This morning at about 3 am, Chestnut Lodge caught fire and nearly burned to the ground. All that currently survives are the brick walls and they are in extremely fragile condition. Arson is suspected and after the investigation is completed in the next few days, I believe the entire building will be demolished to protect public safety. The City of Rockville just lost one of its most significant historic landmarks.
Chestnut Lodge began its life as the Woodlawn Hotel, a resort that attracted residents from Washington DC, and ended as Chestnut Lodge, the internationally renowned sanitarium that included such pre-eminient psychologists as Dr. Frieda Fromm Reichman. The four-story French Second Empire building in its park-like setting provided a visual anchor for the West End neighborhood. Its abandonment in 2001 caused wide concern in the city but eventually Chestnut Lodge Properties purchased it with plans to rehabilitate it into eight luxury condominiums. At this time, its future is unclear–Chestnut Lodge Properties had designed their housing development around this building so its loss is significant to the project.
What is clear, is that this fire is part of a series of significant losses for the community, which includes the demolition of the IBM Building, Rockville Library, Chestnut Lodge Activities Building and the proposed demolition of Burbanks and the Suburban Trust Bank. These losses by themselves are barely noticed, but as a group, these total up to be the worst years for Rockville’s heritage. The Mayor and Council has been reluctant to embrace historic preservation, although it has been long established to be among the best strategies for stabilizing neighborhoods, keeping communities distinctive, building civic pride, and providing well-paying jobs. And it turns out that historic preservation is also good for the environment–recycling a building requires far less energy and materials. I hope the tragic loss of Chestnut Lodge wakes up the Mayor and Council and encourages them preserve what’s left. They all say they care about the community’s heritage, but so far their track record has indicated otherwise. After all, it was the Mayor and Council that permitted the demolition of the historic downtown in the 1970s because it would result in a much better downtown. Decades later and millions of dollars spent, we’re hoping that version three will succeed.