IN A STORY IN YESTERDAY'S REAL ESTATE SECTION, THE NAME OF KATHY GARNES WAS MISSPELLED. (PUBLISHED 06/06/99)
"Spring in Montpelier is like driving through a tunnel of flowers," said Martha Borger, 64, referring to the canopy of Bradford pear trees that hug the community's winding streets. "We are one of Prince George's County's well-kept secrets."
After 32 years, Montpelier remains a quiet oasis--the kind of place where Beaver Cleaver would thrive--preserved even as Route 197 grew from two to four lanes and the Route 1 corridor burst with businesses.
Forty-nine percent of Montpelier residents have lived in the neighborhood for more than 20 years, a Montpelier Community Association survey showed. And many of those residents, who are original owners of their houses, came from places like New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore to work at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Security Agency and Fort Meade.
It is the kind of place where roots grow deep, and offshoots--the grown children of original owners--return to anchor themselves in the same soil they played on as youngsters. Take, for example, Martha Borger and her husband, Henry, 66. Their daughter, Kathy Garns, 36, and her family returned as Montpelier homeowners a year and a half ago. Residents' grandchildren attend the same elementary school their parents did.
Montpelier, three miles south of Laurel, was built on land once owned by the wealthy Welsh Snowden family, which amassed its fortune from agriculture and mining iron ore along the banks of the Patuxent River. The land, which abuts the grounds of Montpelier Mansion that was started by Major Thomas Snowden in the 1770s, was sold to the mass suburban developer Levitt and Sons Inc. in the mid 1960s.
Montpelier, along with the Levitt development in nearby Bowie, represented a change of philosophy for the developer. The original Levittown--17,447 houses built shortly after World War II on Long Island--while affordable for returning soldiers, offered tiresome cookie-cutter homes, the type sneered at in Malvina Reynolds's 1960s folk song "Little Boxes"--"they're all made out of ticky-tacky, and they all looked just the same."
In the 1960s Levitt and Sons revamped the idea of "community," bringing aesthetics to the forefront in substantially scaled down projects. Montpelier, built in 1967, often is described as the "country club" version of the earlier Levitt development in Bowie. Spacious four- and five-bedroom frame houses, fronted with cedar shakes, brick or stone, sit on randomly angled lots of one-third of an acre or more. Unlike the famous Long Island development, which was built on potato fields and practically void of trees, Montpelier's houses were built among existing white oaks.
Standard amenities were ahead of their time in the four Montpelier models, which cost $29,000 to $33,000. With air conditioning, 23-foot-long living rooms with fireplaces, large U-shaped kitchens with breakfast bars, large family rooms and gas grills mounted in the back yard, Montpelier offered great value for the money. One can even tell the order in which Montpelier's houses were built--by the number assigned to the families at the pool. The Borgers' house is No. 470, while their daughter, Kathy, has an earlier house, No. 170.
From the beginning, the community was a magnet for families with children. "We averaged three children per household in those early days," said Jim Harkins, a charter resident and current president of the community association. There were about 2,100 children occupying the 695 houses, crowding the Olympic-size swimming pool. Kathy Garns laughingly remembers how hard it was to find her girlfriends in the sea of white bathing caps.
Garnses' two sons, ages 2 and 4, are among the 1,100 children residing in today's Montpelier. Family-focused traditions are still observed. Santa makes his pre-Christmas rounds to each child's house, leaving behind a small present, usually a book. The annual Easter egg hunt, Fourth of July pool party, Home and Garden Tour, and new-neighbor potlucks all speak to a bygone era.
Early memories remain fresh for the charter residents. At the beginning, the red clay was so conspicuous that Harkins remembers "our children spending the summer with red-stained bodies and clothes."
Charlotte Timberlake, 61, who transcribed Senate speeches for a living, chuckles as she recalls how another early resident, WMAL radio's Bill Trumbull, teased her on the air about watering her mud: After spending weeks soaking her straw-covered yard with no results, she found that the developers had forgotten to put down seed.
There is a constancy to Montpelier that is very comforting.
"The community has maintained its spirit," said Helen Haas, 77, a charter member who started the Laurel Arts Guild and Friends of Montpelier. Haas, who briefly rented a house in the original Levittown back in 1958, only expected to live in Montpelier for two years when work took her family to Maryland. She stayed when she discovered "you had the power here, as an individual, to effect change, to really make a difference."
Making a difference seems second nature to many Montpelier residents. Membership in the community association is required as part of one's deed. A number of residents take that to heart, tending to the whole community with the same devotion they apply to their own homes. Routine maintenance--of the pool, four tennis courts, soccer and softball fields, and basketball courts--is done by volunteers.
Members recently pooled their energy to clean up the common grounds. Doug Eggers, 68, a linebacker for the Baltimore Colts in the 1950s, contributed an industrial wood chipper to the cause, meaning not only clean grounds but plenty of mulch to go around.
A sought-after handyman and a resident since 1990, Patrick "Alex" Hurley, 36, said the neighborhood's positive reputation goes back a long way. Hurley, who grew up in Laurel, said: "I would tell people where I lived, only to have them ask, 'Oh, Laurel, isn't that near Montpelier?' "
BOUNDARIES: Near Maryland Route 197, bounded by Montpelier Mansion grounds to the east, Muirkirk Road to the east and south, Snowden Oaks Community Park to the west and Montpelier Road to the north.
NUMBER OF HOMES: 695
SCHOOLS: Montpelier Elementary, Deerfield Elementary, Eisenhower Middle and Laurel High.
PROPERTY SALES: 40 sold in the last 12 months from $150,000 and $225,000.
WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE: Montpelier Mansion and the Montpelier Cultural Arts Center, Capitol College, Montpelier Swim and Racquet Club.
WITHIN 15 MINUTES: Downtown Laurel, Laurel Racetrack, Laurel Mall, NASA-Goddard Space Center, Savage Mill and the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge.
CAPTION: Glenn and Kathy Garns, with their two young sons, look over a backyard pond.
CAPTION: The four faces of Montpelier: The Gramercy, Jamestown, Eton and Framingham model styles date from 1967.
CAPTION: Martha and Henry Borger are original residents of Montpelier, built in 1967.