They had seen home after home in Bethesda, Md., torn down, replaced by behemoths boasting high ceilings, multiple gables and soaring porticoes. So when a small 1940s Cape Colonial on Oldchester Road was about to go on the market last year — and already attracting the attention of a well-known McMansion developer — three neighbors designed a custom-built approach to save it.
They pooled $2 million to buy, modernize and resell the old house. They hope the updated brick Colonial, which they expanded from three to six bedrooms, will preserve the charm of their neighborhood and maybe even make them a modest profit.
But the group’s attempt to flip the house — on a street where a 1999 Harrison Ford movie was filmed — has yet to pay off. The now-renovated home at 7812 Oldchester Road in the Bradley Woods neighborhood of Bethesda has been on the market since late August, its price having dropped from nearly $2.4 million to $2.175 million.
The developer they blocked from tearing down the house isn’t surprised.
“I think they’ve learned their lesson. The home’s not selling,” said Carole Sherman, owner of Bethesda Too. “We’re building what people want.”
But the Bradley Woods triumvirate — a senior Justice Department official, a real estate lawyer and a high-end home designer — remain confident they made the right decision, despite the property lingering on the market for 3
“I knew the only way we were going to look out the window and have a home we want to look at is if we did something about it,” said Diane Rosenberg, who owns a real estate law firm and is one of the three sellers. “Looking at what we did with this house versus what you’d get with a McMansion, our quality is unsurpassable. If you’re showy, and you want people to say, ‘Look at this humongous house,’ that’s not what you’re going to get.”
Alana Lasover, branch vice president at the Bethesda office of Coldwell Banker, said she has seldom seen neighbors deploy such a tactic to thwart a tear-down, even as tension over huge new houses in older neighborhoods remains significant.
“This is very rare,” said Lasover, a longtime Bethesda real estate expert.
And it counts even more because it sits on more than 16,000 square feet — a prime target for a tear-down.
“No question this is a big win for the three neighbors who bought it,” she said. “A builder would have come in and definitely knocked down that house.”
In the case of the Bradley Woods Colonial, that builder would have been Sherman.
When Brad Creer, the home designer, saw Sherman sizing up the Cape Colonial one day in the summer of 2014, he alerted Rosenberg. She told Creer that they had to buy it right away. Then they brought on Sheila Lieber, a deputy director at the Justice Department, who lives nearby on Aberdeen Road, as a third investor. The three formed a limited liability company and contacted the family that had owned the home since it was built, paying $1.275 million before it ever officially went on the market.
Creer, whose kitchen designs have been featured in glossy home magazines, worried that a huge new house on a street filled with older, smaller homes would look tacky and, worse, would necessitate cutting down trees. Developers in Bethesda and Chevy Chase have slashed so many oaks that Montgomery County adopted a law two years ago requiring builders to plant new shade trees for those lost to construction or pay a fee.
“This type of street is dying in Bethesda, and there’s hardly any trees anymore,” Creer said as he stood outside the Cape Colonial one day.
He pointed south toward the intersection of Oldchester Road and Wilson Lane, where Sherman had just sold a McMansion that required the removal of trees. Then he pointed north toward the intersection of Oldchester and Aberdeen roads, where Sherman built two other big houses and has a third on the way, one right across from Lieber.
Sherman, whose building practices in the neighborhood stirred protests last year, said she knows exactly what she would have done with the property at 7812 Oldchester Road: “I would have demolished it and built a house those particular neighbors wouldn’t have wanted.”
Sherman, the first woman to serve as president of the Montgomery County Builders Association, dismissed Rosenberg, Creer and Lieber for ignoring what home buyers want.
“People don’t want eight-foot ceilings,” she said. “I love trees, and I’m sorry I have to cut so many down, but builders are following what the people want.”
The Cape Colonial that Sherman would have torn down was built in the 1940s by Charles L. Dasher, an Army colonel who died in 1955. It was passed to his son, Charles L. Dasher Jr., an Army major general. After his death in 1968, his widow, Helen Dasher, kept it until she died in 1995. On it went to the third generation of the family, Charlene “Tinkey” Dasher. Charlene moved out in 2007 to live with one of her sons in Northern Virginia, and her six children rented out the house. But after Charlene died in 2012, the children — most of whom are scattered across the country — needed to settle the estate and sell the house.
In mid-2014, Helen Skalniak, the third-oldest of the children, said the family was pursued by both Sherman and a Long & Foster broker.
The Long & Foster guy “was pushy and his party line was, ‘We have built multimillion-dollar homes in Potomac, and they’re running out of real estate there and coming to Bethesda,’ ” said Skalniak, an administrative assistant at the Episcopal School of Dallas in Texas.
Sherman offered $1.25 million in July 2014 for the home, Skalniak said, but “I don’t think her definition of charm is the same as mine.”
Plus, Skalniak knew how upset her former neighbors would be if the house was torn down.
“There was a lady down the street, and she met me when I was visiting and said she was getting sick to her stomach about it,” she remembered. “I just reassured her that there was no way I was selling to anyone who’s going to kill the dignity of Oldchester Road.”
That’s when she agreed to sell to Rosenberg, Creer and Lieber. Rosenberg estimates that they spent at least $600,000 to double the size of the 2,200-square-foot home and update it with white wooden kitchen cabinets, an oversize Viking gas range, a stone fireplace and an adjacent living room big enough to host Super Bowl or office cocktail parties.
“They told me what their plans were and showed me the blueprints,” Skalniak said. “You just felt like you were doing something that your parents would really adore.”
Creer thinks Harrison Ford would approve, too. In the movie “Random Hearts,” Ford played a D.C. police officer who lived in one of Oldchester Road’s homes across the street from the 1940s Cape Colonial. The filmmakers, Creer said, wanted a charming neighborhood.
“They would have never picked it if there were a bunch of McMansions on the street,” Creer said. “Even if there was one.”