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Laurel hit by extraordinary housing boom

Laurel Leader
Owner of the Washington Wizards built Laurel's first high-rise apartments during the city's housing boom

This is part 2 of a three-part series.

Starting in the mid-1950s, a combination of new large employment opportunities, such as the NSA headquarters at Fort Meade and the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, and major roads constructed through the Laurel area sparked an extraordinary housing boom. Over roughly a 15-year span, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, the Baltimore Beltway, the Capital Beltway and Interstate 95 opened up Laurel in every direction with high-speed commuter routes.

Laurel became very attractive to the thousands of new workers looking for housing, but the area wasn't ready. The Washington Post described Laurel's situation in 1957: "The housing situation borders on the acute and it is here that real estate men and builders find a fertile field. Housing officers at Ft. Meade say 2894 units are needed beyond those supplied on the post for authorized military personnel. … Total drain upon area housing is expected to be in the neighborhood of 5000 units when civilian personnel completes moving operations at the new NSA building by early 1958."

Two years later, in 1960, the Post's assessment hadn't changed: "After 125 years of placid existence and slow change, [Laurel] suddenly finds itself in the center of a vast, new residential, commercial and industrial area, still mostly on paper but becoming a reality with frightening rapidity." Then-Mayor Hiram Soper told the Post, "We're all still amateurs and trying to make over a 125-year community is a hell of a job."

The majority of the housing built during this period fell within four distinct areas: The Fairlawn district within the city limits, West Laurel, the Route 197 corridor and Maryland City. There were many other pockets of housing activity in the greater Laurel area, but these four were by far the largest. [The development of Maryland City will be explored in part 3 of this series.]

Fairlawn

Laurel's housing boom started with its first tract subdivision built since World War II. The News Leader announced with great fanfare on March 29, 1951 that a $7 million housing project was to start construction soon in the Fairlawn District, the area that is now behind the Laurel Shopping Center (which didn't exist at the time) south to Contee Road. The area had been recently annexed into Laurel's corporate limits and purchased by the Spiller Construction Company and a syndicate of New York bankers. A handful of builders was involved in the project, which promised more than 750 homes and 125 apartments built within the district. Most of the homes were to have three bedrooms and cost around $11,000. According to the Washington Star, the 750 homes "would be enough to house Laurel's entire population before World War II."

The project got off to a rocky start. Within two years, 256 houses had been built, but sales were slow. Only about 80 houses were sold. The slow sales pace continued until 1955, when the mortgage creditors foreclosed on 174 unsold houses. An official with the Federal Housing Administration told the News Leader that he "believes the action to be the largest foreclosure in the Washington area." The FHA took control of the houses and offered lower mortgage rates, which stimulated sales.

Only a month after the foreclosures, another large tract of land in Fairlawn, 50 acres west of Ward Street, was bought by Metropolitan Homes Inc. The company announced plans to build 230 brick homes that would sell for around $15,000. This section became known as Laurel Hills.

An interesting anecdote about the first phase of construction in Fairlawn concerns the Laurel Shopping Center. The city-annexed land extended all the way to Route 1, and houses were already constructed on the land purchased by Berman Enterprises, the shopping center's developers. Part of the deal for the land required the Bermans to purchase the four completed houses on the tract along with the land. They demolished three of them when construction on the shopping center began, but kept the fourth house, which sat squarely in the middle of the center. It was converted into the State Bank of Maryland (later Equitable Trust Bank and currently Bank of America). Early photos of the bank show the house with a drive-through lane added to the side. The fireplace chimney was also present.

Former Mayor Leo Wilson was a long-time resident of Fairlawn and was instrumental in forming the Fairlawn Civic Association. Although no longer active, the association in its time had an effect on the city government, Wilson told the News Leader. " 'We were some of the early ones to bring outsiders into the city government,' which, Wilson said, had been dominated previously by life-long Laurel residents."

Today, the Fairlawn District is completely built out and surrounded by a mixture of housing and apartment developments. It's interesting that given how dense it is within the original district boundary, the projections of 750 homes came up short.

West Laurel

Until the mid-1950s, West Laurel was farmland. In the late 1940s, G.G. Barr, a lawyer with the federal government, bought 43 acres from Malcolm Kenneth Orem, a deliveryman for Wonder Bread who owned a farm just off Brooklyn Bridge Road. Barr was looking for a career change and had decided to try building houses. His 43 acres became Rocky Gorge Estates, which sold very well.

Barr also started a West Laurel tradition, naming streets after original owners and developers. Malcolm, Kenny, and Orem Drives were named after the Wonder Bread deliveryman who sold him the original tract. Redmiles Drive is named after Lester Redmiles, Barr's partner. When the Hillsborough development was built years later, streets were named after P.G. Melbourne, the developer; Laurel pharmacist and investor Jack Dougherty; and other investors named Goldsborough and Walker.

