All About Somerset in Chevy Chase, MD

By
Real Estate Agent with Keller Williams Capital Properties DC AB15253

There are many wonderful neighborhoods close to DC that offer tree lined streets, a bit of interesting history, excellent schools and great architecture.  Somerset, located between Wisconsin Avenue and Little Falls Parkway over to River Road, is a pefect example of that kind of community.   It even has its own community pool.   The history of Somerset is fascinating because it is the story of a community trying to protect its borders from commercial development and to hold on to its identity. 

HISTORY OF SOMERSET IN THE BEGINNING

Somerset's history dates back to 1890, when five Department of Agriculture scientists were working in the red brick mansion that still stands in Norwood Park and is used now as a community center.  At that point, Norwood Park was still farmland.  The five scientists bought 50 acres of exhausted tobacco fields for $19,000 ($535,000 today). Each man was distinguished in his field: Harvey Wiley, founder of the Food & Drug Administration, was one; another, David Salmon, is remembered in the name of Salmonella bacteria.

The five founded the Somerset Heights Colony Company.  (The company was named for the area in Britain.)  The founders laid out a street grid - Dorset Avenue, Cumberland Avenue, Warwick Place, Surrey Street, & Essex Avenue - & proposed "a suburb after the very pleasant ones of Boston."

It is unclear whether the land purchased was originally part of the Friendship Tract, a 1713 gift of 3,000 acres (1,200 hectares) to a couple of early Maryland colonists which is now the basis for the nearby Friendship Heights area or part of the estate of Preston Blair, a prominent Civil War newspaper editor. 

Five early streets were arranged and remain to this day: Dorset, Warwick, Surrey, Cumberland, and Essex, after the English counties. One of the first homes built in Somerset was Dr. Wiley's at 4722 Dorset Avenue, near the corner at Surrey Street 4722 Dorset and 4728 Dorset Avenue both remain from that time.  

Despite being promoted as an area of "tranquility and refinement", the original town was plagued by inadequate water drainage, a makeshift sewage system, and the absence of local fire protection and schools. These problems prompted the local citizens to petition the state of Maryland for incorporation into a township in 1905 when they reached 35 residences.  Township status permited the community to levy taxes to provide these basic services.

TOWN CHARTER - A TOWN IS BORN

The town charter was issued in 1906, forming the community of Somerset Heights and the surrounding areas into the Town of Somerset. The first town council was elected on May 7, 1906, and Dr. Crampton, one of the original five scientists, was elected as the first mayor.

A charter was granted. The Town of Somerset was established. Its new Council approved a first budget: $511 ($17,000 today), mostly for maintenance & lighting of the dirt streets. The 54 houses built on the initial street grid are now recognized as a Historic District, with the surviving 31 built before 1915 given special status.  

The Town approved a sum "not to exceed $10" ($300 today) to build a bridge over Little Falls Branch. Children had to ford the stream on their way to school in rented rooms in Mr. Shoemaker's house in Friendship Heights. Later, they went to Mrs. Givens' school near Chevy Chase Circle. Parents took turns shepherding them. The Town's first speed limit was established: 12 mph. 

The Department of Agriculture continued to be a presence in Somerset when it established a Bee Culture Station at 4823 Dorset Avenue. At least three dozen sizable hives were located in the garden. Pioneering apiary research was done on Dorset Avenue until the work moved to Beltsville in 1937. 

Somerset's first school opened in 1928 on the old site of Joshua Callahan's farm. The school had eight rooms & separate entrances for boys & girls. There were 138 pupils (mostly from outside Somerset), six teachers, & a 25-year-old principal, Kathryne M. Bricker, who stayed for 37 years. When she retired, the Town gave her a trip around the world.  (She must have been a very popular school principal.) 

By 1940, Somerset was a growing town. Its population had grown to 399 and the community decided to ban keeping cattle, horses and pigs within the town. Free roaming chickens were banned two years later.  By 1950, there were 429 residents in 129 homes.  21 countries were represented among those 429 residents, including 4 diplomatic families.  This international component of Somerset residents has continued to this day.  

SOMERSET UNDER SIEGE BY NEARBY COMMERCE

One hiccup in this pastoral story was the Bergdoll family, from Philadelphia, owned most of the land to the south of Somerset's initial street grid. The family applied to erect apartment blocks. So began a more than 40-year struggle to maintain single-family housing in Somerset to avoid the construction of high-rises or commercial properties along our side of Wisconsin Avenue.

Rebuffed, the Bergdoll family sold 115 acres south of Essex Avenue in four auctions. The street plan of Lower Somerset took shape: Falstone Avenue, Grantham Avenue, Trent Street, Uppingham Street, & Greystone Street.  These homes, which were built during the 1950s and 1960s, are accessible from the original part of Somerset and also from River Road south of Little Falls Road.  Their architecture tends to be reflective of the styles popular then: split levels and ramblers.  

