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

By Jennifer Sergent
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 17, 2010; E01

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.

-- They were constructed from natural materials: slate roofs with brick, wood or stone sidings.

-- The architects who designed the old houses were better trained in scale and proportion than architects who work with today's large developers.

What went wrong in Potomac, Harner said, was that houses ballooned in size without regard to aesthetics. And their builders co-opted the styles of historic houses without understanding their meaning or purpose, often borrowing from several styles for no architectural reason.

Abell did not want to limit the houses at Merry-Go-Round Farm to any particular style, as long as that style was correct and consistent, only natural materials were used, and the design fit the context of the land.

"What I wanted was something that looked as good as Potomac Falls or Kenwood but would allow the owners to express their own interests," he said.

Owners' desires

Because lot buyers were required to hire their own architect, landscape architect and builder, the houses are a reflection of their individual vision. Beyond their properties, the open spaces, nature trails and river views are an additional draw.

Kurt and Debbie Olsen happened upon Merry-Go-Round Farm in 2003, when they were engaged. They were riding through Potomac on their motorcycle, looking for a place where they could ultimately raise children.

Abell took them on a tour, and they were drawn to the farm's stables and nature trails. They now own three horses and go on frequent trail rides, and Kurt Olsen takes 5-year-old Matthew on hikes several times a week.

"Our back yard is 200 acres of trails and ponds and creatures," Olsen said. "Our little boy has gotten an experience living here that most children do not get."

The Olsens hired Bethesda architect Jim Rill to design their Adirondacks-inspired, shingle-style house, which blends into its natural surroundings.

"It's just wonderful to know people's personalities and see them come to fruition in these homes," said Rill, whose father went to St. Albans School for Boys with Abell and who sits on the farm's architecture review committee.

Rill also designed a house where Joyce and Stanley Prill could retire. "He made the house so we can live in here forever," Joyce Prill said, noting that their master bedroom is on the first floor. "We can stay here without worrying about what happens when we get sick."

D.C. architect Robert Gurney, whose style is far removed from Rill's, created a starkly modern house for his clients that nonetheless blends in with the community, which also includes houses by an equally modern architect, Mark McInturff, whose firm is in Bethesda.

That's because no matter the style, they use natural materials and proper scale, said Beverly Packard, Gurney's client.

"Every day I think about this," Packard said. "Everything seems to be just the right size."

The farm's value

The architecture defines the neighborhood, said Marc Fleisher, the Long & Foster agent who initially listed the farm's lots and has since sold about two dozen houses there.

When the lots went up for sale in the early 1990s, he said, "Potomac had become a bastardization of architecture -- 'whose is bigger than whose.' [Abell's] is more about timeless architectural appeal without being in your face."

But the neighborhood has not been immune to the economic downturn. Of the eight properties listed for sale on the local multiple listing service, two have been on the market more than two years, and one has been listed for more than a year.

"The upper brackets really took a hit," said Debbie Leyba, a Long & Foster agent who lives in the neighborhood. "But I think you're going to start seeing some movement with the changes in the market."

County officials praise the development's layout and its owners' adherence to architectural standards.

"The reason Merry-Go-Round Farm is so different is because the existing homeowners there basically control the design of the houses," said Callum Murray, the Montgomery County Planning Department's team leader for Potomac. Most associations don't form until after the houses are built, he explained, so "lots of houses are spec-built by builders. They're cookie cutters."

When the Planning Department revised Potomac's master plan in 2002, in which all land use and zoning was up for reconsideration, Murray said, "I looked at Merry-Go-Round Farm, and I decided not to do anything with it."

"Here, you've got small lots completely surrounded by wooded open space -- it's a delightful development."

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