How Montgomery County Grew in the 1950s

HOW MONTGOMERY COUNTY GREW IN THE 1950s

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Montgomery County’s growth boom in the 1950s was driven by a population explosion that began in the 1940s and reached its historic peak in the ten years from 1950-1959. County population nearly doubled in the 1940s from 83,912 to 164,401, then more than doubled during the 1950s to 340,928. In no decade before or since has the county experienced such a large population increase. Certain factors unique to Washington, D.C. and Montgomery County accounted for the population explosion in the 1950s and how effectively this growth was managed.

 

Washington, D.C.’s housing shortage, which developed in the 1930s as government workers were hired to staff programs to pull the nation out of the Depression, became a housing crisis in the 1940s due to the huge influx of war workers. It was so severe that 250,000 D.C. residents relocated to Maryland and Virginia. Of these, 12,932 adults with their 35,075 children moved to Montgomery County. Later in the 1940s, after wartime building restrictions were lifted, Montgomery County’s proximity to the District and its abundance of low-cost tracts of farmland near the District line made it a logical site for new housing.1 

 

REGIONAL PLANNING AGENCIES

The Washington Suburban and Sanitary Commission (WSSC), formed by the Maryland Legislature in 1918, provides water and sewage service as well as pollution control in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties. Soon after its formation, the WSSC purchased, upgraded and connected the previously independent water and sewer systems in Takoma Park, Chevy Chase and Bethesda into one system. The Commission then engaged in long-range planning and constructed additional sewer and water capacity to catch up to recent and projected down county growth.

WSSC built sewer trunk lines in stream valleys to prevent pollution and direct sewage to the DC treatment plant.

By 1950, the WSSC had a system of sewer and water mains along Little Falls Creek, Rock Creek, Sligo Creek and Paint Branch stream valleys and a financial arrangement with DC government that allowed county sewage to be treated at the Blue Plains Water Pollution Control Plant located in the southwest quadrant of Washington, DC on the Potomac River.  The new housing subdivisions springing up in the Bethesda, Rockville and Wheaton election districts during the 1950s were able to connect to this modern system.

The County’s water supply was drawn from the Patuxent River at Brighton Dam and was purified at the filtration plant in Prince George’s County , and pumped to businesses and residences in the down county via WSSC water lines. The expanded water system that supported rapid County growth in the 1950s came with the opening of the Duckett Dam and Reservoir in 1952.2

1953 annual report for MNCPPC

In 1927, Silver Spring political boss E. Brooke Lee lobbied to create the Maryland-National Capital Park & Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) as a complementary agency to Washington’s National Capital Park and Planning Commission formed the year before.3 Operating as an independent bi-county agency, the new Commission assumed authority to approve zoning, manage land use, and review subdivision applications in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties. In order to plan for orderly growth, the Commission established a new policy requiring subdivision applicants to dedicate land for current and future utilities, streets, schools and parks. The Commission also kept residential development separate from commercial development, and both of those separate from industrial development.4 During the 1950s, the Commission approved as many as 4,800 new lots per year. In addition, the Commission was authorized to purchase land for the design and construction of park systems in both counties.

ROADS

County residents had good access in and out of Washington, D.C.  via major roads including Piney Branch Road, 16th Street, and River Road, as well as New Hampshire, Georgia, Connecticut, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts Avenues. By the 50s, these roadways had been improved, widened and extended into the County, creating natural corridors for urban expansion out of the District. In addition, cross-county roads like East-West Highway, University Boulevard, and Viers Mill Road had been built and/or expanded. Taken together, the suburban areas in the down-county had excellent north-south and east-west access.

 

EMPLOYMENT

Montgomery County not only provided easy access to employment in the District, it provided substantial employment opportunities itself. Seven federal agencies (Army Map Service, David Taylor Model Basin, Naval Ordinance Laboratory, National Institutes of Health, National Naval Medical Center, Naval Ordinance Laboratory, and Walter Reed Rehabilitation Hospital) had located in the County before World War II,5 and were joined by The Atomic Energy Commission, which opened its headquarters in Germantown in 1957.6 These government agencies, both new and established, were hiring during the 1950s and attracting young, well-educated workers from across the nation to work and live in Montgomery County. 

The National Naval Medical Center, built in 1939.

 

 

 

The Atomic Energy Commission, opened in Germantown, 1957.

