Edmund J. Bennett, nature-conscious community planner, dies at 93

Edmund J. Bennett, a self-taught residential builder and community planner who designed modern, nature-
conscious subdivisions in suburban Maryland, died March 10 at his home in Tucson. He was 93.

The cause was complications from an aortic aneurysm, said his wife, Diane Bennett.

(Tom Kelley/The Washington Post) - Edmund J. Bennett poses for a portrait at his New Mark Commons development in Rockville on March 5, 1969.

After a brief federal career in management analysis, Mr. Bennett turned a lifelong interest in architecture into a thriving business in 1953.

For two decades, he designed modernist, suburban neighborhoods that included Flint Hill, Potomac Overlook and Carderock Springs, all in Bethesda, New Mark Commons in Rockville and King Charles Commons in Columbia.

“The difference between an average subdivision and an outstanding one is the way the land is planned,” he told House & Home magazine in 1959.

His works were well-known for their contemporary style that incorporated the surrounding wooded scenery, a style characterized as “situated modernism.” All houses were modeled to cause as little alteration to the natural landscape as possible. Features included cathedral ceilings, skylights and open floor plans with sliding glass walls that allowed for natural sunlight and picturesque views.

By preserving the forest, it made “the community look as if it had been there a long time, even though it was brand new,” he told The Washington Post in 2001.

Puppeteer Jim Henson was an undergraduate at the University of Maryland in the late 1950s when he heard news of Mr. Bennett’s first development, Flint Hill. The future “Muppet Show” creator later bought one of Mr. Bennett’s homes there.

Another one of his Bethesda developments, Carderock Springs, was one of the first communities in Montgomery County to include cul-de-sacs and underground utilities.

In the late 1960s, when the Carderock Springs lots were still new, they sold for an average of $45,000. They now range from $700,000 to $900,000, according to a 2012 Post article. Carderock Springs was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.

“Bennett was really preserving the land, trying to minimize the impact of the houses on the terrain,” Isabelle Gournay, a University of Maryland architecture professor, told The Post in a 2012 article about Carderock Springs. Gournay’s research helped secure Carderock Springs’s place on the national register.

In 1971, Mr. Bennett sold his building firm to American Cyanamid, the chemical manufacturing company that was then looking to diversify its holdings. He stayed on as a developer until the mid-1970s, then became a founding director of the short-lived Century National Bank of Bethesda. He later worked as a real estate planning and development consultant before moving to California’s Bay Area from Chevy Chase in 1994. He settled in Tucson in 1997.

Edmund John Bennett was born in Washington on Jan. 7, 1920. His father, James V. Bennett, was a longtime director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and a prominent penal reformer.

The younger Mr. Bennett was a 1942 business administration graduate of Stanford University and received a master’s degree in public administration from American University in 1948. He also did graduate work in political science at AU.

Mr. Bennett was an Army Air Force veteran of World War II. He then worked for the former U.S. Bureau of the Budget and the State Department before being recalled to active duty in the Air Force during the Korean War. He retired from the Air Force Reserve in 1961 at the rank of lieutenant colonel.

His marriages to Wilda Peck and Louise DeHart ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 30 years, Diane Shaw Bennett of Tucson; four children from his first marriage, Martin Bennett of Sonoma, Calif., Elizabeth Soto of Tucson, James Bennett of Bethesda and Bruce Bennett of Fairfax County; three stepchildren, Deborah Shaw of Tucson, Daniel Shaw of McLean and David Shaw of Austin; a sister, Brenda Bell of Adamstown; 14 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

The first home Mr. Bennett built was his own. With two kids and one on the way, he decided his growing family needed more space. He soon realized he had talent for home building and could profit by it.

As the suburbs grew after World War II, his vision was for creating a “village” atmosphere.

“Small town life in America has proved that people like the sense of identity that comes from living in a real community,” he said in an interview with The Post in 1968. “They like to be able to walk to the store and buy a loaf of bread or a bottle of wheatgerm. That’s my premise.”