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Bringing the Back Yard Into the Living Room
In Rock Creek Woods, Artistic Homes Embrace Their Surroundings

By Andrea Rouda
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, December 6, 2008

Outstanding architecture doesn't have to be wildly expensive. Consider the Montgomery County community of Rock Creek Woods, where every resident lives in a work of art, but the average selling price is about $600,000.

Each of the neighborhood's 76 houses was designed by the internationally acclaimed architect Charles M. Goodman, best known in this area for his 450-home community of Hollin Hills in Alexandria.

Rock Creek Woods -- labeled "Rock Creek Palisades" on official county maps -- is about a mile north of Kensington's town center. It's a self-contained island of mid-century modernism, very different in look and feel from the adjacent streets that are neatly lined with 1950s split levels and Cape Cods.

The neighborhood, named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004, is made up of three streets that loop around to form a wooded cul-de-sac. There is only one way in by car, and to find it involves turning onto a service road that runs parallel to Connecticut Avenue.

Like Frank Lloyd Wright before him, Goodman believed strongly that a house should enhance its natural setting without destroying it. Because he insisted on siting each home to take advantage of the rocky topography, the houses all front on slightly different angles, giving them the flavor of tree houses scattered in a forest. The land is hilly and rocky, so each house has a lower level that is partially underground at or near the front, but fully aboveground with a patio door and floor-to-ceiling windows at the side or back.

The houses, known as Goodman Contemporaries, typically are geometric in design and constructed of panels of vertical wood siding, glass and brick. Topped by sloping roofs with wide eaves, they almost always occupy a naturally beautiful landscape. In this instance, the entire neighborhood was built between two creeks.

Besides saving as many trees as possible, Goodman was adamant about giving the residents privacy, a somewhat tricky feat because of his penchant for floor-to-ceiling glass window walls.

For many residents, an extra bonus of owning a Goodman house is access to their neighbor's back yard, at least visually. Goodman called these "borrowed views," which means that one neighbor's yard merges with another to create the sense of a communal park.

An enviable example is the back yard of Heather and Neal Cox, graphic designers whose office occupies the lower level of their house. A large picture window overlooks their yard and that of their neighbor, giving them a much larger unobstructed view of open woods, punctuated by a stream.

"That's just one of the perks of living in this neighborhood," Heather Cox said. To add to their beautiful view, the couple "planted" a large steel sculpture of three tulips that has rusted naturally over the years.

The streetscape in Rock Creek Woods is also remarkable, especially in spring, when residents enjoy their own cherry blossom festival, but without the tourists. When the neighborhood was being built between 1958 and 1961, the residents asked the county to plant cherry trees instead of shade trees. Homeowners agreed to pay $10 each for Yoshino cherry trees with a life span of 40 to 50 years. Soon enough, residents formed a cherry tree committee to deal with the trees, spraying for disease and purchasing replacement trees. In 1998, and again in 2001, additional trees were planted with the assistance of the county.

Thomas Klein, a retired World Bank economist, and his wife have lived in their home since 1965. They are just as enthusiastic about it today as they were the day they moved in with their five children, all of whom are now grown and living elsewhere.

At age 80, Klein thinks that his tight-knit suburban neighborhood is the perfect spot in which to grow old, much more than a retirement community, "where your neighbors are at least as decrepit as yourself."

He said, "We like the outdoors, and love having kids around. We're here for the duration." Although their home is on two levels, the layout allows for one-floor living if that becomes necessary. "The house is quite livable for an older person," Klein said. "It's just a few steps to the outside, rather than a long walk in a hallway to an elevator in an apartment building."

These are not luxury houses. They were built with small kitchens and bathrooms, now in need of updating. The lots, while well-landscaped, are small. Nevertheless, according to real estate agent Judy Kelly, "People wait to get into the neighborhood."

Kelly, who lived there for four years but has since moved, remembers the community fondly. "It's not a neighborhood, not a subdivision, but a real community of free thinkers; these are not cookie-cutter people," she said. "There's a certain kind of person who enjoys the openness and light of nature, and it's reflected in the inner soul of the people who live there."

One of those is Maggie Toscano, a geologist who does some work for the Smithsonian and serves as editor of the community's newsletter. "Having come from Florida, I wanted a lot of light inside, nothing with small windows," she said. "I never expected to live in a house like this, but as soon as I walked in, I said 'Wow!' I was very excited by the layout of the house."

Since buying their home in 1998, Toscano and her husband have renovated the kitchen and bathrooms, added new storm doors and upgraded several windows to double-pane glass.

Toscano said she also appreciates the camaraderie of the neighborhood, with new people quickly accepted and drawn in to a wealth of activities, including an annual plant sale, monthly lunch club and book club meetings, various committee meetings and neighborhood yard sales.

"To live here and not become involved with our projects would be to lose the whole essence of the neighborhood," Toscano said. Residents share responsibility for upkeep of the Black Path, a wooded footpath that leads from their neighborhood to the next. They also take turns tending Nancy's Garden, a pocket park that was created to honor the memory of a longtime resident who died a few years ago.

And snow days are a party opportunity. As Heather Cox recalled, "One year the snow plows forgot us and we couldn't get out for about four days until somebody squawked. Until then, we went from house to house having hot chocolate." Of course, in the event of cabin fever, there is always that Connecticut Avenue bus a few steps away.

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