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In Bethesda, a small enclave holds back the McMansions

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Where We Live | Greenwich Forest in Bethesda, Md.

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Greenwich Forest was designed by architects Alvin A. Aubinoe and Harry L. Edwards and built by developer Morris Cafritz between 1926 and 1949. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

At a time when many older homes in Montgomery County are being torn down and replaced by behemoth beacons of modernity, Greenwich Forest stands in stark contrast to the McMansionization of neighborhoods that surround it.

This small Bethesda enclave, composed of 94 houses, takes pride in its historic homes hidden among large oak trees.

These houses are not shacks. They sell for high prices and seldom go on the market. But the value of these homes is more than their square footage.

“When I saw Greenwich Forest, I was just taken with how charming it is,” said Christine Parker, a longtime resident who wrote a book on the history of the neighborhood. “I have more of a European sort of taste. I’m not someone who likes things big.”

When the teardown, build-over mentality threatened to turn the neighborhood’s Colonial and Tudor Revivals into oversized villas and modern boxes, the neighborhood sprang into action. The Greenwich Forest Citizens Association applied for a historic designation for the original lots in 2011.

“We have fairly big pieces of property in ratio to the houses, so we knew that we were prime for teardowns,” Parker said. “When we saw what was happening around us, the neighborhood really banded together.”

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Now Greenwich Forest, first imagined by the builder and developer Morris Cafritz and architects Alvin A. Aubinoe and Harry L. Edwards, and built between 1926 and 1949, is protected by Montgomery County’s Planning Department and Maryland’s Historic Trust.

“It’s a very well-preserved example of an early automobile subdivision,” said Clare Lise Kelly, an architectural historian.

Cafritz and Aubinoe were some of the first developers to plan and construct a neighborhood around the automobile. Cars had become more widely available to Americans during this period, and the architects designed garages that curved around the back of houses, out of sight from the streetscape.

Not all homes have been saved from redevelopment. One of the oldest homes in Greenwich Forest was razed shortly before the neighborhood received its historic designation, and the original lot was subdivided into three parcels.

“It was demolished with protesters around,” said David Schindel, former president of the Greenwich Forest Citizens Association. “As soon as the builder got permission, it was knocked over in an hour and a half.”

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Stylistically, these newer homes stand apart from other houses in the neighborhood. One is on the market, listed for $3.6 million.

“We lost our most historic house, but we managed to save the neighborhood,” Parker said. “Greenwich Forest is much more than any one house being important. It’s the fabric of the community. It’s the way they put together and blended the Tudor Revival and Colonial Revival into this very peaceful, lovely community.”

There are no sidewalks here. Wide roads curve gently around the U-shaped perimeter of the neighborhood, and people often stroll the sloping streets.

“You walk around, it still looks like you’re in the 1930s or ’40s,” Schindel said.

Since the designation was granted, the drama over the neighborhood’s future has subsided.

“It’s been pretty quiet here, but that’s why people move to the forest, right?” Schindel said.

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Greenwich Forest’s quaint setting is in contrast with its darker history. When the neighborhood was first marketed, the advertisements made clear not everyone was welcome, particularly African Americans.

According to an ad in The Washington Post in August 1933, Greenwich Forest would “appeal to those who love the beauty of a rich woodland setting combined with restrictions for architectural and social control.”

“Sadly, restrictions by race and ethnicity through deed covenants were common in early 20th-century subdivisions,” said Kelly.

Even though Greenwich Forest now welcomes anyone who can afford to live here, its demographics haven’t changed much.

“We don’t have any African American owners,” Schindel said, adding the neighborhood attracts an international community.

Now that Greenwich Forest has preserved its historic houses, the neighborhood is focused on preservation of a different kind. It is dedicated to protecting the neighborhood’s large, mature trees. The citizens association allocates funding for the replacement of trees and manages a tree-planting program.

“The real character, besides the houses, is the tall, mostly oak trees. It’s 10 degrees cooler in the neighborhood in summer,” Schindel said. “But we’re always dealing with Pepco and the county about not removing trees to protect the power lines.”

Greenwich Forest is an enclave for people who like historic houses and nature. Those who do tend to stay for a long time.

“You don’t really need a huge house to be happy,” Parker said. “Better to have a place that has charm and is respectful of the Earth.”

Living there: The neighborhood is bounded by Huntington Parkway on the north, Overhill Road and Moorland Lane on the east, Wilson Lane on the south, and Hampden Lane on the west.

There are two listings on the market: a four-bedroom, six-bathroom house for $3.6 million and a six-bedroom, six-bathroom house at $2.7 million.

Last year, the average price of homes sold was just under $1.3 million. The lowest-priced was a four-bedroom, four-bathroom house that sold for $825,000. The highest-priced was a five-bedroom, five-bathroom house that sold for $2.4 million.

Schools: Bradley Hills Elementary, Thomas W. Pyle Middle School and Walt Whitman High School.

Transit: Greenwich Forest is served by several bus routes and is about a mile from the Bethesda Metro station on the Red Line. The nearest main thoroughfares are Old Georgetown Road and Bradley Boulevard.

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