Merry-Go-Round Farm tries to bring superior architecture to Potomac

By Jennifer Sergent
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 17, 2010

Drive on River Road in Potomac, and you'll see them on both sides: the McMansions, the faux chateaux and other oversize revisions of one architectural style or another.

Eight of them are pictured in a 73-page book of architectural guidelines governing the houses that can be built at Merry-Go-Round Farm -- in a section titled "Examples of Unsuitable Design."

The 204-acre development off River Road, about four miles past Potomac Village, was created to be an oasis of superior architecture in an area where so much of it is bad, said Tyler Abell, who grew up going to his family's farm on that land and wanted to preserve the farm's character after subdividing it.

"We started out to do something significant architecturally at Merry-Go-Round Farm," Abell said. "The normal Potomac architecture is so awful, it's hard to describe."

The resulting plan includes wide swaths of pastureland, horse stables and the working farm that Drew Pearson, Abell's stepfather, built in the 1940s. Houses are clustered in the woods surrounding the pasture on three-quarter-acre lots, as opposed to Potomac's more typical lot size of two acres.

The development takes its name from "Washington Merry-Go-Round," Pearson's syndicated newspaper column about politics and gossip that ran seven days a week for more than 30 years until he died in 1969. Before his death, Pearson and Abell had agreed that the land should one day be developed -- and their vision became a reality in the early 1990s.

Abell has since sold all the lots, and many are in their second or third generation of ownership. Ten of the lots remain undeveloped, and one is on the market for $885,000. Seven houses, ranging in style from Flemish villa to Arts and Crafts cottage to classic Colonial, are listed for sale at asking prices between $1.65 million and $3.4 million.

Starting in the late 1980s, Abell hired the Washington architecture firm Keyes Condon Florance to write the guidelines. For landscape consulting, Abell hired Edward Alexander, who was instrumental in Lady Bird Johnson's beautification program in Washington and designed the White House Children's Garden during Lyndon Johnson's administration.

The team looked to some of the region's older neighborhoods for guidance: Potomac Falls and Kenwood in Montgomery County; Roland Park in Baltimore; and Cleveland Park, Spring Valley, and Wesley Heights in the District.

"A lot of it was trying to understand what went wrong with Potomac architecture, what were the essential characteristics of the architecture in historic neighborhoods that made them appealing, and applying them to new houses," said Brian Harner, who helped write the guidelines and serves on the farm's architecture review committee.

Three conclusions emerged:

-- Houses built in those older neighborhoods, though grand, had "a more delicate and smaller scale," Harner said.

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