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Chevy Chase's Conflict of Size and Sensibilities
'Mansionization' Pits Old vs. New

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 2, 2005

On a recent Monday, while she was waiting for the Venetian blinds guy to come, Nada Davis gave a tour of her home, which is sometimes referred to as a "McMansion" but which is more precisely a new Craftsmanesque house that replaced a Cape Cod about half its size on Leland Street in the Montgomery County suburb of Chevy Chase.

"They tore everything down but the foundation," Davis explained, describing how the old dining room became the foyer, the old garage became the kitchen and part of the back yard became the den. "People walk by and they're like, 'Look at how huge this house is!' And I just don't see it."

She climbed the stairs, stopping at a bedroom -- "See? This isn't so big, is it?" -- and up another flight to the playroom and the office as the tour took on an air of justification.

"I mean, what's so huge about this?" Davis asked, walking back down and through the dining room, the living room, the den and the monochromatic family room seemingly ripped from the pages of a Pottery Barn catalogue. She paused by the open kitchen, where a door led to one more room.

"I feel I should be embarrassed that I need a mud room," said Davis, 42, who moved from Potomac with her husband, a lobbyist for Occidental Petroleum, and their two children. "I just get tired of constantly having to explain myself."

But that is what it means these days to own a relatively large, new house in the town of Chevy Chase, a prosperous enclave of 1,032 homes just across the District line where people who could buy a new Mercedes drive an old Volvo instead and where they generally prefer their 1920s bungalows and painted brick colonials to the larger homes steadily replacing them.

While building a 5,000-square-foot house from scratch is common on the edges of suburbia, it is a more recent phenomenon in close-in suburbs such as Chevy Chase, and this summer, a group of residents there rose in revolt.

At two packed hearings in July, they invoked U.S. Supreme Court cases, Friedrich Nietzsche and St. Augustine's City of God in the name of saving the town's "special character" from houses that are turning it into "any other community in Gaithersburg." Among the arguments were that the new houses hulk over neighbors and create drainage problems, that builders are exploiting zoning rules and needlessly removing trees, causing, as one woman said, "global warming at the village level."

On the other side, builders and town residents invoked property rights and said most of the complainers had additions on their homes. But a six-month moratorium on new construction was imposed anyway -- albeit one called into question last week when a court ruled that the town had overstepped its authority.

Among his reasons, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Michael D. Mason noted the "long line of cases that the government may not use its police powers to regulate aesthetics."

Indeed, amid all the arguments this summer, something else has lingered awkwardly in the air: the sense that the debate over mansionization has laid bare a culture clash, an impasse in taste, mores and perhaps even values.

"We believe in 'Don't take up any more space than you need,' " said Don MacGlashan, a moratorium supporter who has lived in the town nearly 30 years. "They obviously feel 'The more the better.' It's a different sensibility, a different worldview. It's conspicuous consumption, meaning in a sense their values are all out of proportion."

It was about 4 p.m., and the sounds of hammers and saws drifted into the afternoon on Woodbine Street. MacGlashan walked into the back yard of his house, next door to a 7,000-square-footer under construction. He dropped his head back and squinted into the sun, up into the wood beams forming rectangles around it.

"A 140-year-old oak was right about there," he said, noting that neighbors could not persuade the builder to save it.

He walked inside his 2,000-square-foot, 1940s-era Tudor through narrow, unfashionable hallways, explaining how the old oak got painted with an orange dot, like a bull's-eye, and how he was glad he wasn't around to witness its unceremonious death. "That tree was our friend," said MacGlashan, a retired engineer, sitting on the couch in a living room decidedly not ripped from a Pottery Barn catalog.

"They moved the machines in next," he continued, then the old house came down in two hours (" Two hours!"), and now the generators buzz all day long, the sound of the life he'd known erased, or so it felt, just like that. Perhaps it was naive, MacGlashan said, but he had always considered the town a haven for people with similar points of view, and now it felt as though that haven was being usurped one house at a time.

"We all seem to have the same sensibilities of 'This is what we're comfortable with,' " he said. "And to see it broken is hard."