In addition to the expanding number of retail businesses providing goods and services to the growing residential population, private companies such as Capital Research Associates, Dynacor, Inc., Hydronautics, IBM, Johns Hopkins Operations Research Center, Microbiological Associates, Optical Cell Co., Rixon Electronics, USI Robodyne, and Vitro Laboratories (below) located in the Montgomery County, hiring people to perform contract work with government agencies.7

Vitro Laboratories

By the end of 1959, the County workforce totaled 134,580 people, two-thirds men and one-third women. Half worked in the private sector on salary or hourly wages, while one-third worked for the federal government. Ten percent were self-employed and the remainder were employed in agricultural jobs and domestic jobs.8 Although considered a “bedroom” community of Washington, almost half the county’s residents worked in the County, not in the District.

County residents earned decent salaries, especially those living in the expanding suburban communities located near the District line. In 1949, median family income was $5,259 compared to $3,321 in DC. By 1959, median income for a white male resident was $6,816 and $2,119 for a white female. This compared unfavorably with the income of non-white county residents. In 1959, the median income for a non-white male was $2,763 and $1,144 for a non-white female.9

In the 1950s, Montgomery County had 13 election districts, as illustrated here. Most homes were built in the Bethesda, Wheaton and Rockville districts.

HOUSING

Veirs Mill Village housing development, 1951. Note the “clear-cutting” of nearly all trees, as was the practice until the later part of the decade.

Builders were rapidly constructing affordable homes for young families, nearly doubling the number of houses available in the County during this decade. In 1949, there were a total of 46,093 homes in the county. By 1958, an additional 38,886 new homes had been constructed, of which 94% were built in the down-county election districts of Bethesda, Wheaton and Rockville. According to the 1960 census, these three areas had the highest population density increase during the 1950s with an average of 500 persons per square mile and in sections in Wheaton as many as 4,000 persons per square mile.10

Homes in the 1950s were typically built in subdivisions of 50 to 1,000 homes. New homes were small by today’s standards, with the typical affordable house ranging from 625 to 1,200 square feet on one floor containing a living room, eat-in kitchen, two or three bedrooms and one bathroom. Some had unfinished basements or an unfinished second level to accommodate future expansion. Most new homes did not have a front porch, but the backyard was advertised as “the outdoor living room” where there was privacy for outdoor entertaining. Some builders, especially in the early years of the decade, favored clear-cutting the land before building, creating housing developments that were barren of mature trees, outside of park land or vacant lots.11 By 1958, this practice was ceasing as builders realized natural aesthetics were important to potential buyers.12 

Artist’s rendering and floor plan of a typical bungalow home in Glenmont Village, in the Wheaton district.

 

Advertisement for the Glenmont Village subdivision, on Georgia Ave.

 

SHOPPING

Chevy Chase Center, built in 1952 by the Chevy Chase Land Co.

Until the late 1940s, county residents depended on department and specialty stores in downtown D.C. for major purchases of clothing, furniture, etc. In 1948, department store and specialty store sales in the metropolitan areas totaled $182 million. Stores in the District captured 89% of these sales, and Montgomery County just 5%.13 As the down-county population grew and thousands of new homes were built, residents needed more and better places to shop for everyday necessities as well as the large purchases associated with home ownership. Department store and chain store leaders as well as builders quickly saw the opportunity and began building stores and shopping centers nearer to the growing suburban population.

By 1959, shopping in the county was transformed. There were 6 department stores, more than 30 neighborhood shopping centers, 2 major retail districts in Silver Spring and Bethesda, and Wheaton Plaza, the first suburban shopping mall between Baltimore and Atlanta in the Washington metropolitan area, was fully operating and set to officially open in 1960.14

 

Wheaton Plaza, officially opened in 1960.

SCHOOLS

Eastern Junior High School, built 1951

Montgomery County reported 20,366 babies had been born in the years 1940-1949. The post-WWII surge of returning veterans, family formation, and home ownership was triggering the “baby boom” that would sweep the county and the nation. This surge in births required a massive push to build more schools, especially at the elementary level. The MCPS school construction program in the 1950s barely accommodated the increased numbers of young students; in fact, some down-county elementary schools had to adopt half-day school sessions for portions of the school year in order to enroll all eligible students while new buildings were being constructed. 

Lincoln High School (for black students), built in 1935. This building became the first Junior High School for black students when Carver High School was built in Rockville in 1951.

Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), as a segregated school system, reported a total enrollment of 28,525 total students in 1949, with children attending at 46 elementary schools (30 for white students and 16 for black students), four junior high schools (all for white students), and eight high schools (seven for white students and one combination junior/senior high school for black students). The “colored” elementary school buildings were old, substandard, and grossly underfunded compared to the schools for white children; some of them were still one- or two-room schoolhouses with outdoor privies and wood-burning stoves. The oldest schools were partially replaced up-county with the construction of several new consolidated elementary schools for black children in the early 1950s; then all were closed as the school system was fully integrated by the early 1960s.15 (For a more in-depth look at the desegregation of the public schools starting in 1954, see Montgomery History’s online exhibition, The Decree Had Been Handed Down: The Experience of Public School Desegregation as told by Six Women Who Were There.)