Meanwhile, at the other end of Bond Mill Road (the Route 198 end), sat a 300-acre farm inherited by Alexander Wedderburn, who was the curator of photography at the Smithsonian Institution. After building a home himself and selling it in 1954, he also decided his new career would be home construction. He subdivided the parcel and immediately had orders for six more houses. He called his new development West Laurel Acres, and his homes sold for around $15,000. By 1962, West Laurel Acres was completed with more than 200 homes sold.

Once West Laurel Acres was completed, he began a new subdivision of 100 homes on the west side of Bond Mill Road, called Stirling Forest. Part of his plan was to also construct a shopping center on the corner of Bond Mill Road and Route 198, which never happened. According to the Washington Star, Stirling Forest homes offered some radical new options. "One of them is built-in fallout shelters, constructed to Civil Defense specifications, which can double as a photographic darkroom, small study or whatever the owner wishes. Another feature he has incorporated in one of the new homes is a sunken conversation area before the living room fireplace."

There were problems, however, in the perking and in drainage of the West Laurel lots, which affected septic tanks. After the WSSC ran water and sewer lines to West Laurel in the early 1960s, the race was on and subdivisions popped up whack-a-mole style, including Walker Hill Estates, Bond Mill Woods, Sandy Spring, Mayberry Woods, Forest Mill and McCahill Estates, among others.

Today West Laurel includes more than 1,500 single-family homes.

Route 197 Corridor

John W. Staggers was a lawyer who specialized in international law. He had quite a career, serving as an advisor to several European countries seeking independence after World War I and participating in drafting Czechoslovakia's constitution in 1920. He also lived in Laurel and owned the historic Oaklands Mansion on Route 197. As much as anyone, Staggers profited from Laurel's housing boom.

The impressive housing construction in Fairlawn and West Laurel paled in comparison to the expansion along the Route 197 corridor. Staggers owned most of the property along this corridor and sold it to developers, piece by piece.

Starting with Steward Manor apartments in 1958, the entire corridor eventually replaced woodland with a mix of garden apartments, townhouses and single-family home subdivisions. Eventually, strip malls were added to the mix, but during the boom years of the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, it was a race to provide housing to the exploding population. The 153-unit Steward Manor, built by Pollin Development Co. (the same Abe Pollin who formerly owned the Washington Wizards), rented apartments from $95 to $150.

Laurel Pines apartments, with 236 units, opened in 1961, and also featured a golf course, which is presently called Patuxent Greens.

The 456-unit Snow Hill apartments opened in 1962, with one to three bedrooms renting from $90 to $152. According to its brochure, "the apartments contain the largest living rooms and bedrooms in the entire area." Also in 1962, Laurel's first high-rise apartment building, the 153-unit Steward Tower, was completed. Also built by Pollin Development Co., the 14-story building was not part of the Route 197 corridor originally, but that road was extended in 1964 to Route 198 where the tower stands.

The first single-family housing development along Route 197 was Briarwood, completed in 1963. The plan was to construct 259 houses with an average sales price of $25,000. By 1963 a handful of other developments were already under construction, including Milestone Manor, Village Square North, Mistletoe Apartments and Snow Hill Manor.

The competition among the developers led to promised features that were never delivered. According to the Washington Star, Fox Rest was supposed to offer a heated year-round swimming pool and a 1,000-seat outdoor theater to its residents. Fox Rest did, however, offer a shuttle bus to the Laurel Shopping Center.

To some, the crown jewel in the Route 197 corridor was the Montpelier neighborhood. In 1965, Levitt and Sons bought 176 acres surrounding the historic Montpelier Mansion with the intent to build 325 houses "in the $25,000 range," according to the News Leader. Levitt and Sons was, at the time, the largest homebuilder in the nation, and had received acclaim for its planned communities built after World War II. There were "Levittowns" in New York, Pennsylvania and Puerto Rico. Once the four- and five-bedroom homes were up for sale, the prices ranged from $29,500 to $33,500. Included in these prices was a two-car garage, "ornamental gas lamps" in the driveway, a fireplace and a barbecue in the back yard.

The boom continued into the late 1960s and through the 1970s, with developments such as Bedford, Oxford Green, Town Centre, Snowden Oaks, Montpelier Hills, Fox Rest South, Montpelier West and others. Many of these developments have been sold and renamed numerous times in the intervening years.

One of the most prolific developers along the corridor was Berman Enterprises, who built the Laurel Shopping Center in 1956. They also developed the Montpelier Plaza Shopping Center, Oxford Green apartments, Safeway/Dart Drug shopping center, Bedford homes and Montpelier Hills.

The Route 197 corridor continues to add housing and retail wherever developers can find room. To this day, it has always outpaced Fairlawn and West Laurel in housing development numbers.

Richard Friend and Pete Lewnes contributed to this story. History Matters is a monthly column rediscovering Laurel's past. Information for this story was found at the Laurel Historical Society. Do you have old pictures or stories to share about a historic event in Laurel? Contact Kevin Leonard at info@theleonardgroupinc.com or 301-776-9260.

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