Victorian Charm Meets the March of Progress

Beverly Donald sits with daughter Brooke, 4, left, and friend Lily Greenberg, 3, on the Donalds' screened porch with its view of the mountains.
Beverly Donald sits with daughter Brooke, 4, left, and friend Lily Greenberg, 3, on the Donalds' screened porch with its view of the mountains. (By Eugene L. Meyer For The Washington Post)

By Eugene L. Meyer
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, December 3, 2005

The hills and valleys around Frederick within interstate commuting distance from Washington are awash with new subdivisions. But atop Braddock Mountain off Alternate U.S. Route 40, there's still what appears to be a Victorian small town with a view.

"Braddock has a spirit that kind of grabs hold of us," said Mona Thiel, who with her husband, Douglas, in 2002 bought "my dream Victorian home" on Maryland Avenue in Braddock Heights. Old house photographs on her living room wall document that little has changed, on the surface.

In truth, Braddock Heights has undergone generations of change since it was founded at the turn of the 20th century by a utility company that built a Braddock-bound trolley line, and a summer resort and amusement park to boost ridership. The trolley had its last run in 1947 and the park closed in 1966. But the unincorporated Frederick County neighborhood still has its own community park, pool and bathhouse owned by the civic association, a volunteer fire company, Cub Scout pack, Boy Scout troop, and historical society. As a 1929 brochure boasted, Braddock Heights, at 1,200 feet above sea level, is a place "where the air is invigorating, the scenery unsurpassed and everything tends to make life healthy, helpful and delightful." There are Web sites devoted to the town's colorful past, and the essential architectural and scenic character of the town remains intact.

However, the last of the amusement park buildings, the dance hall and skating rink, burned in 1987 and 1998.

The old privately owned water company is no longer in business, though litigation from its condemnation a dozen years ago lingers, as do several old fire hydrants adorned with "Out of Service" signs. Instead, homeowners pay several thousand dollars each to hook up to the county-run system.

The Grove of Golden Stars, a 92-tree tribute to Frederick County residents who died in World War I, is down to one tree. Memories die harder, though. James Cassell, born in Braddock Heights 61 years ago and living there now in a 1907 house, has raised funds for a granite monument where the arbor used to be. Except for military service and brief residence in nearby Middletown, Cassell has never left. "I guess it's in my blood," he said. "I just like Braddock."

In recent years, the big "cottages" that began as summer retreats and then devolved into rental apartments have been converted into single-family homes.

And Braddock Heights now has its first teardown, a 561-square-foot house built in 1930 that is being replaced by a 4,000- square-foot-plus house with a three-state panorama.

As in so many other places, home prices have "gone through the roof," real estate agent and former resident Dale Austin said.

Austin was the beneficiary of such appreciation: He bought a Victorian on Maryland Avenue for $202,500 in March 1998 and sold it in February 2003 for $445,000. It sold again in mid-2004, for $600,000.

"Braddock Heights has sort of been found out, become chic and eclectic," Austin said. "It is very much a porch community. Everyone stops and talks to you. A 10-minute trip to the post office takes an hour; you run into many people to talk to."

About 400 families belong to the Braddock Heights Civic Association, membership in which is required to join the pool. Perhaps 350 of these are Braddock Heights households, said Jerry Donald, the association president.

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