a community for “those of refined taste, demanding a better social atmosphere than surrounds the usual suburb, a more picturesque environment for an all-year-round home out of the city, without the expense and responsibility of a large estate.” His gated community, originally called Edgewood but quickly renamed Edgemoor, provided all the modern amenities, including “pure artesian water, sanitary sewage, gas for cooking, heating and lighting, electric light and telephone service.” Gracing the center of the community was a large green expanse reserved as a sports complex for residents. By 1920, two tennis courts had been built in the open field, with a small grandstand shaded by a broad awning. A clubhouse, swimming pool, bowling and putting greens soon followed. The Edgemoor Club, still operating on Exeter Road, would reach acclaim in the late 1950s when Pauline Betz Addie—ranked No. 1 in the world in 1946 and winner of six Grand Slam tennis titles, including Wimbledon, and Forest Hills four times—became the club pro.
Exclusive sports and social clubs soon became a trademark of Bethesda living. The older Chevy Chase Club, originally formed in 1892 as a hunt club, and the Columbia Country Club, which moved to its present location in 1910 and hosted golf’s U.S. Open in 1921, were soon joined by an array of others, forming a wide green ring around the village. The Montgomery Country Club was established in 1913 along the trolley line operated by the Washington and Great Falls Railway and Power Company, following a route that is now Bradley Boulevard. It was soon joined by the Town and Country Club, founded by members of Washington’s German-Jewish community. The club moved to the northern boundary of Bethesda in 1921 and became informally known as “Woodmont,” a name that became official in 1930. Out River Road, Congressional Country Club, catering to the political elite, opened in 1924, as did Burning Tree Country Club, an exclusively male bastion. Kenwood Golf and Country Club followed in 1928, and one year later, in 1929, the Montgomery Country Club would be converted into the National Women’s Country Club. “Men are experiencing the women’s revenge,” The Washington Post reported. “Women have a club of their own now—one of the finest nine-hole courses in the country.” In 1947, the property became Bethesda Country Club.
Bethesda’s commercial district responded to the suburban influx with equal gusto. In 1925, the Bank of Bethesda tore down Lochte’s old blacksmith shop, which for half a century had stood on the northwest corner of the old Georgetown road and the pike—now rechristened Wisconsin Avenue. In its stead, the bank erected a handsome new stone headquarters, a building that, today dwarfed by its towering neighbors, still anchors the corner as a branch of SunTrust Bank.
Farther down the avenue, residential developers and brothers Monroe and Robert Bates Warren would unveil an entirely new breed of commercial building: the shopping center. Completed in 1927, the picturesque, Tudor-style Leland Shopping Center offered an unbroken row of stores stretching south of the eastern corner of Leland and Wisconsin. Residents of adjacent communities could now enjoy a stroll along the avenue, eyeing wares neatly posed in the center’s display windows. Across the street, local developer George Sacks would open his own stone-fronted shopping center, with angled parking conveniently located out front and apartments on the second floor. The northern end featured Northwest Ford’s sparkling auto showroom. More than 80 years later, the two centers still cater to Bethesda shoppers.
Business was bustling in the 1920s, as was the traffic through the village center—so much so that, on July 8, 1930, the village’s first traffic signal appeared, installed at the intersection of Wisconsin, Old Georgetown and the newly completed East West Highway. A State Highway Administration 10-hour traffic count at the intersection in 1930 recorded 6,000 vehicles traveling along East West and Old Georgetown, and 8,000 vehicles on Wisconsin, marking it the busiest intersection in the county. (By comparison, Wisconsin today has a daily average traffic count of more than 62,000 vehicles.)
The American economy rolled along with astonishing speed in the Roaring ’20s; fortunes were quickly made in stock and land speculation, and “a nice home in the suburbs” became de rigueur for the nouveau riche. Within a 10-year period, from 1920 to 1930, the population of Bethesda soared from 4,800 to 12,000, representing 30 percent of Montgomery County’s total population. Even the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 couldn’t dampen the explosive growth. The large number of government paychecks invested in home mortgages, filling the coffers of area banks and supporting local businesses, helped insulate Bethesda from the severe economic conditions ravaging the rest of the nation. County farmers banked on the village’s financial strength with the establishment of The Farm Women’s Cooperative Market in 1932, a self-help project selling locally grown produce out of a tent along Wisconsin Avenue. Later that year, the farm women would build a permanent market house that has been in use ever since.
Stimulus money injected into the U.S. economy by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs would bring new additions to the avenue’s streetscape, as well. In 1938, under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a new, classically inspired post office was built on Wisconsin Avenue. The neo-Georgian building was constructed out of native stone trucked in from the Stoneyhurst Quarries out River Road and is still a post office today.
Then came two ambitious government projects that would have a monumental impact in shaping the community. In 1938, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) began development of its new research complex at the village’s northern end. Adjacent property owners, as well as the Bethesda Chamber of Commerce, were leery. The NIH campus would change the atmosphere of the neighborhood, they argued. It would be unhealthy for residents if the government were allowed to study infectious diseases so close to homes. But then Roosevelt visited the proposed campus and gave it his hearty approval.
While touring the property, FDR looked out over Rockville Pike, remarked on the bucolic Bethesda environs and pointed out land he thought would be perfect for a proposed Naval Medical Hospital. The next year, builders broke ground on a soaring, 20-story steel-frame and reinforced concrete building designed by master French-American architect Paul Philippe Cret, who worked from a sketch inspired by the tower of the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln and suggested by FDR himself. At its completion in 1942, the Naval Medical Center, along with the NIH, would not only inscribe a northern limit to the expansion of Bethesda’s commercial district, but would eventually bring thousands of new workers to the area’s busy streets—and thousands of new homeowners to the exploding suburban communities.
A few years earlier, entrepreneur Sidney Lust believed the growing prestige of Bethesda justified the building of a high-style, major modern theater, and he hired the noted architect John Eberson— designer of Silver Spring’s Silver Theatre, today home to the American Film Institute—to design a lively art deco facility. At its opening in 1938, local papers hailed the Lust theater, then called the Boro (and today called the Bethesda Theatre), as “a triumph in modern theatre construction,” and messages of congratulations poured in from such Hollywood personalities as Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Shirley Temple and W.C. Fields. The sumptuous interior included a “streamlined lobby painted in modern designs” with mirrors, display cases, an elaborate coved ceiling and indirect lighting. Off the domed foyer were “beautifully appointed” smoking rooms and lounges, and the stage was described by the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Tribune as “the largest in the suburban area and equipped to handle presentation acts.” The building further distinguished itself as one of the first in town to offer central air conditioning.
Moviegoers could grab a quick preshow meal at Bethesda’s new Little Tavern outlet, opened in 1939, an early hamburger chain that promised “Cold Drinks, Good Coffee” and urged patrons to “Buy ’em by the bag.” Founded in 1927 by Harry F. Duncan, the chain competed with other pioneering fast-food enterprises such as White Tower and White Castle, each of which had created a distinctive style of architecture to advertise their wares. The Little Tavern chain adopted the “Old English” style of a quaint, pitched-roof roadside eatery, yet constructed of such modern and reputedly more sanitary materials as Vitrolite, tile, Formica and aluminum alloys. (The building today is home to the Golden House Chinese restaurant at the intersection of Wisconsin and Cordell avenues.)