Chestnut Lodge fire adds to Rockville losses

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.

14 responses

  1. The old library and bank building are hardly on par with the history and architecture of Chestnut Lodge. And Burbanks’s is physically unsafe to be inside at all, even to renovate.
    I was joking with a neighbor, but half seriously, about how the HDC would demand each brick be cleaned off and used to rebuild Chestnut Lodge back exactly.

    1. Thanks for your comment. You’re right that historical significance does vary in “quality” and it’s easiest to understand via geography. Chestnut Lodge as the sanatorium was significant at the national, perhaps international level, whereas the same building as just the Woodlawn Hotel was significant at the state or local level.

      But you also bring up common misconceptions about determining historical significance. The Rockville Historic District Commission (as do most other commissions throughout the US) bases its determinations on the criteria of the National Register of Historic Places, which focuses on a place’s association with an important person or event, its architectural design or construction, and its research value (such as an archaeological site). We also determine the level of significance at the national, state, or local level. What may be important in California may not be important in Maryland, so every community should have the ability to say what matters to them.

      What I haven’t mentioned are other criteria, such as condition or age. Age is not a factor–just because something is old doesn’t mean its historic. And vice versa: just because something is young doesn’t mean it can’t be historic (in Rockville, I’m guessing that Human Genome Sciences is internationally significant because of its achievement in unraveling the human genetic code a decade ago).

      And surprisingly, condition isn’t a factor. It can easily cloud our judgment and we’ll believe that something that doesn’t look good, can’t be worth saving. Historical significance can’t be primarily an aesthetic decision, because aesthetics are so subjective. The previous generation thought Victorian homes were absolutely, downright ugly and demolished them without regret (remember, that was threatened on West Montgomery in the 1970s). Now we treasure them. When you think about it, Chestnut Lodge was in terrible condition but we still valued that building. I agree that Burbank’s isn’t much to look at and it’s in poor condition, but it’s the oldest commercial building left in downtown and the only one from the 19th century. Unfortunately, Rockville demolished all the others just a few decades ago (and looking at historic photos, we had some great buildings), so we’re left with what we have. The previous generation eliminated our choices. So, do we demolish Burbank’s and leave the next generation nothing? For me, it’s not an easy decision and I’d feel much more comfortable making as a group with a variety of perspectives.

    2. And I know you were just joking, but just in case someone wonders, the HDC has never (as far as I’m aware) required a property owner to construct a historic building that is no longer there. The only time I’ve experienced that owner has been required to rebuild an historic building (or portion thereof) is when he purposely and intentionally has demolished it without a permit. Rebuilding is the best way to discourage illegal demolition because some people will consider a fine as the cost of doing business (and typically the fines are just a few hundred dollars).

  2. A tragic loss and as you mention, another in a long line of loss’s. I was born and raised in Rockville and I remember the “old” Rockville downtown well, at the time we lived in Hungerford and our next door neighbor was Walter Scheiber who was the City Manager…this was in the early 60’s. My Mom was a member of the Rockville Women’s Club along with future Congresswoman Connie Morella….they fought tooth and nail to NOT have Rockville torn down and the arguments across the backyard fence with Mr. Scheiber were audible….well we all know how that worked out! While I’m at it….I recently drove past the Dawson house and was appalled to see those townhouses almost right up to the porch of the big white house….how sad, I have so many fond memories of that farm, visiting with Rose Dawson, Caroll Smith the black caretaker of the property who lived in a one room shack attatched to the barn. I applaud your efforts to save “what we have left”, but I’m afraid it will be to no avail!


    1. Oh, thanks for these personal comments on old downtown Rockville. I had always assumed that very few people cared about it–I’m glad I was wrong!

  3. I would add to the list of losses the Twinbrook Neighborhood based on the version of the Twinbrook Neighborhood plan adopted by the mayor and half the council–over the objections of the residents to turning a historic residential neighborhood into a dense, congested commercial and rental zone.

