Charms and Challenges Of a Tiny Old Town

By Ann Cameron Siegal
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, December 1, 2007

For almost four decades, the citizens of tiny Brookeville, population 155, have really wanted one thing -- a bypass around their 19th-century village.

They're still waiting for that road, less than a mile long and deemed a "priority" by Montgomery County 20 years ago.

At issue is the sharp turn that two-lane Route 97 (Georgia Avenue) makes in the center of town.

That spot, governed by two stop signs and flanked by 200-year-old structures just feet from the pavement, leaves little room for error. Eighteen-wheelers nudge other vehicles off the road or intrude on private property to navigate the turn.

Brookeville, eight miles east of Gaithersburg and two miles north of Olney, has roots going back to 1794. It was never designed to handle the 18,000 vehicles that now pass through the intersection on weekdays.

Houses, trees, a church kitchen and even the local cemetery have borne the brunt of straying vehicles. In the past year, two of the town's antique iron lampposts have been destroyed. Plaster walls crack.

"Traffic is growing to where it's actually doing physical damage to the structures," said Michael Acierno, president of the town's commissioners.

Of the top county road projects being considered, Acierno said, Brookeville's is the least expensive -- one where "a relatively small amount of money could have a major positive impact."

David Buck, a spokesman for the State Highway Administration, said that despite the time that has passed, the Brookeville project is only one-fourth of the way through the process. The planning phase was completed in 2002, but design, engineering and right-of-way acquisition remain, and the money isn't there now.

Anna Unglesbee, a lifelong resident, is not surprised that the bypass is taking so long. Brookeville's charter was approved in 1808, but the state legislature didn't get around to issuing it until 1890, she said.

"Everything happens, to some degree, with political clout, and we just don't have that in this town," said Clyde Unglesbee, who has been married to Anna for 66 years.

"Basically, beyond the traffic, any real change [in town] has been minimal," Anna said.

Acierno and his wife moved to Brookeville in 2000 to be closer to the stables where their children rode horses. "Hearing a rooster crow through the night was a new experience," he said.

With its eclectic mix of "everyone from professionals to artists," the couple said, Brookeville proved to be welcoming. Residents are bound together by the challenges of living in a historic, still somewhat rural town, he said.

Because drivers' concentration is focused on navigating the town's main road, few have time to appreciate Brookeville's character and charm.

Doing that requires parking and taking a short stroll away from that intersection. You'll not only step back in history but also witness successful efforts at blending the old and the new. Architectural styles include 18th- and 19th-century Georgian, Federal and Greek Revival houses sporting various transoms, tin roofs, fieldstone foundations and multi-pane windows. Even new construction has a settled-in appearance.

Long gone are the two mills, tanning yard and blacksmith shop that once made Brookeville a bustling community. One reminder of Newlin's Mill -- known for processing a superior quality of castor oil, as well as ground limestone for plaster -- is a two-ton millstone in front of Brookeville Academy, an 1810 stone structure now used as a community gathering place.

Today, despite the bottleneck on Route 97, there are serene spots in town worth a moment's pause.

Behind the academy, there's a striking, large angel carved from white oak by sculptor Stefan Saal. Saal, concerned about an increasingly race-conscious society, wanted to design something that would transcend ethnic identities.

Down a gravel lane from the main street is an 1865 schoolhouse that was in continuous use until the 1920s. It was acquired by the town in 1997, and residents hand-dug around the foundation to help with major renovations. The building is now used for historical programs.

The Caleb Bentley house, more popularly known as the Madison house, sits on a knoll at the eastern edge of town. Privately owned, this became the nation's "capital for a day" when James Madison took overnight refuge there after the burning of Washington in August 1814.

Between the schoolhouse and Reddy Branch creek, a small new park showcases eight large flat stones, excavated from a nearby lot, forming a cozy natural amphitheater.

Soon, an informal nature trail will follow the path of the mill race, a stepped channel that once directed water to Brookeville's mills.

A boxwood-lined walk leads to Acierno's three-dormer Williamsburg-style Cape Cod, where a persistent cardinal taps on their kitchen window twice a day. Built in 1994, the house looks appropriate next door to and across the street from 19th-century houses, one of which served as Mrs. Porter's School for Young Ladies in the mid-1800s.

Chris Scanlon, who leads Brookeville's planning commission, said the town has worked hard to balance new construction and a sense of historical cohesion. "It's tricky," he said. And yet, so far, it's worked.

Brookeville's character brought Scanlon and his wife to town 10 years ago. The 2,000-square-foot frame house they completed last year shares property with a stone cottage said to have been used by millworkers. The mill cottage has become the Scanlon's guesthouse.

"Builders want to do large houses, but they're not compatible with the community," Scanlon said.

Richard Kirby, a local developer, recently wanted to build a two-story Queen Anne-style house with a turret on a gravel lane that snakes below the schoolhouse.

Town officials vetoed the plan, requesting an alternate design. While Kirby described the process as "difficult and time-consuming," he said it resulted in a "win-win situation" for him and the town -- a 1 1/2 -story frame house with a central fireplace and a welcoming porch backing to 11 acres of parkland and fitting nicely with the setting.

Despite the town's architecture and history, conversation always seems to end up focused on what Acierno's wife, Harper Pryor, refers to as "our interesting road feature."

Said Clyde Unglesbee, who served for 30 years as a town commissioner, "I hardly go anywhere without someone asking about the bypass."

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