Garrett Park, Md., keeps its historic small-town vibe in a sea of development

As featured in The Washington Post

When Sean Conlan and his wife, Lori, relocated to Montgomery County to work at the National Institutes of Health, they initially rented a house for two years in Garrett Park, Md.

“We fell in love with the town because we fell in love with the people,” said Sean Conlan, a computational biologist at NIH. “We rented there and looked for houses in the neighborhood.”

Several houses were sold to others while they were searching.

But persistence paid off for the couple and their son, Jason, who will be 12 in February. They learned that one of original Chevy Houses from the 1920s was coming up for sale, and they were able to buy it.

“Our real attraction for the town was how close it was to work,” Sean Conlan said. “We could walk Jason to school” when he attended Garrett Park Elementary School. These days, he attends Tilden Middle School.

In addition, Garrett Park is situated on a train line, but not the one you’d think. It’s the old Baltimore & Ohio Railroad line that is the eastern boundary of Garrett Park. Today, the MARC train stops at Garrett Park en route to Union Station. “We’re a one-car family,” said Sean Conlan, 42, president of the Garrett Park Citizens Association.

Potluck town dinners: Chevy Houses are just one of the historic features of Garrett Park that give it a vibe of its own. It’s “a small-town atmosphere — island — in the midst of a sea of suburbs,” said Barbara Collier, who has known Garrett Park most of her life, and moved there in 1982, with her husband, Jonathan Paul. They and friend Carol Ballentine live in a Victorian house built in 1892. Collier is editor of the Garrett Bugle, which the Garrett Park Citizens Association publishes 10 times a year, chronicling town activities in detail. The Bugle’s motto is “Vox Clamantis in Deserto,” translated from the Latin as a voice crying out in the wilderness.

Garrett Park was first settled in the late 19th century and was named for Robert W. Garrett, president of the B&O Railroad. Strathmore Avenue is the only through street in the neighborhood.

The Metropolitan Investment and Building Co. laid out the town in 1887 to be mostly residential. A town plaque notes that Garrett Park began as a “short commuter train ride to Washington, DC,” and more than 100 years later remains mostly residential. There are just a few commercial establishments within its borders, all located in the town-owned Penn Place Building, nestled near the railroad tracks and once home to a general store. It now houses the Black Market Bistro restaurant, the Garrett Park Post Office and some town offices.

The Town Hall is at 10814 Kenilworth Ave., where residents gather for the potluck town dinner, sponsored by the citizens association, and other activities. Fourth of July means celebration in Garrett Park with a band, barbecue and Cub Scouts handing out Popsicles. “It’s about as Americana as you can get,” Sean Conlan said.

The Town Council, which includes Mayor Peter Benjamin and five council members, governs the town. Each is elected to serve a two-year term. They serve in volunteer rather than paid positions.

Arboretum town: For basic shopping, residents travel to retailers along Rockville Pike, including a Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, or into Kensington, where there is a Safeway. Grosvenor Market is another option that can be reached by some on foot. A farmers market takes place Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. much of the year in the Penn Place parking lot. Garrett Park also has its own swim club.

Among the homes in Garrett Park are 37 pre-1900 dwellings, one from 1900 to 1909, three from 1910 to 1919, 45 from the 1920s, 21 from the 1930s, 34 from the 1940s, 103 from the 1950s, 81 from the 1960s and four from 1970 to 1974, according to Collier.

Chevy Houses were two-bedroom, one-bath residences built in the 1920s that came with the option to add the price of a Chevrolet to the mortgage. Many of these homes have been altered, expanded or remodeled, but their characteristic original size of less than 1,000 square feet distinguishes them from other Garrett Park homes.

In fact, in 1975, Garrett Park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which helps to preserve the character of the town. It was incorporated in 1898 and celebrated its centennial in 1998.

The Garrett Park Elementary School is one of the schools children in the neighborhood attend. (Amanda Voisard/For the Washington Post)

Garrett Park became an arboretum by town law in 1977 as a way to promote “shade, beautiful flowers, fine fall color, winter interest and botanical diversity,” according to the town’s website. In addition, the aim is to increase residents’ awareness of the plants along the streets, in the parks and other public spaces in the town.

The Penn Place Building is a gathering spot for residents who pick up their mail at the post office. If there is an election, politicians tend to stop there.

“If you know about Garrett Park, you know people know each other,” Barbara Collier said. “We tend to know our neighbors. People like Garrett Park because Garrett Park really is a community,” she said. “When you go for a walk, you see people you know. Everybody is interested in who you are, and want to get you involved. You can keep to yourself if you want.”

Living there: Garrett Park is bordered by Kenilworth Avenue to the west, Rokeby Avenue to the north and east, and Rock Creek Park to the south and east.

According to real estate agent Kevin Koitz of the Koitz Group, Chevy Chase, 14 homes have sold in the past year, ranging from a five-bedroom, four-bath Colonial for $514,500 to a five-bedroom, five-bath new Colonial for $1.125 million.

There are three houses on the market, ranging from a 1922 Chevy House with two bedrooms and one bath on the main level and two bedrooms and one bath on the lower level, listed for $674,900, to a four-bedroom, three-bathroom Colonial listed for $999,999.

Schools: Garrett Park Elementary, Tilden Middle, Walter Johnson High.

Transit: The closest Metro station is Grosvenor-Strathmore on the Red Line; the MARC train stops at the Garrett Park station. Montgomery Ride-on buses include the No. 5, which runs on Strathmore Avenue and Knowles Avenue, and the 37, which runs along part of the same route for certain trips only.

Crime: According to Montgomery County Police, in the past 12 months, two burglaries were reported in Garrett Park.

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