It’s several weeks away, but the residents of Bethesda’s Fort Sumner are gearing up for a long-standing tradition that best defines the character of the neighborhood: the Christmas luminarias.
Every December, the Fort Sumner Citizens Association helps residents adorn porches and walkways with hundreds of small lanterns — really just white paper bags weighted with sand and lighted by candles within. The neighborhood glows. Residents stroll through the quiet, tree-lined streets, kids “oohing” and “ahhing” at the beauty. Residents of other communities nearby come to the neighborhood to enjoy the show.
Residents say the tradition highlights Fort Sumner’s sense of community, its active neighborhood association and its place within the greater Bethesda community.
“It’s a really nice tradition that totally embodies the neighborhood for me,” said Rep. Ariana B. Kelly (D-District 16), who has lived in Fort Sumner since early 2010. “It’s been going on for decades, and everyone participates. I’m Jewish, but I look forward to the luminaria all year.”
The Fort Sumner neighborhood, which consists of 111 houses off Sangamore Road, takes its name from the Civil War fort of the same name. The fort was razed in 1956 to make way for homes to be built, according to a history of the neighborhood compiled by the Fort Sumner Citizens Association.
Fifteen different builders constructed homes in Fort Sumner, giving the neighborhood’s housing stock an eclectic character, said Tammy Gruner Durbin, 49, an agent with Long & Foster who has lived in Fort Sumner for 13 years.
Many of the neighborhood’s original ramblers and split-levels remain, though most have been renovated or added to. Durbin said tear-downs are rare in Fort Sumner, in contrast to many other neighborhoods in the Bethesda area.
Those houses don’t come cheap. The average sale price in the neighborhood over the past year was more than
$1 million, according to Durbin.
Durbin said Fort Sumner often serves as a “move-up” neighborhood for families who have outgrown smaller houses elsewhere in Bethesda and are looking for larger properties and houses with bigger rooms — a category that includes her own family.
“A lot of who people move here have fallen in love with the community but want a little bit of a bigger footprint,” Durbin said.
Doug Cooper, who has lived in Fort Sumner for 10 years, said his family is another example. Once they moved in, he said, they discovered it was also an ideal place to raise kids, thanks to its location within the Walt Whitman High School boundaries, its proximity to many parks and trails, and its many long-standing traditions.
In addition to the luminarias, the neighborhood also has a picnic each summer and an annual Halloween parade led by a Glen Echo firetruck.
“Traditions like that really help keep a community together,” said Cooper, 50, who works in the finance industry and serves as president of the Fort Sumner Citizens Association. “My kids really look forward to the luminaria and the Halloween parade every year.”
This year, the Halloween parade underscored another of the neighborhood’s best traits: its close-knit sense of community. When Hurricane Sandy left Fort Sumner’s streets and sidewalks littered with leaves and branches, neighbors banded together with leaf-blowers, rakes and trash bags, intent to clean things up before the parade on Halloween.
The parade went off without a hitch, Cooper said. Glen Echo Fire Department sent not just one, but four, vehicles to lead the parade, and kids from neighborhoods that had cancelled their own Halloween celebrations came to join the fun.
It’s not the first time residents have banded together amid adversity. Durbin said snowstorms often bring impromptu dinner parties at night and coffee get-togethers in the morning. After Hurricane Isabel knocked residents out of power for several days in 2003, Durbin recalls the entire neighborhood meeting outside for a grilling party.
Kids enjoy a sense of community, too.
“The first time we drove through the neighborhood, we immediately noticed the number of children playing in the street at the end of the cul-de-sac,” Kelly said. “It’s perfectly normal to see kids with hockey goals set up when you’re driving home. We’ve made a decision as a community that we’re not going to go tearing through the streets, because we want our kids to be able to do that.”
With its mature trees and high elevation, the neighborhood is ideal for outdoors enthusiasts, such as Gene Dessureau, 81, a surety bond agent and avid walker who has lived in the neighborhood for 23 years.
“People in Fort Sumner do a lot of walking, because we really are very, very close to the Capital Crescent Trail and the C&O Canal towpath,” Dessureau said.
Fort Sumner is also close to the Shops at Sumner Place, with a Safeway, a Starbucks, and other shops and restaurants.
The neighborhood is directly adjacent to a 39-acre, five-building facility that until recently housed the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. The compound will soon house 16 governmental divisions as part of the Intelligence Community Campus, Durbin said. Durbin said renovations to the 3,000-employee facility have caused “angst” among residents as loud, heavy trucks travel up and down Sangamore Road as part of the process, which is expected to take five years.
It’s one of many issues the Fort Sumner Citizens Association has played an active role in managing, Cooper said.
There’s one other reason Kelly likes Fort Sumner. As a Democrat serving as an elected official, she said, she likes that the neighborhood is “truly politically mixed.”
“It’s a really nice thing to be at a potluck and realize you’re having a lovely conversation with someone who’s a Bush appointee,” she said. “That’s a nice feeling to have in a community.”
Amy Reinink is a freelance writer.
ZIP CODE: 20816
BOUNDARIES: Roughly, Westpath Way to the north and west, Sangamore Road to the east, and Overlea Road, but the neighborhood also includes a short stretch of Wapakoneta Road and some houses on the other side of Overlea and Sangamore roads.
SCHOOLS: Wood Acres Elementary, Thomas W. Pyle Middle, Walt Whitman High.
HOME SALES: In the past 12 months, four houses sold, at prices ranging from $670,000 to $1.31 million, according to Tammy Gruner Durbin of Long & Foster.
WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE: Capital Crescent Trail, the Shops at Sumner Place.
WITHIN 10 MINUTES BY CAR: Downtown Bethesda.
TRANSIT: Ride-On provides bus service to the Friendship Heights Metro station (Red Line).