Answer Man: Art Deco Homes Cast in Concrete

The Polychrome Historic District features multicolored  concrete homes.
The Polychrome Historic District features multicolored concrete homes. (By John Kelly -- The Washington Post)
By John Kelly
Sunday, December 31, 2006

I have always been fascinated by two unique homes in Maryland. They are on the right side of Route 29-Colesville Road, heading south toward downtown Silver Spring directly before the Beltway entrance. The houses are single story with Japanese-inspired round windows and what appear to be Greek mosaics near the roofline. These beautiful but odd little places also seem to have Roman design features, and one has a bright red mosaic door. I have always wondered about these little gems.

-- Elana Fate, Colesville

The thousands of commuters who whip past (or inch past, depending on traffic) those houses each day probably don't know that they've entered the Polychrome Historic District. But they have. (It was designated thusly in 1996 by the National Register of Historic Places.)

The Polychrome Historic District includes those two art deco houses that face Route 29 as well as three behind them, on Sutherland Road. All were built by John Joseph Earley, an architectural sculptor who was able to create beauty out of that most mundane of materials: concrete.

Earley was born in 1881 in New York. He moved to Washington as a child, when his father, a fourth-generation stone carver, set up a workshop in Foggy Bottom.

Concrete, you'll recall, is the age-old mixture of cement, water and what's known as aggregate, usually sand or gravel. Earley's brainstorm was to experiment with that aggregate, using it not just as a structural element but as a decorative one as well.

His first great work was at Meridian Hill Park on 16th Street NW, where he made the walls, stairs and balustrades. After pouring concrete into molds, his workmen used wire brushes to scrape away a layer of cement, exposing the aggregate underneath -- pebbles that had been dredged from the bottom of the Potomac River. The result was unlike anything that had been done before with concrete.

The five Silver Spring houses were built in the early 1930s and show the artistic look Earley strived for, with interesting textures and painterly decorative flourishes. The different aggregate colors he employed -- reds, greens and blues, in such materials as quartz, glass, marble and ceramics -- inspired the name polychrome. The method can also be seen in the nave and aisles of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart at 16th Street and Park Road NW and on a decorative panel above the entrance to the Walker Building, at 734 15th St. NW.

Earley worked out of a studio in Rosslyn. When he died in 1945, his method -- time-consuming, labor-intensive -- petered out, too.

An article in The Post in 1936 said of Earley's work: "It is a common thing to say that every epoch of history finds its expression through a new technical medium which serves the purpose of the artist and corresponds to what the profane public asks of the artist."

Well, that may have been a common thing to say in 1936, but Answer Man isn't so sure about that today.

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Julie Feldmeier helped research this column. Send your questions

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