Warren and Enid Simmons say they have found the best of both worlds in the District's Takoma Park neighborhood, a tree-lined community with a small-town feeling that is a 20-minute train ride from downtown Washington.

"Takoma, D.C., is like a small country town in the city," said Enid Simmons, who moved into her five-bedroom Dutch Victorian home on Blair Road in 1983. "The tree-lined streets, the sprawling yards, the older, stately homes make you feel like you are out in the country. And yet, we are only minutes from the heart of the city."

It's a fitting description for a neighborhood that was originally built as a summer retreat for residents looking for respite from turn-of-the-century Washington.

Washington's Takoma Park neighborhood and its affiliated suburb of the same name in Maryland were founded in 1883 by real estate developer Benjamin Franklin Gilbert, who sought to create a "sylvan suburb of the nation's capitol" along the Baltimore and Ohio railroad line.

In promoting his new community, Gilbert lauded the area's elevation at 350 feet above Washington, then a swampy urban center plagued by malaria and contaminated well water.

According to local lore, Gilbert chose the Indian name "Tacoma," which means "high up near heaven," over a game of poker at a Washington hotel. Realizing that city founders in Washington state had a similar idea, Gilbert chose to spell the name with a "k" to distinguish it from the city of Tacoma, Wash., said Ellen R. Marsh and Mary Anne O'Boyle, who describe the growth of the area in their book, "Takoma Park, Portrait of a Victorian Suburb."

The bulk of Gilbert's original community falls within the Maryland border. But the Victorian homes that were built or inspired by Gilbert, and Gen. Montgomery Blair, whose summer retreat stretched across most of the northern section of Takoma Park in the District, give the neighborhood its current character and charm.

Takoma Park was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in June 1983, a fact that is proudly heralded throughout the neighborhood with the green historic District street signs that remind visitors that they are passing through one of the country's first trolley car suburbs. The Metro stop along the Red Line at Blair Road and Cedar Street continues to be a primary draw for residents seeking easy access to downtown Washington and Rockville.

It was the combination of affordable housing, public transportation and a civic-minded community that first attracted Enid Simmons to Takoma Park in 1983. Simmons purchased her home on a three-quarter acre lot for $120,000 in 1983. Like most of the two- and three-story houses in the area, it had been transformed into a group home during the 1970s and at one time was used as a nursing home.

"Since we've moved in here, I couldn't count the renovations," said Simmons, the deputy director for policy and program review in D.C. Mayor Marion Barry's office. "This is a great area for people who like the charm of old homes. It's hard to find those amenities in new housing nowadays and I don't think you get the sense of community we have in a neighborhood with this kind of history."

Offering an eclectic mix of stately Victorians, sturdy bungalows and traditional colonials within walking distance of a Metro stop along the Red Line, real estate agents call Takoma Park one of Washington's best-kept secrets. Homes in Takoma Park's historic district sell for far less than similar homes on the west side of Rock Creek Parkway, said Carol Cutini, a real estate agent with Prudential Preferred Properties who specializes in the Takoma Park area.

A real estate agent at a recent open house in Takoma Park distributed flyers showing a home of amazing similarity in Friendship Heights that was listed for $120,000 more than the Takoma Park version.

"It is really one of the best bargains in the Washington area," Cutini said. "It's close to the Metro, you get older homes with lots of charm and a real sense of community. People are looking for that kind of thing nowadays."

Gilbert's strident attitudes toward alcohol consumption and healthful living would also leave an indelible mark on the community he founded.

"Gilbert ... was a staunch teetotaler who made a big effort to bring the Seventh-Day Adventist to town," said Valerie Petersen-Beard, a Long and Foster real estate agent who specializes in the Takoma Park area. "The Seventh-Day Adventists eventually established their world headquarters in Takoma {Md.} and sort of established it as a non-drinking, non-meat-eating town. I think that reputation is what attracted the mix of residents we see in Takoma Park today."

Known in the 1960s as "Hippieville," the Takoma Park area in both the District and Maryland attracted a variety of residents involved in civic activism and cultural arts. And many of the homes throughout Takoma Park speak to their interests or creative nature.

The Victorians and bungalows that dot Takoma Park's streets are often painted in festive colors and adorned with wind chimes and macrame' plant holders that conjure images of the 1960s cultural revolution. But most of the sprawling Victorian homes that were carved into group homes and communal quarters have been bought by homesteaders like the Simmonses who returned them to single-family use.

The neighborhood is slightly more conservative than its Maryland namesake, which has earned a reputation for political activism and outright eccentricity. The city of Takoma Park, which stretches across portions of Montgomery and Prince George's counties, has cultivated its unconventional image over time by declaring itself a nuclear-free zone and staging all manner of parades and public rallies advocating such issues as animal rights and vegetarianism.

Civic activism on the District side tends to focus less on global concerns and more on fair housing practices and education issues. Groups like Takoma Plan and Neighbors Inc. have worked for more than 30 years to promote integration in Takoma Park and nearby Shepherd Park.

Today, the neighborhood is one of the most racially and economically integrated areas in the city, according to a battery of District statistics.

But the beleaguered image of the District's public school system continues to be the greatest deterrent to home buyers.

"A lot of people who want to move to the Takoma area wind up on the Maryland side because of the superior school system there," said Petersen-Beard, who noted that homes in the Montgomery and Prince George's sections of Takoma Park usually command higher prices than those in the District. "I've seen families in {Takoma Park} sell their homes and move a few blocks so their children can attend schools in Maryland."

Takoma Park is served by Takoma Elementary School on Piney Branch Road, a school that has earned praise for progressive programs and impressive standardized test scores, and Coolidge High School on Fifth Avenue. Concerned about the quality of education for their 4-year-old son, Nicholas, the Simmonses put their house on the market last spring, but said they decided to stay in Takoma Park after Sharon Pratt Dixon won the Democratic mayoral primary Sept. 11.

"We just felt like we should give the city a chance," said Warren Simmons, an administrator with the Prince George's County school system. "Things are looking up in the city. We are going to see some new leadership and that gave us reason to hope for the best."

Homes in Takoma Park range from $140,000 for small bungalows to $385,000 for the massive Victorian gingerbread houses that have been restored to their original opulence. Where homes once stayed on the market an average of 23 days, Takoma Park is experiencing a slightly softer version of the real estate slowdown that has plagued the rest of the Washington area.

"People are not snapping up homes the way the used to," said real estate agent Cutini. "But it is not as bad here as it is elsewhere. There are still a lot of bargains in this area, so we have seen a leveling off but not an actual drop in home prices." She noted that a June report on home pricing trends showed that homes in the area appreciated by about 2 percent over June 1989, compared with about 8 percent overall from 1988 to 1989.