Suddenly, with the flick of a switch and the clang of a bell, a person could work in the big city and live in green. A person could commute.
At the turn of the century, the advent of the electric streetcar meant that a wealthy Washingtonian could leave the office at 15th and H streets NW, board the trolley at the Treasury and arrive 35 minutes later just steps from his new house in a place called Chevy Chase.
Then, in 1916, the Chevy Chase Land Co. broke open a new model of American life: the suburb for "discriminating people," but "not necessarily people of great wealth." With those words in a promotional brochure called "Chevy Chase for Homes," the developers swung open the gates of suburbia to the middle class.
Suburbs had existed for some decades, but the founders of Chevy Chase a U.S. senator and a military man with enough vision to see a new town five miles beyond the outer limits of Washington had a new concept. They had leapfrogged miles of undeveloped farmland to place Chevy Chase just inside Maryland, a distance so great to the late-19th-century mind that the few homes already in those parts were considered summer cottages.
Now came time to expand the universe, to launch the story of the century to follow: the decline of the center and the swift expansion of the suburbs for Everyman. Chevy Chase was the foundation. The vision of Maj. George Armes and the political juice of his partner, Sen. Francis G. Newlands, linked up transportation and development build a road and the houses will follow and began to dig the social and economic gulf that would eventually separate city and suburb.
"The hills had to be cut down by pick and shovel and the valleys filled by horse-drawn carts," recalled Edward Hillyer, then-president of the Chevy Chase Land Co.
As wildly ambitious as it was, the plan to extend Connecticut Avenue from its terminus at Florida Avenue NW all the way out to Maryland literally paved the way for the trolley, and then the automobile, to offer relief to Washingtonians who feared that a wave of immigration and the growing density of the city would somehow debase their culture.
Armes, who dreamed up the secret plan to buy enough farmland to extend Connecticut Avenue, was dubbed the "Napoleon of his calling" by The Washington Post. But he couldn't do it himself. He needed money to buy the land, power to get Congress to approve the road and trolley route, and moxie to sell the idea to city dwellers.
He found all three in Newlands, one of the first developers in the nation to realize what the trolley could mean for the real estate business. They created the Chevy Chase Land Co., which remains the primary architect of one of the region's most affluent and attractive suburbs.
First as a lawyer for Nevada mining magnates and later as a U.S. representative and then senator from Nevada, Newlands used his sway on the Hill first to win the charter to build the trolley line and then to sweeten his chances of success. Newlands worked with another partner in the Land Co., William Stewart conveniently also a U.S. senator from Nevada to create Rock Creek Park, which both enhanced land values in Northwest Washington and, as Stewart put it, took "2,000 acres out of the market." The developers also saw the park as a way of buffering white Northwest from increasingly black sections on what they called the "wrong side of the park."
Newlands and friends spent the latter part of the 1880s secretly buying up 1,700 acres of land from 31 owners all along their planned route. They built a bridge over Rock Creek at Calvert Street. And they hired the firm of legendary planner Frederick Law Olmsted to come up with ideas for the suburbs they would build.
The site for Chevy Chase the name stems from the Cheviot Hills along the English-Scottish border was chosen for its high elevation, summer winds and location in Maryland, where residents would enjoy voting rights even as they continued to work in the federal enclave.
By 1892, the trolley was built and plans for the suburb were emerging: It would be one vast park, with houses set well back from the road on large lots. Chevy Chase would have running water, sewers, electricity and telephone service, making it by far the region's best-equipped suburb.
By the end of 1901, the first 49 homes had been built, and by 1905 the first Chevy Chase residents could be found in the "Elite List of Washington D.C," just as some of those first residences made their way into national architectural magazines.
But as revolutionary as those early initiatives were, the real elemental change came in 1916, when, with the federal government's work force exploding in size, Washingtonians discovered a new option in living the single-family house with yard.
