Where We Live: Glen Echo Heights in Maryland's Montgomery County

By Barbara Ruben
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, May 29, 2010; E01

The streets in Glen Echo Heights twist and turn almost as much as their Native American names: Tuscarawas, Walhonding, Wapakoneta. The names reflect the language of the Algonquian tribe that once lived along the Potomac River and hunted in the "heights" above what is today MacArthur Boulevard.

And while the Algonquians lived in bark huts, the eclectic collection of 480 homes in the community now range from a just-completed $10 million contemporary with Potomac River views to more modest Cape Cods and ramblers. Hundred-foot-tall tulip poplars and oaks provide a leafy canopy over much of the neighborhood.

Matt Gillen moved from the Chevy Chase neighborhood in the District to a mid-century modern house in Glen Echo Heights in 2003.

"We didn't know about the community, but we were just delighted because of the trees and that we could walk down to the river. Our back yard is all trees, like you're in the woods," he said.

Suzanne Harvey also moved to Glen Echo Heights because of the trees. She was tired of blaring sirens and the lack of green space around her Capitol Hill home. Her small gray house in Glen Echo Heights is one of the original cottages built on her block in the 1930s.

"I wanted a bit of garden and green" she said. "It's quite safe here and a little funky."

But despite Glen Echo Heights' still-verdant feel, Harvey and other residents worry that too many trees are being lost as developers have torn down dozens of small, old houses and built far larger ones in their place, most selling for well over $1 million.

"The simplest, most expedient thing to do is tear all the trees down when they build," said Harry Pfohl, president of the Glen Echo Heights Citizens' Association. "You feel bad because you lose tree cover," he said, pointing out the break in tree canopy next to his house where three new homes were recently built.

So the association drew up tree-protection guidelines it asks builders in the neighborhood to consider, including creating "tree preservation zones" that will be fenced off during construction. The association provides signs to builders that agree to the guidelines that read, "This builder's project meets our neighborhood best practices for preserving trees."

"If they're going to build, we want to be a moral force, be an advocate for the builder to preserve as many trees as possible," said Gillen, chairman of the association's tree and garden committee.

The association is also working with Montgomery County on environmentally sensitive storm-water management plans for three streets as part of a project in which all the roads in the community are being repaved this spring and summer. Most of Glen Echo Heights' narrow streets do not have curbs or storm drains, and the association would like to keep it that way.

The three demonstration streets will incorporate rain gardens planted with water-loving wetland plants to help absorb rain runoff from streets and driveways that might otherwise go directly into streams. The gardens can help filter pollutants from the storm water and help prevent flooding during heavy rains.

While she doesn't live on one of the streets in the project, Susanna Membrino is constructing a rain garden in her back yard to help prevent runoff into the stream that flows through her property. She also has rain barrels collecting rain from her roof.

Membrino, a former editor and stockbroker, now has her own business as a landscape designer. She bought her 1928 shingle-style house 19 years ago.

"We just drove by and were swept away by the beauty of it," she said of her first glimpse of her house.

Despite the neighborhood's remote, forested feel, residents say Glen Echo Heights is convenient. Pfohl says that when traffic isn't bad he can get to Tysons Corner in 11 minutes and downtown in 17.

Pfohl said that in addition to the community's trees, he was drawn to Glen Echo Heights because he wanted his daughter to go to Walt Whitman High School, which had the highest SAT scores in Montgomery County last year.

He said his beige house, built in the 1950s, was once used as a Korean church and had a hair salon in the basement.

Pfohl's house is just one piece of Glen Echo Heights' diverse history. The community was first subdivided at the end of the 19th century, planned as a blue-collar retreat from Washington.

During the 1880s, a summer resort styled after the Chautauqua resort in Upstate New York, was planned with a hotel and cafe overlooking the Potomac, which was described in the flowery marketing literature as the "Washington Rhine," according to a history published by the Glen Echo Heights Citizens' Association. The Pa-taw-o-meck Cafe, built in 1890, sported an ornate collection of balconies, balustrades and towers and was five stories high in parts. But the cafe, built of cedar logs with the bark left on for a rustic look, caught fire and burned to the ground after being open less than a year. The Glen Echo Chautauqua was ill-fated as well. It opened the next year with an 8,000 seat amphitheater, arcade of stores, tent hotel and other buildings. But the next year, the head of a business school died of pneumonia. Rumors spread that it was malaria instead, discouraging visitors to the area. A severe depression the next year compounded problems, and the Chautauqua was never revived.

This history is part of the charm of the community, said Long & Foster agent Josette Skilling. But the schools, green space and proximity to Washington and Northern Virginia are the primary selling points for the neighborhood, she said.

"This is really an area that's married with nature. It's a very strong community that wants to protect what it has," Skilling said. At the same time, "because the lots are big, they are going to continue to have tear-downs. Some people love the setting but want a bigger, more modern house."

But Harvey worries that too many people wanting large houses means the setting will be irrevocably changed.

"It had a very different feel when I moved in than now, was much greener. I saw a greater variety of wildlife," she said. "I'm concerned that when new people move in they won't have a clue what it was like before."

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