The Evolution of Mid-Century Modern Architecture in Washington Metro

Posted by Andre Perez on Wednesday, July 11th, 2018 at 6:49pm.

When the subject of mid-century modern homes comes up, many people think of the western part of the country, especially California and Arizona. But a contemporary movement also sprung up in the Washington Metro region during the postwar period. It was fueled by not only by architectural adventurism, but a free market manifestation of the American Dream and a transition from a federal workforce buildup to a booming private sector.

These factors, together with the topography of the area and a rich tradition of design, resulted in an unusually varied collection of modern and contemporary home styles. From cubist shoeboxes with glass walls to multilevel structures built into the sides of grassy hills, the choices were plentiful. The passage of time during the mid-century period also brought new and interesting elements. For instance, post-and-beam construction became increasingly popular during the 1960s.

It is also worth noting that historic preservation has long played a role in the area, paving the way for the eventual protection of many homes with unique characteristics that were built during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. That has not been the case in some other parts of the country.

A rapid population expansion led to numerous mid-century housing developments in Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax County, Silver Spring and other parts of Washington Metro. And while time-tested home designs such as Colonial Revival were still immensely popular, more contemporary architecture was also coming into play.

The mid-century modern movement out west was geared toward low, geometric shapes. Additionally, houses built in Southern California during the postwar period typically eschewed basements, largely due to the fast-paced development of the time. But if the Western and Midwestern United States presented flatter land and flatter homes, the area surrounding Washington, DC could often be relatively hilly and rich with foliage. This presented opportunities to utilize smaller footprints, especially with the split-level format that was quickly emerging.

One of the first large-scale modern housing developments in Washington Metro was Hollin Hills in the southern part of Alexandria. The 356-acre parcel was purchased by developer Robert Davenport in 1946, with construction from 1949 to 1950. Chief architect Charles Goodman worked closely with landscape designers, adapting plans to the woodsy terrain itself. The array of designs, from classic low-profile cubism to taller stacked levels, would come to personify mid-century modern trends in the area for years to come.

Other large modern and contemporary subdivisions in the region included Holmes Run Acres in Falls Church, Virginia with 365 homes; Carderock Springs in Bethesda, Maryland with 400 homes; New Mark Commons in Rockville, Maryland with 400 single-family houses and townhomes; and Wessynton along Little Hunting Creek in Alexandria, with 165 residences.

Wessynton, designed by Nicholas A. Pappas from the late 1960s to early 1970s, is a good example of the later fringe of mid-century architecture, with five models blending more traditional elements like Rambler and split-level with contemporary accents such as large windows, redwood ceilings and slate floors.

The contemporary and modernist movements during the baby boom era certainly wasn’t limited to large suburban neighborhoods. There’s plenty of custom-built standalone homes, as well as small and mid-sized developments.

And then there’s the Moyaone Reserve near Accokeek, adjacent Piscataway National Park in Maryland. Beginning in the 1920s, Henry and Alice Ferguson began purchasing untamed land for friends to enjoy—the sprawling retreat ultimately measured nearly 3,000 acres. Here you’ll find 180 hideaway homes on giant lots, ranging from A-frame cabins to atomic-age glass designs with jutting butterfly roofs. Residents also enjoy the lake, an association pool, concerts, workshops and much more.

Ultimately, the evolution of mid-century modern homes in the Washington Metro area is quite unlike any other single place. From the tract-home modernism for the masses with prefabricated parts to one-of-a-kind creations, there’s lots to choose from—estimates range as high as 3,000 surviving residences from this somewhat compressed, but highly memorable period in architectural design.

Andre Perez | Associate Broker & Owner | District Partners Real Estate, LLC  | 1305 Leslie Ave, Alexandria, VA 22301 | C: 703.926.7603 | O: 703.671.1000

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