  4. Max, hi. My first thought when I heard about it was Eileen McGuckian and Peerless Rockville. After all that work Peerless did to keep this historic landmark, and it goes up in flames — just like that! To me, it’s very sad. Maybe because I’m a history buff and a supporter of preservation (and a member of Peerless) that caused me to feel a deep sense of loss. I live close by the Lodge in Hay-ti, but I was on Anderson Avenue at a party until almost 1 am Sunday, right before it started. But because I rarely turn on the news on Sundays, I didn’t hear about it until almost 4 pm at my brother’s house in Gambrills, MD. I went to the site Sunday evening as soon as I got back in town and I gasped when I saw it. I knew it was bad, according to my mom who had warned me, but what I saw was just mind-blowing. Unbelievable. I went back Monday evening, too – I guess I needed to mourn some more. A very good friend of mine worked there from around the mid-1980s to the mid to late 1990s in the accounting department, so I was fortunate enough to go inside a couple times in 1990. I wish I could remember more but I do remember it having a wide hallway, high ceilings, and I think a couple of parlors and a wide staircase, maybe on the left? My memory is really vague. I had assumed that the cause was accidental but when I heard that arson was a possible cause, I got angry. This building meant something to this city and for someone(s) to burn it down either through negligence or a deliberate act of destruction makes the loss worse. Chestnut Lodge meant something to our city. It was part of Rockville’s heritage. This should not have happened.

    1. Thanks, Jacki! Yes, it is all very sad, especially if it is arson. I was a volunteer at local historical society in California that had an amazing collection housed in one of the oldest churches in town, when it was hit by fire around Christmastime. Rumor had it that a high school student from the neighborhood had started it (he was bragging about it at school) but the police could never prove it and the family moved out of town. We eventually rebuilt the church and moved what remained of the collection to a fire-proof building, but it took nearly a decade and we lost many irreplaceable things (including beautiful Indian baskets, family quilts, and historic photos). But I did meet Mary, my wife, through the recovery project. She volunteered to help clean and sort the surviving artifacts and I still remember when I first saw her walk into the warehouse. It was love at first sight (for me; it took some more time to convince her). 🙂

  5. Old Rockville

    Old Rockvile would have been nice to save if thier was anything worth saving. 99% of the structure torn down were in delabated condtion and many had been abodone by thier former owners. The stucture by and large cheaply built wooden building that had uncoutable structal problems. While it’s nice to think Rockville of the mid to late sixtys was a nice as a Houston Hancock picture the truth is far from that. While many people see the failure as Rockville Mall as the failure of the Urban Rewnal 1. The truth is that 85% of Urban Rewnal 1 was sucessful it’s just that Rockville Mall is the most visable of the project. What did Urban Renwal 1 do it took a poor economically failing town and brought it to be the second lagest ecomically city in Maryland. What did we lose with the tearing down of the “old downtown” A rundown downtown that anybody with common sence would not go into after dark. High crime rates, a large population of resident drunkards, homeless and vagarants. Basicly speaking a dieing little town at least in the town center.

    1. Hey Old Rockville,
      I could not disagree with you more, the reason those buildings in old Rockville were in need of repair is because they were left to “rot”, knowing that Urban Renewal was on the way, those buildings could have been restored….NOT destroyed….picture downtown Frederick or perhaps Georgetown….flattening the town was NOT needed….all it needed was a little vision! Again…. the town was left to die and as you point out that’s when the more unsavory types started to hang around…..I remember it well. So get your facts straight….Urban Renewal was a disaster and no amount of lipstick would have made that pig any prettier.

  6. There may be a chance here to make lemonade out of lemons, so to speak. Back-of-the-envelope, it actually may be even more economically viable for the developer here to rebuild a building that duplicates the exterior look of the Lodge, but to contain the planned housing units while also being an environmentally-friendly building. The grounds are still there, that is a historic resource in itself.

    I love old historic buildings. One of the hangups I have is that there is no provision for working families make the kinds of economic energy-efficient upgrades to make such buildings sustainable for any sort of future. I get the impression that its like “they didn’t have triple pane windows in 1889, so you cant put them in now”

    1. Thanks for your comments. We don’t know what the owners of Chestnut Lodge are planning, but I would prefer they reconstruct the building. It doesn’t need to be a museum-quality replica, but could be a steel-frame building with a brick veneer that looked like the historic Chestnut Lodge (same massing and height, window pattern, mansard roof, etc.) but was also “green”. I wouldn’t support a modern apartment building–it wouldn’t fit in with the landscape and surrounding historic buildings. Incentives such as tax credits or mini-grants to help working families install energy-efficient upgrades are a great idea (and fyi, Rockville allows them for historic buildings, but only if they don’t destroy the character of the building and neighborhood, so solar panels are not permitted in the front yard).

