Where We Live

Art Deco Style Sparkles in Silver Spring

Polychrome, a 1930s architectural technique, uses colored stones.
Polychrome, a 1930s architectural technique, uses colored stones. (Rich Lipski - Twp)

By Janet Lubman Rathner
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, August 20, 2005

Renata Gould's three-bedroom Art Deco house in the Four Corners area of Silver Spring sparkles like a gem and an up-close inspection reveals why. Embedded in the exterior concrete walls is a painter's palette of tiny, polished stones and ceramics of red, blue and green that give the house a rosy glow. The dwelling next door, as well as three slightly larger residences a block away, likewise have sheens ranging from buff to orange. Complementary dark tile accents fringe the chimneys, windows and doors.

"When the sun hits, they shine like jewels," said Gould, 78, a translator for the FBI who has lived in her house since 1972.

The five houses make up what is known as the Polychrome Historic District. They have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1996.

"They are noteworthy for being a new kind of construction: pre-fab concrete," said Clare Lise Cavicchi, a historic preservation planner for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

The houses were built in the early 1930s by John Joseph Earley, a stonecutter's son and an artisan in his own right who shifted the multi-generational family business of ecclesiastical carvings to one that concentrated on what he referred to as "architectural" or "mosaic" concrete.

Earley's focus was on the small stones that are mixed with water and cement to make concrete. Working from his studio in Washington, and then later in Arlington, Earley began adding colored pebbles and crushed ceramic to this conglomeration. The aggregate was then exposed, or brought to the surface, after wire brushes were used to strip away the top layer of concrete.

The 12-acre Meridian Hill Park, a series of Italian Renaissance-style gardens constructed between 1914 and 1936 bordered by 16th, Euclid, 15th and W streets NW in the District, was one of the first projects where Earley applied his technique. The distinctive cream color on the walls, stairs and balustrades was achieved by adding white, yellow and light brown polished pebbles that had been dredged from the Potomac River.

Earley expanded the color repertoire when he added bits of quartz, glass and marble to the concrete used for the nave and aisles of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, a church at 16th Street and Park Road NW that was built in 1923. The addition of the reds, blues and greens led to a new name for Earley's concrete: polychrome.

Color and beauty are not the only attributes of polychrome concrete. Durable and less costly than stone, it seemed an ideal building material. A proponent of affordable housing, Earley built the polychrome houses -- two on Colesville Road and three on Sutherland Road -- as examples of quality residences for families of modest means.

With the exception of standard cedar closets and attached one-car garages, the three-bedroom, one-to-two-bath houses were unremarkable in terms of living space. Still, there was more to them than their eye-catching exteriors.

At the home sites, Earley put up wooden frames and then injected the polychrome panels into place. He patented this system, which led to pre-cast architectural concrete being widely used as an exterior-wall material for commercial office buildings.

For all that they offered, Earley's polychrome houses did not catch on. Although he was hired to build one other polychrome home near Capitol Hill, he never sold the prototypes in Silver Spring. The Depression, followed by World War II and government restrictions on nonessential construction, limited Earley's opportunities. Then, in 1945, while inspecting a parking garage construction site in downtown Washington, Earley suffered a stroke and died, essentially taking the polychrome formula with him.

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