The battle continued to protect Somerset from commercial development through the 1960s.  Somerset defeated plans to develop commercial properties along its Wisconsin Avenue border by both the Hecht Company department store and the Yater Medical Clinic who tried to build on the southern corner of Dorset & Wisconsin. Recognizing that development of the final 30-acre expanse bordering Lower Somerset could not be staved off forever, Somerset's then-Mayor Warren Vinton reached a compromise with developers. In exchange for ending costly legal battles, Somerset gained 12 acres of the land, primarily woodland along Little Falls Branch. It was named Vinton Park in his honor.

In 1965, the first high rise apartment building was built: the 17 story Irene on Willard Avenue.  Abe Pollin, the owner of the Wizards basketball team, built the Irene and named it after his wife.  The building towered over nearby Warwick Place and Uppingham Street in lower Somerset.

In 1977, Somerset bought the rectangle of land between Dorset and Cumberland Avenues to protect it Wisconsin Avenue boundary.  Then in 1981, the Town bought the 1.79 acre plot on the southern corner of Dorset and Wisconsin Avenues.  Few communities have protected its borders as effectively as Somerset has. 

There was one last battle to be fought.   While development of the last large undeveloped wooded lot in Somerset had been blocked by legal challenges for over two decades construction finally began on three high rise luxury condo buildings.  As the first of three Somerset House buildings was going up within the geographic confines of Somerset, Somerset Town residents realized that the residents of the new condo community would outnumber the single family home dwellers by 3 to 1.  Fearing that those condo occupants would, by sheer numbers, come to control the Town government, the Town residents voted four-to-one to de-annex those acres where the condos were being built, redrawing Somerset's new southern boundary to straddle Little Falls Branch.  

SOMERSET TODAY

The town features a mix of architectural styles, including Colonial Revival, Cape Cod, and contemporary designs, reflecting its development over the decades. Somerset is known for its strong community spirit, with events, clubs, and gatherings fostering a sense of belonging among its residents.The town is characterized by tree-lined streets, parks, and a peaceful atmosphere, despite its proximity to the urban centers of Washington, D.C., and Bethesda. Somerset maintains strict zoning regulations to preserve its residential character and green spaces. Over the years, Somerset has evolved into a thriving community while retaining its historic charm and character. Its emphasis on maintaining a small-town atmosphere within the larger metropolitan area has made it a desirable place to live for many residents in Montgomery County.

RECENT SALES

In the last six months, six homes have sold in Somerset.  The least expensive home on Essex sold for $1,250,000 and was described as an estate sale in need up updating.  Three others sold under $2M while one sold just under $3M.   

If Somerset sounds like the place you want to live, give the Lise Howe a  call at 240-401-5577 or email at Lise@lisehowe.com.  Lets start looking for that perfect home! 

Comments (8)

Nina Hollander, Broker
Coldwell Banker Realty - Charlotte, NC
Your Greater Charlotte Realtor

Hi Lise... always love your posts on the history of neighborhoods in your area. It's clear how much research you do to tell the story.

Dec 05, 2023 10:09 AM
Ed Silva, 203-206-0754
Mapleridge Realty, CT 203-206-0754 - Waterbury, CT
Central CT Real Estate Broker Serving all equally

You have a great knowledge of Somerset and anyone looking for real estate there would benefit from your knowledge of the area.

Dec 05, 2023 10:18 AM
Roy Kelley
Retired - Gaithersburg, MD

Families considering a move to the area will appreciate your local community reports.

Dec 05, 2023 10:40 AM
Paul S. Henderson, REALTOR®, CRS
Fathom Realty Washington LLC - Tacoma, WA
South Puget Sound Washington Agent/Broker!

Thank you for sharing Somerset with ActiveRain Lise. Your introduction, as always, was top notch and spot on my friend 🎅 

Dec 05, 2023 10:54 AM
Endre Barath, Jr.
Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices California Properties - Beverly Hills, CA
Realtor - Los Angeles Home Sales 310.486.1002

Loved your post about Somerset, reminded me of 26+ years ago you could buy a beach front home in Malibu for $450,000 and now nothing under $5million.... same story with the flats of Beverly Hills $800k and now nothing under $10million, Endre

Dec 05, 2023 10:34 PM
Brian England
Ambrose Realty Management LLC - Gilbert, AZ
MBA, GRI, REALTOR® Real Estate in East Valley AZ

It's apparent that the Bethesda Condo Queen knows all about Somerset and I would trust what she says!

Dec 06, 2023 04:25 AM
Cindy Allen
DFWMoves.com - Southlake, TX
Dallas - Fort Worth

I wonder what Somerset paid for that land near Dorset in 1977 and 1981?  Something tells me that property has increased in value more than just a little bit. 

Dec 06, 2023 03:46 PM
Barbara Michaluk
Weichert Realtors | Phone Direct 240-506-2434 | 301-681-0550 office - Silver Spring, MD
Leisure World Specialist / Full Service REALTOR

Hi Lisa, This is all good historical info about Somerset.  I'm sure anyone interested in buying or selling in this area would appreciate your assistance.

Dec 08, 2023 05:16 AM