Northwood News ♦ December 2015

The Northwood Ranch House Could Be Montgomery County’s First

‘History Corner(s),’ by David Rotenstein

The community builders who laid out the lots and constructed the first homes in Northwood Park were skilled real estate entrepreneurs.  The people who owned Garden Homes, Inc., selected an attractive and accessible site for their subdivisions.  And, they built homes finished in popular styles they knew would sell quickly.

One home built in 1939 stood out from all of the Cape Cods and English Cottage period revival homes they built.  It was a fully modernist home plucked from cutting-edge California.  Several years before other builders were marketing their own California cottages in suburban Maryland, Northwood Park’s builders completed what may be the earliest ranch-style house in Montgomery County.

Ranch houses originated in California in the early 1920s.  As a distinct style, the ranch house emerged as a regional adaptation of traditional adobe architecture and more modern architectural trends.  Within two decades of their introduction, ranch houses were being built in residential subdivisions from coast to coast.  By the 1960s, the ranch house was the most popular house style in the United States.


Source:  The Washington Post, 25 June 1939.

Ranch houses are distinguished by several features.  They are one-story buildings that emphasize horizontality.  They typically are constructed with open interior plans, low-pitched hip or side-gable roofs, and attached front-facing garages.  Ranch houses frequently have large picture windows and, in later years, sliding glass doors.

Many architectural historians credit the well-known builder Carl Freeman with bringing ranch houses to Montgomery County after World War II.  He called them “brick ramblers of progressive design.”  The residential subdivisions that Freeman began in 1948 in Takoma Park featured what he called “California Cottages.”  Freeman’s homes featured a “great expanse of glass,” modern appliances, and radiant heating.

Although Freeman was the first to build entire ranch house subdivisions, there were isolated California-style — ranch — houses built in suburban Washington.  These include a stone rambler in Arlington completed in 1942 and the Northwood Park “California-type home” completed in 1939.

According to a brief Washington Post article published in June 1939, Garden Homes, Inc., custom-built the California-type home for former Silver Spring residents William and Virginia Wright.  The following year, U.S. Census enumerators found the Wrights — both in their early thirties — living in the new home with their one-year-old daughter, Beverley, and Mrs. Wright’s 62-year-old mother.

Wright was an Iowa native who worked as a watchmaker; his wife was a D.C. native.  The Post article noted that the home’s design derived from a Life magazine article but it did not indicate whether the idea to build the home originated with the Wrights or the developers.  The article simply described the new house as a “charming California traditional-type house” with the same all-gas appliances that were being installed in the New York World’s Fair Home being built one block away.  [See the October 2009 Northwood News for that story.]


The Northwood Park ranch house on Sutherland Road. Photo by the author.

The Wright house was a typical early ranch-style home.  It was a one-story building with a low-pitched hip roof, an interior chimney, a recessed front entry, and a projecting attached garage.  The 1939 photograph published in the Post shows double-hung windows and wood shutters.  Seventy-six years later, the only significant changes to the home’s exterior appear to be a new garage door and the removal of the shutters.

This was the first truly contemporary home built in Northwood Park.  After the Second World War ended, new homes continued to be built that reflected earlier aesthetics, i.e., brick Colonial Revival homes.  By the early 1950s, however, ranch houses had penetrated housing markets nationwide and the ranch house replaced the Cape Cod as the most popular American home.

In the Washington area and in other Eastern communities, many architects and builders abandoned the early associations with California by calling their homes “ramblers” instead of ranch houses.  The local preference for “rambler” rather than “ranch” first appeared in the 1940s and it is reflected in the sales ads for homes in Northwood Park subdivisions developed in the 1950s and 1960s.

Located on Sutherland Road, initially known as “Maplewood Avenue,” the early ranch house was an inconspicuous hint at architectural changes that swept through the neighborhood during the Cold War.  Like the 1939 World’s Fair Home and the other model homes that the developers built between 1936 and 1939, the former Wright home is a modest yet enduring link to our neighborhood’s past.   ■


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