Prime Location

In the world of Washington real estate, Chevy Chase has always carried a certain cachet, and to people who've lived there a while, the geographic hierarchy is even finer. The suburb is divided into five sections, the most rarefied of which is the village of Chevy Chase, which has its own coat of arms.

The town is Section 4, enjoying the aura of the village while having its own slightly eccentric, less conspicuously prosperous patina. As longtime resident Gail Benensohn put it: "We're the people who didn't move out to Potomac when we were able."

It is difficult to pinpoint the first house that was bulldozed, but at some point in the calculus of commutes, mortgage rates and square footage, it began to make more sense to buy a house in a close-in suburb for the land underneath or, in the case of families already in the town, to build a new house rather than abandon a prime locale.

The smallest Cape Cod fetches about $800,000 these days; the more capacious replacements have surpassed $2 million.

With the real estate market booming, almost every street in town has at least one new house going up, so that to drive through these days is to enter a construction zone of orange mesh fencing and dirt yards with porta-potties covered with plywood for aesthetic purposes, but which look like porta-potties covered with plywood. White work vans roll down the streets all day, and the word "Tyvek" hovers at every turn like a prophecy.

Since 1997, 55 older houses have been demolished, and at an accelerating pace. There is a perception that speculative building is driving the process, but town officials say that accounts for only about half of the teardowns. The other half represents people, including some town residents, who are building larger houses because that is what they want.

This includes Laraine House, formerly of Bethesda, who bought a 1,600-square-foot 1920s bungalow that she describes as "old and smelly" and replaced it with one her husband, Art, designed obsessively for more than a year.

"This was really our dream house," she said.

It is more than 5,000 square feet of stone, glass and wood with red and green accents, a style House described as Craftsman, slightly neo-Victorian, with some Japanese and modern detailing: Brazilian cherry floors throughout, shoji screens upstairs and down, and enough room to host 25 for Thanksgiving.

"We have an endless pool," she said, walking across the sunroom and flipping a switch. The pool cover hummed back automatically. She pressed a button, and a jet stream of water began bubbling, creating a swimmer's treadmill.

"People who are calling these houses McMansions should go to Potomac," House said, referring to the farther-out suburb. "I mean, this is 40 feet wide," she said, adding, "Of course, it does go back. But it's not a McMansion. . . . We're very proud of this house, and I hope everyone in the neighborhood will allow me to enjoy it without feeling guilty."

Longtime residents of Chevy Chase grudgingly approve of some of the new houses, and the more politically savvy realize that it does not serve their cause to veer off such topics as drainage. Even so, many of the new houses have managed to acquire sneering nicknames: Gaithersburg-on-Thornapple, the Gucci house (for its color scheme), the Red Roof Inn (for its tiled roof).

For some residents, it is not any one new house but the proliferation of so many that has led to a sense of impending doom.

"If you get a critical mass," said Chris Wright, pointing at a town map he had colored with swaths of blue representing houses he considers "goners," "the community changes from a cool, tree-shaded, green place into a hot . . . "

He paused. He tried to describe exactly what all those new houses symbolized to him, what he feared about them besides their mass. "It will change into a hot place without trees and without people. It will change the nature of the community from what we bought into . . . into a kind of barren, treeless new place where people stay inside their spaces."

As he sees it, the new houses, at least some of them, herald a way of life he imagines is different from his own, something akin to the worst stereotype of suburbia, in which nobody knows their neighbors and children play inside all day. As a neighbor down the street, Eileen Lawrence, put it: "Dear Lord, can't this community just not behave like the rest of the world?"

At the hearings in July, one speaker suggested a new spin on things, that the town hasn't "lost" the old houses but gained new neighbors: "I feel badly that you people somehow think that they're not part of Chevy Chase," John Murtagh said. "That's what you're saying, 'We've lost,' and that's the tone that's being carried forward."

Nada Davis and her husband, Ian, tell the following story: Ian was working outside on Leland Street, a block where most of the houses are new, the sidewalks a little whiter, the daytime a little brighter. A couple was walking by, and Ian gamely asked what they thought of the house. Apparently not realizing Ian was the owner, the man replied: "It's an abomination. Must be one of those Internet millionaires."

