Chevy Chase is about to lose one of its more beguiling anachronisms. Henry P. Kerner has staked a 'For Sale' sign in front of the Chevy Chase Inn, the tourist home he has owned and operated across from the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Country Club for the past 47 years.
As it's unlikely a new owner would continue to use the turreted, 71-year-old structure as an inn, it seems Chevy Chase has seen the last of a breed of such tourist homes that once flourished along Wisconsin Avenue just north of the District line.
For years the Chevy Chase Inn had held out against the flood of motels that swept into popularity after World War II, and forced most tourist homes out of fashion and business. Cheaper rates are one reason Kerner says people have continued to stop at his inn rather than at fancier motels further up the road.
"And then some people say they just don't like motels," he adds, although he also admits business has not been brisk as in the pre-motel days. Kerner has never advertised. Most guest stop to rent a room after seeing the hinged, wooden sign that's planted on the inn's front lawn.
Poor health is the reason Kerner, who is 84, now cites for selling and third of an acre it sits on at 6208 Wisconsin Ave. Kerner is asking $200,000 for the property, which he bought in 1930 from two nephews of the house's original owner, a long-forgotten army general. Kerner refuses to divulge how much he paid for the house because, he says, "that's nobody's business but my own.
"It was during the Depression and I was hiding from dowtown foreclosure of properties," he recalls. Of course, in those days that portion of Wisconsin Avenue was only a two-lane country road that carried a streetcar out to a small crossroads known as Bethesda.
Seated today in his dusky sitting room among furnishings that have remained unchanged "for years and years and years," Kerner, a widower, certainly looks the part of a man who has clung to the days of streetcars. But just mention the word "anachronism" and watch Kerner's eyes burn.
"I'm not a sap, living in the past," he says crustily. In fact, he says he originally had very modern plans for the property. All along Kerner has wanted to erect a high-rise hotel on the land but could never get the zoning permission he needed. "Not with this (county) zoning in Rockville," he says, shaking his head.
So it's not been entirely out of choice that Kerner has kept the inn as a remembrance of things past. As for the inn's rooms, which have changed only slightly over the years (four-posted beds remain in most rooms), Kerner simply indicates inertia rather than design. "Why change?" he asks, shrugging his shoulders.
Some things, though, Kerner has had to change: the price of a room, for example. In 1930, he charged one dollar a night; now he charges $20. But he's quick to defend his rates. "I used to have sheets washed for one cent each. Now I pay 80 cents," he argues.
The inn has served as many as 50 guest at a time and as few as its current number, five. Kerner dislikes talking about them, adhering it seems to some silent code that forbids an inn-keeper from tattling on his patrons. He admits to only a few problem guests over the years, including the "dumb cluck" who smoked in bed one Easter first and last trip to the house.
The police have been out only a handful of times, but never for any thing more serious than a drunken guest until last month when the inn had its first burglar. Although the thief only took a few dollars in change from a guest's dresser, Kerner says the place hasn't been the same since.
"The front door hadn't been locked for 45 years," he says. "Now we have to keep it locked."
Kerner says one reason he has had so few problems at the inn is because he has a keen eye for character. "I keep the place strictly within the law. I tell the women, no men in the rooms and then men, no women in the rooms."
Sometimes a man will show up at the door with a woman and ask to rent a room by the hour. "I take him up and show him the room and say. 'Forty dollars an hour, minimum two hours, plus tax. If she's worth it, here it is.' I haven't had one pay me the $80 yet.
Dozens of the thousands of guest the inn has accomodated over the years have also left things behind, Kerner adds. He says he says he has collected cartons of items ("most of it junk") which he now just throws away. He used to forward forgotten belongings to his guests until times and manners changed.
Yet just as the guests have shed their manners over the years, so has the inn shed several of its former amenities. Decades ago Kerner stopped serving breakfast to his guest. ("And thank the Lord I did because you've got more inspectors looking at eating places than you can shake a stick at.") Kerner also long ago banned pets from the inn after one pent-up pup scratched his way through a bedroom door.
Still, the inn continues to retain the musty charm of its early years. There are no television sets intruding in the bedrooms, no look-alike furniture, no private baths, for that matter, just the dark images of a past style of travel.
Those images will fade now with the sale of the old inn, as will a sight familiar to most Wisconsin Avenue drivers - Kerner sitting on the inn's veranda behind the grafted locust trees. But as Kerner, himself, admits: "Time goes faster than anything I know of."