  7. Andrew Sellman posted the following comment on the “Working Better Together” page but I moved it here since it’s more closley related. He submitted on 2009/06/14 at 6:57pm

    Max: the below has be recent email from myself to the County Executive, the MontCO DPE and Health Services, and have been corresponding with Phyliss Marcuccio and the City Clerk regarding a issue of environmental and public health concern to the West End.

    To the County Executive,

    I’m concerned about the impacts of a fire at the Chestnut Lodge facility in the City of Rockville on 7 June (see below email with more specifics).

    I do not believe the local authorities have any real appreciation of the potential scope of this problem, and as such, appear to me, to be treating the event as an non-issue for the community. My personal experiences with older home renovations, has given me a special appreciation for the dangers of heavy metal [lead] contamination, and the potential side effects to the public from its release in buildings. The intense fire at the almost surely caused huge amounts of old, oil-based, lead paint to be dispersed on the Chestnut Lodge site as well as adjoining properties, including my own. This fire was unique in its ability to disperse large amounts of lead-based paint, and therefore its effect on the community is likely to be equally unique. But the problem seems to be that no one is investigating this issue since the fire, or they have, it has been in a non-professional manner. This is probably because the officials don’t see this as being different from any other fire. But it is, the building was built in the 1880’s, when lead-based paint was common. And in its last decades as an administration building, maintenance and update were not a priority.

    As a citizen of Montgomery County, I’m asking for you assistance in making sure the appropriate officials do their due diligence in investigating this matter and making sure all precautions are taken to protect the residents in the West End of Rockville City.

    Andrew Sellman

    411 West Montgomery Ave

    Rockville, MD

    (h) 301-610-5691

    (w) 703-755-5654

    —– Forwarded Message —–
    To: “dep environ”
    Cc:,,,, bdye@,,,,, “jim caldwell” ,,,, “Frank Anastasi”
    Sent: Sunday, June 14, 2009 8:29:50 AM GMT -05:00 US/Canada Eastern
    Subject: Unassessed Possible Contamination of the Environment in the City of Rockville West End Neighborhood from 7 June fire at Chestnut Lodge

    On 7 June, a major fire consumed the old Chestnut Lodge Building in the City of Rockville. Upon awakening on the morning of that same day, some neighbors had significant debris in their properties near the fire. This was a large building, first constructed in the 1880’s, so there is likely amounts of lead-based paint in the structure.

    Most of the debris on my property consisted of tens of thousands of small to medium-size flakes of white or beige or green-tinged paint chips. The amount on my and my immediate neighbors property of ‘ash’ or burned wood was minor compared to the the amount of paint.

    No coordinated action has been taken that I’m aware of to assess any professional enviromental damage or the specific evaluation to the area nor to take in account the potential health concerns for the residents, other than a test on a single sample done by the city. That sample included a positive test for lead in the sample, however, I was called and told not to worry. I’m unimpressed by that response. We have small children in the area, who are especially suseptible to lead poisoning, so I think understanding the full risk is very important. This fire was a rare event, given the age and size of the structure. And all the old encapsulated paint was released into the neighborhood due to the fire.

    At this point, most of the information I’ve seen has been conjecture and opinion. No ones really knows if there is a health risk, because no one has done a professional assessment. And a week has gone by with little seen progress towards to really understanding what may have happened due to the fire.

    I’m requesting that Montgomery County work with the City, and other organizations and the neighborhood to propertly assess any damage to the enviroment (quantity and quality testing) and help all affected understand the specific health risk associated with this assessment.

    I have been collecting numerous paint samples since the fire, and have saved all of this material for any testing that may be necessary.

    A Concerned Montgomery County Resident,
    Andrew Sellman
    411 West Montgomery Ave
    Rockville, MD
    State of Maryland
    (301-610-5691) home
    (703-755-5654) work

    1. Andrew: Thanks for your comments on the potential hazard of fires to air quality–most people just think about the damage caused by fire and just assume smoke is from wood, like a campfire. I believe the City of Rockville has issued some warnings about keeping children away from any paint chips that may have fallen around nearby houses because they can contain lead, but I’m not aware if any environmental testing was conducted. Does anyone know?

%d bloggers like this: