A home is much more than a place to hang your hat. Sometimes it's a place where you have the keys to four neighbors' places, and where you have your own secret entrance to Rock Creek Park. That's the kind of home 227 householders have been making at Rock Creek Gardens condominiums in Silver Spring.

In 1947, when Rock Creek Gardens was built, it was soldiers returning from the war who called the garden-style brick buildings home. The units were standard one- and two-bedroom apartments--and small. Then in 1981 came massive renovations and Rock Creek Gardens began to emerge in its current condo conformation: Ground-floor condos sometimes have lower levels to expand into (called "extended" apartments), while attics were opened up so second-floor units could have expansive loft spaces and skylights. A dozen of the units have either a wooden deck or a brick/concrete deck space.

The units still are on the small side, resident Mary Albanesi, 40, said--850 square feet for her two-bedroom condo. But the community makes up for that in its setting and its atmosphere, she said.

"Most units are completely unique," said Tom Willis, the complex's general manager. But their uniqueness is another secret: From the outside, the buildings don't look that different from countless other apartments in the area.

As a home, Rock Creek Gardens also boasts something not all other condominium complexes can offer.

"There is a good sense of community," said Adrienne Moira Hopkins, 33, a videographer for Fox News who has been a Rock Creek Gardens owner for 3 1/2 years. "The community association is really involved."

Albanesi, who moved to the complex nine years ago from Laurel, agrees but points out, "A few years ago it wasn't like this. There's a new influx of owners who take real pride in the place"--including, she said, the woman gardener who makes sure the grounds have enough flowering shrubs by doing the planting herself.

The community association orchestrates the more official, monthly activities--from guest speakers to a blood drive--with a year-old newsletter and various committees.

One of the most talked-about recent events: the social committee's "Condo Crawl." Given the many different layouts of the condo units, the event gave residents, including the 90 renters, a chance to see other apartments while at the same time socializing with their neighbors.

The board of directors, strengthened in the last few years, has become more involved in making positive changes for the community. Last year the board spent $300,000 on landscaping the grounds, upgrading the fence around the community pool and updating the boiler room. This year's plans include replacing windows and front doors and installing signs around the property.

A recent survey among residents showed that the biggest reason to live in Rock Creek Gardens was the "park atmosphere," Willis said, though the Silver Spring Metro station is less than a mile away. And then there's that "secret" entrance to Rock Creek Park right next to the property.

"I work in Northern Virginia," said Albanesi, a nurse in the military health-care system. Because of that park access, "it takes me 35 minutes to get there--in rush hour."

Hopkins also likes the secret entrance, but for the "instant access to nature." There is an small trail right in her backyard that leads to the official park trail. In just a matter of minutes, Hopkins said, "You're lost in Rock Creek Park."

Libby Fasang has been a Rock Creek Gardens owner for 5 1/2 years. She had been looking to move to Bethesda and wouldn't have found the place but for her real estate agent. "It's almost like a secret," Fasang said. "No one knows it's here."

Fasang, 33, a teacher at the Hebrew Academy in Silver Spring, was drawn to the quietness of the community. She said many of the residents are in their thirties and forties, mostly singles, but the complex doesn't have a "party" atmosphere.

Maybe not a party atmosphere, but certainly an open one, at least according to Albanesi. She's the one who has keys to four neighbors' places and who checks on cats and plants. She also calls Rock Creek Gardens "a responsible dormitory for adults." Any evening can find her down by the barbecue pit or sitting on the steps outside her condo with another neighbor, just taking an evening break from real life.

It wouldn't be a real home without something to complain about, and occasional parking problems are a drawback here, residents said. Each condo gets an unassigned space plus a visitor's permit. But some spaces can accommodate two cars, one resident said, and there is additional non-permit parking along the streets.

Residents are optimistic that the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring will add life and amenities to their little community. But they seem just as happy to sit and observe the improvements from their placid little spot nearby.

"There's a line of tall pine trees outside my condo," Albanesi said. "Sometimes I'll wake up and hear the trees moving, and I feel like I'm living in a park."

BOUNDARIES: East-West Highway, Grubb Road, Washington Avenue and the American Red Cross


SCHOOLS: Rock Creek Forest elementary, Westland middle, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High schools

PROPERTY SALES: In the past year, about 12 condominiums have sold, from the $70,000 range for a one-bedroom to near $130,000 for a "two-bedroom extended."

WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE: Parkway Delicatessan & Restaurant, New Yorker Bakery, Rock Creek Valet dry cleaners, beauty salon, fitness club coming this fall

WITHIN ONE MILE: Downtown Silver Spring, Silver Spring Metro

WITHIN TWO MILES: Chevy Chase Supermarket, Einstein Bagels, Starbucks