Where We Live

A big heart and a Little House

By Susan Straight
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, November 14, 2009

Until it was closed last year, the community center affectionately known as the Little House was the place where Westmoreland Hills all came together. "That's pretty much our town square," said resident John Nelson. "Scouts, art classes, yoga, neighborhood parties. I have so many good memories of that building. We've had so much fun there."

One of the current projects for the Westmoreland Hills civic association is trying to persuade the Montgomery County Department of Parks to consider options for reopening the 1,330-square-foot Little House, built in 1942 at the end of Elliot Road in Little Falls Park. "I don't think the county realized how heavily it's used. It's the center of our neighborhood, one of the things that makes our neighborhood great," Nelson said .

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission found the Little House "no longer safe or suitable for public use" and ordered it closed last year. To some, the closing of the Little House seems as much a symbolic move as a practical one. "They're trading in places of old community for everything new and up-to-date in Montgomery County," said Grace Mulvihill, a longtime resident.

The Westmoreland Hills Citizens Association includes six smaller neighborhoods under its 1,000-home umbrella: Westmoreland Hills proper, Westgate, Overlook, Spring Hill, Yorktown Village and Westhaven. The neighborhood runs along the Maryland side of Western Avenue from Dalecarlia Reservoir on the west nearly to River Road on the east. Residents on the eastern side of the neighborhood can walk a mile to the Friendship Heights Metro station, while the Dalecarlia commuters rely on the Massachusetts Avenue Metrobus route.

Though it's a large area, "I look at it as all one neighborhood," said Joanne Pinover, a real estate agent with Washington Fine Properties and a longtime resident who moved to the area with her family when she was in high school. Households from all the neighborhoods celebrate with parties for the Fourth of July and Halloween, and they all shared access to the Little House.

They all confront common issues, such as an outbreak of thefts of items left in unlocked cars. Overall, however, the neighborhood experiences very little crime, residents say.

"The neighborhood listserv has gotten very active in the last two years," said Claire Slabaugh, former president and current secretary of the civic association. The listserv runs through the Web site that Nelson, a professional Web developer, set up for the community in 1999. Neighbors can post as well as find out about community meetings and parties, local information, and lost-and-found items. "I can't tell you how many lost pets we've found pretty quickly" through postings on the listserv, Slabaugh said. "People feel more connected to each other and what's going on," she added.

Home styles range from the newer 1972-built homes on smaller lots overlooking the reservoir to longtime resident Judith Hackett's pre-Civil War house, a former stop on the Underground Railroad. "There's a huge stone fireplace and a place on the wall where slaves could exit the house if they needed to escape," she said.

Most of the homes of the Westmoreland Hills area are brick colonials and Cape Cods built in the 1930s and 1940s. The original owner of the land, Albert Walker, sold to a number of developers, including District-based Charles "Ted" Berry Jr. as well as W.C. & A.N. Miller Development.

Overlook is one of the newest parts of the neighborhood, built starting in 1972, according to Mulvihill, who moved there about six years ago after living in Westmoreland Hills proper for 31 years. "It was originally for people who were finished raising their families and were looking for something smaller," Mulvihill said. "There isn't a lot of land around the houses," she added. However, "now so many people with children have moved in," she said.

But there is a wide enough diversity of ages and interests that residents have many social groups to chose from. "We just started a garden club last year" for those living in the Westgate part of the neighborhood, Hackett said. There is also a neighborhood pool, which residents sign up on a waiting list to join, she said.

"This is such a great area. It's great having the Capital Crescent Trail right there," said Joanne Pinover.

"It's a very close-knit, family-oriented community," Slabaugh said.

Though it has been closed for a year, residents haven't given up on their Little House. Residents aren't arguing that repairs aren't needed, but that the damage is not widespread, so the building could be fixed, Nelson said.

An engineering contractor estimated that repairs would cost $175,000 to $200,000, according to a 2007 report. However, an architect hired by the community said it would cost less to satisfy county requirements.

"It was a wonderful place for the neighbors to be able to use," Slabaugh said. After years of neighborhood birthday parties, picnics and meetings at the Little House, "it's been sort of a sad thing" for the community to see it closed, she said.

As a result of the neighborhood outcry, the county is no longer pushing for immediate demolition. According to commission spokeswoman Kelli Holsendolph, "as far as we know, the community is still in the process of putting together cost estimates and potentially a proposal to repair the building. Any additional funding requirements for the building moving forward would be proposed by the Westmoreland community through the county Capital Improvements Program. We will continue our routine maintenance for Westmoreland [Hills] Local Park -- mowing, tree removal, snow, parking area, ball fields, etc."

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