Portions of Chevy Chase still boast many original houses, but the lone piece of remaining trolley infrastructure is a single metal signpost on the western side of Chevy Chase Circle, at the District line. Given the constant stream of car traffic now, it's hard to imagine that the Circle was once a place where cows grazed and children played baseball and rubbed Ivory soap on the streetcar tracks so they could see the trolleys blow bubbles as they passed.
From the start, the Land Co. built institutions that fostered community: churches, a resort, a country club, a lake decorated with "thousands of fairy lights," a swimming pool, and an amusement park to compete with the one at Glen Echo. (The Depression killed the amusement park, the lake was drained after the trolley shut down in 1935, and the pool survived until 1972.)
But above all, Newlands insisted that this would be a community apart from all things urban. There would, for instance, be no commerce in Chevy Chase; residents were expected to have servants who could fetch goods ordered from the city and sent up by freight trolley. This was an expression of the "rural ideal," Olmsted's view that civilization would be enhanced by the separation of "business premises from domestic premises." Only after the Land Co. launched the Chevy Chase D.C. neighborhood in the 1920s did the commercial strip near the Avalon movie theater open on Connecticut Avenue.
"Early Chevy Chase had a distinctly rural flavor," resident Vida Ord Alexander recalled in an oral history. "Nearly everyone kept chickens, the cause of minor neighborhood feuds because they would get loose and scratch up gardens and croquet grounds."
Chevy Chase was originally intended to separate what Newlands called the "leisure class" from the rest of society. The first houses were enormous, attracting the well-to-do. Later, as more modest houses were built, most families had a maid or two, but were a couple of rungs below the original settlers on the socioeconomic scale. Only about 1 in 10 residents in the early years belonged to the elitist Chevy Chase Club.
Even with the appeal to those of more moderate means, Chevy Chase's real estate salesmen always played to customers who considered themselves apart from the masses. The same 1916 sales pitch that welcomed the middle class advertised restrictions that would "protect property holders against the encroachment of undesirable elements." And beginning in the 1920s, some deeds included restrictive covenants prohibiting sale or lease to "any person of negro blood" or "any person of the Semetic [sic] race."
Earlier deeds contained no such language, not out of any generosity of spirit Newlands was an avowed racist who even proposed in the 1912 presidential campaign to disenfranchise blacks but simply because high real estate prices were sufficient to keep out the unwanted. (Restrictive covenants disappeared from real estate titles in Chevy Chase after World War II, and Jews, and later blacks, became part of the community.)
One of the most curious episodes in the suburb's history was the abortive attempt to build a subdivision called Belmont at what is now the northeast corner of Wisconsin and Western avenues. Beginning in 1903, when the land was sold to developers, rumors swept the area that Belmont was to be a community for the suburb's black servants.
But the Land Co. never had any such intent. The company did want to provide affordable housing for domestics and other blue-collar workers on small lots at that site, but not for blacks. In 1909, when the Land Co. learned that the developer to whom it had sold the Belmont lots had begun to sell them to black families, the company and its partners filed suit, claiming that the developer was committing fraud "by offering to sell lots . . . to negroes."
In the end, Belmont was never built and the Land Co. reacquired the property, which remained empty for decades, until the company developed its current use, as an office building, the Chevy Chase Center shopping strip and Saks Fifth Avenue.
In less than a century, Chevy Chase has grown from a speculative venture on farmland far from the city to the region's innermost suburb. It has expanded several times over and even added some of the commerce that Newlands so abhorred.
But its essential character has remained remarkably stable, both through its sturdy, classic houses and its early discovery of the central truth of American suburbia: Whether it was the trolley, the car or the Metro, more than any other single factor it was the ability to get around that determined how and where an American lived in the 20th century.
Some material in this article is drawn from "Chevy Chase," by Elizabeth Jo Lampl and Kimberly Prothro Williams (Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission); from "Bethesda: A Social History," by William Offutt (self-published); and from research by Chevy Chase resident Eleanor Ford.
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