Ken-Gar Elementary School (for black students), used until 1955.

In 1959, after a decade of school construction and five years spent integrating the public schools, the MCPS system had grown to 87 elementary schools (most integrated, with many remaining all-white or all-black relative to the local population), eight integrated junior high schools, ten integrated high schools, and one segregated high school (Carver High School, for black students, which closed in 1960).

Walter Johnson High School, built in 1956.

Not only did the number of school buildings grow from 1949-1959, so did the number of teachers: from 930 to 3,080, the number of students: from 28,525 to 78,488 and the school budget: from $9.5 million to $63.4 million.16 Even then, the boom was not over: an additional 42,843 babies were born in the 1950s, creating the need to build even more schools throughout the 1960s.17

 

 

PARKS AND RECREATION

In addition to its zoning and subdivision responsibilities outlined above, the Maryland-National Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) was authorized to purchase land for the design and construction of county-wide park systems in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties. In Montgomery County, Commission staff prepared an extensive plan that included buying land in the Little Falls, Rock Creek, Sligo and Northwest Branch stream valleys in the County, building parks, and designing an automobile parkway system to give residents access to outdoor recreation experiences.

Montgomery County Park System by 1960 (from M-NCPPC)

The Capper-Cramton Act passed by Congress in 1930 provided initial funding for the acquisition of over 900 acres of parkland in the county.18 By 1959, the implementation of the M-NCPPC’s plan for schools, parks and recreation created an award-winning Montgomery County park system comprised of thirteen miles of parkways and 3,539 acres of public parks with community recreation centers, athletic fields, drinking fountains, picnic tables, outdoor grills and fireplaces, playgrounds, and other amenities.

 

 

CONCLUSION

The 1950s in Montgomery County was a decade of optimism and increasing affluence. It was also a decade of great change as county leaders, the business community, and residents worked together to manage rapid housing growth, provides services to support a booming population, integrate the public school system, and undertake the responsibilities of the new “self-rule” county government with its elected county council and appointed county manager. These challenges were, for the most part, effectively met and credit goes to the long-range planning of the WSSC and the M-NCPPC as well as to involved citizens, a responsive schools system, and a well-managed county government. The accomplishments in the 1950s laid the foundation for Montgomery County’s reputation as a national leader in suburban land use, planning, and development.

Footnotes

  1. Kelly, Clare Lise. Montgomery Modern. Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission: Silver Spring, MD. 2015 (page 41)
  2. Brigham, Arthur P.“The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission,” Montgomery County Story, Volume 21, Number 3. August, 1978
  3. Jaffeson, Richard C. Silver Spring Success: the 300 Year History of Silver Spring, MD.  Fifth Edition, 2003.
  4. Hanson, Royce. Suburb: Planning, Politics and the Public Interest. Cornell University Press: Ithaca, NY. 2017.
  5. “An Inventory of Land Use: Maryland-Washington Regional District, 1955.”
  6. Kelly, Clare Lise. Montgomery Modern. Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission: Silver Spring, MD. 2015 (page 104)
  7. Richardson, Virginia. 1960-61 Montgomery County Handbook. Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce: Washington Grove, MD. 1960, p. 201-208
  8. United States Census of Population: 1960, General Social and Economic Characteristics. Maryland Bureau of Census, 1961.
  9. County Manager’s Annual Report: 1949 and 1959
  10. United States Census of Population: 1960, General Social and Economic Characteristics. Maryland Bureau of Census, 1961.
  11. Annual Report, 1953. Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
  12. “Looking Ahead: A General Plan for the Maryland-Washington Regional District, 1958-1980.”
  13. Hoyt, Homer. Economic Survey of Montgomery & Prince George’s Counties, Maryland. Homer Hoyt Associates: Washington, DC, 1958
  14. “An Inventory of Community Resources for Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties, Maryland.” 1959
  15. Clarke, Nina Honemond and Lillian B. Brown. History of the Black Public Schools of Montgomery County, Md: 1872-1961. Bartleby Press: Silver Spring, MD. 1978
  16. E. Guy Jewell, From One Room to Open Space: A History of Montgomery County Schools from 1732 to 1965. Montgomery County Public Schools: Rockville, 1976, p. 320
  17. Montgomery County State and Regional Trends, 1950-1990. Research and Information Systems Division: Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. December, 1991
  18. Hanson, Royce. Suburb: Planning, Politics and the Public Interest. Cornell University Press: Ithaca, NY. 2017.