Nada said she never really felt like a "they" before she moved to Chevy Chase.

She has tried to be empathetic -- "Progress is hard," she said -- and even agrees with many of the concerns about the trees. "I'm all about greenery," she offered.

Even so, she has grown weary of "looks" she gets around town, such as the rolled eyes when she applied to widen her driveway or comments such as the ones about her neighbor's stone garden wall.

"I mean, to see a stone wall is pretty!" she said. "Stone walls are very expensive. My neighbor built a wall, and the other neighbors were like, 'Here comes the Great Wall of China.' . . . People say we're changing the integrity of the neighborhood, but I think it needed some change. There's a lot of sloppiness in the neighborhood."

She does not consider her house extravagant, but merely adequate and a deserved reward for reaching the upper middle class.

"I feel people are looking at me like I was born into money, like I'm some rich snob," she said. "You know, because you don't want to live in an old, dirty house, people think you're a prima donna. But my parents were Yugoslavian immigrants. My mom was a manicurist. My dad was a hairdresser."

At least on her block, she said, there is a warm feeling. Kids play outdoors, neighbors have martini parties and say hello while walking dogs. She is mystified by the notion that she is essentially different from whoever moved to the town in the 1950s or that her appreciation of the neighborhood is lacking. On the other hand, she said, using an adjective that evokes recycling and organic food, "this is a very crunchy neighborhood."

"I think anyone wearing high heels and lipstick gets looked at sideways. They're very judgmental," she said. "I'm moderate, but . . . I find that these liberals, they're just mean ."

A Continuing Divide

Around town, it is difficult to say whether the impasse is getting narrower or wider.

Don MacGlashan said he and his wife might move if it gets worse. Ian Davis often asks his wife why they have to stay in Chevy Chase, where people seem so hostile.

Last week's court ruling cleared the way for a builder to construct a 3,600-square-foot house similar to one derided in town as the Garage House for its prominent two-car garage in front. While builders see the ruling as a precedent they can use to file their own lawsuits against the town, people such as Bruce Russell remain determined to wrestle the mighty pressures of the Washington real estate market to the ground.

"If you're telling me the bottom line is money, then I'm telling you, you are not going to make money off of me," he said, walking his dog in the neighborhood.

As he sees it, the issue is not so much taste as what he considers the obnoxious attitude of some residents and builders who took two trees when they might have taken one, or built 40 feet wide when 35 might have sufficed.

"See?" he said, passing the frame of a house rising toward the sky. "Every year, it's bigger, it's bigger, it's bigger. I don't know why."

He turned down Walsh Street, where a new homeowner pulled up in a pickup.

"We like all the big houses!" the homeowner yelled at Russell, who ignored him.

"Again, this is what they're doing to the water," Russell continued, pointing out how runoff is being piped onto the street.

The man walked up to his front porch and yelled out in an effeminate voice: "The water's coming! The water's coming! The psychos are coming! Why don't you do something with your life?"

"That's very mature," Russell finally called back.

"See? That's what we're facing here. He lumped me into a group. The problem is, everyone gets lumped into a group," Russell said.

Later, the man who had yelled, Brian Kehoe, a builder in town, said of the pro-moratorium crowd: "They never tell you everything they're thinking."

He has built 7,000-square-foot houses in town as well as smaller ones, such as his own 4,200-square-footer with a waterfall and goldfish pond in back. "I'm a high school dropout," Kehoe said. "And I'm damn proud of what I did."

He walked onto his porch and looked across the street, where three houses were in various stages of construction.

Besides the obvious financial impact, something else about the moratorium, the whole debate, really, rubs him the wrong way. He likened it to a form of class warfare, albeit among layers of the fairly well-to-do, in which one group was trying prevent the other from elbowing into their piece of suburban paradise.

"So, it's vinyl siding," he said, looking at the house across the street. "It's fake stone on the bottom. It's not exactly what they wanted, but it was what they could afford. I think that's what's great about America."

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