By Cate Toups Atkinson
In 1919, commercial roofer Bruce Stringfellow Branson jumped aboard the residential building boom in Chevy Chase DC to put up four houses in the 5600 block of Chevy Chase Parkway. The eight-room arts and crafts bungalows, priced at $16,500 each, were built side by side, alternating direction to give the block variability.
But each held an unlikely jewel that strung them together — identically carved Italian marble fireplaces of Victorian vintage, each a different hue of exquisitely veined stone. Already half a century old when installed in these new bungalows, their austere presence belied what they might have already experienced in their previous life. Warming the private bedrooms of a grand mansion? Drawing wealthy travelers around them in an elegant DC hotel?
Today, 101 years later, three of the four houses at 5605, 5607, 5609, and 5611 Chevy Chase Parkway still retain these mysterious marble fireplaces. But one has apparently gone missing, said to have been liked so much by a previous homeowner of 5607 that they took it with them when they moved out. Another of the four — a gray marble fireplace in 5609 — was so prized by its one-time owner that she kept the fireplace and discarded the house then built a new one on the lot.
Retired lawyer Matt Simchak and his wife Jane bought 5611 Chevy Chase Parkway in the mid-1970s. The shade of their marble fireplace is pink etched in black. He remembers being “very charmed by that fireplace” when they bought the house and recalls an architect friend coming over one day and exclaiming, “Wow, this is obviously from some place else.” He told him the fireplace appeared to be carved of Italian marble and dated to the 1870s.
“He knew about some mansions near Washington Circle, around Pennsylvania and 23rd, that had dated to the 1870s but had been demolished around 1914 to accommodate commercial buildings,” Simchak recalled. “He said he thought they’d probably been removed from one of those.”
The architect who told him this was Frederick Lear Fryer (1918-1983) who worked with the renowned DC architect firm Faulkner, Stenhouse, Fryer & Faulker, designers of the New Zealand Embassy at 37 Observatory Circle NW, among other impressive buildings.
A careful perusal of classified ads in the local newspapers from those years turned up no announcements of the availability of salvaged marble fireplaces. But this was the Jazz Age, a time before e-bay or Restore, and salvaged materials were frequently scooped up by people in the building trades. Nor did the building permits on file in the Washingtoniana Collection at the DC Library reveal that any of the four Chevy Chase Parkway houses included salvaged parts in the newly constructed bungalows. Although not required, details like this are sometimes noted on the permits.
One might assume that since these fireplaces were so unusual and elaborate, they would be mentioned as selling points for these brand new homes. But I could find no advertisements of these four houses when they were offered on the market that mentioned anything about marble fireplaces. Perhaps that was because by the 1920s Victorian architecture, while beautifully incorporated in the Chevy Chase houses, was considered a bit outdated and fussy, so perhaps it wasn’t the feature Branson wanted to brag about. That went to the closets (see the ad at right).
The architect for the four houses was Speiden & Speiden, a company consisting of brothers William and Albert Speiden who designed more than 2,000 structures in the early 20th century, including more than 270 buildings in Washington, DC. By the time these houses were built, elder brother William had died and Albert was commuting from Manassas. Branson used the contractor W.A. Kimmel to construct the four houses.
Branson doesn’t appear to have dabbled in residential construction again, or if so, he used a different name. His primary business was managing, then owning, the “Ironclad Roofing Co.” He was 36 at the time he built the Chevy Chase Parkway houses. It was a spec investment, as he did not have buyers until the houses were complete. Nor was it likely he intended to live in them. The Washington City Directories do not record him in residence in any of them. In fact, in January 1920, he bought 3807 Ingomar St. NW, where he was listed as residing with his wife, Ethel Lillian Branson, and their children Eleanor, Anna, and Bruce Jr. The Bransons were still living there in 1924, as evidence by a newspaper ad they took out on May 25 about a “lost stone marten neckpiece” that was dropped “between Hylers and the Woodward & Lothrop elevators.”
Meanwhile, the buyers of the four bungalows on Chevy Chase Parkway settled into their new homes. Most of them stayed for decades. They were all white, as required by the racial covenants attached to these four houses like most of the homes platted by Fulton R. Gordon during those years. The post-World War I period was a time of rapid growth for Chevy Chase DC when President Warren G. Harding from Ohio promised normalcy (the Teapot Dome scandal didn’t alight until after his death) followed by Calvin Coolidge who took the country into prosperity until the 1929 stock market crash.
5605 Chevy Chase Parkway: Black Marble
The house at 5605, which features a black marble fireplace, has been through only four families. The original 1921 owner was Bessie C. Kennedy, who is referred to as a widow, and her two sons, Edwin Russell Kennedy and Benton Chase Kennedy. Although she is mentioned in the newspapers for her social engagements (president of the Chevy Chase Garden Club and officer of the District Daughters of the American Revolution), not much else can be easily gleaned about her. A 1911 news story reported that she had been granted custody of her children by a District Court over her husband. In the war years, she applied for a temporary zoning variance to operate as a boarding house, with four residents upstairs and four residents down. It was denied, but was under appeal in 1944. Bessie died in Garfield Hospital, intestate, in 1956 and is buried at Congressional Cemetery with nothing but her name and date of death marking her gravestone.
The house passed to her son Benton and stayed in the family until late 1978, when his wife died, leaving it to an assortment of 28 cousins and other relatives. It was sold to a divorced woman in 1978, who then sold it to a couple four years later. The current owners have lived there since 2008.
5607 Chevy Chase Parkway: Missing Fireplace
The first owners of the house next door at 5607 Chevy Chase Parkway — the one missing its Victorian fireplace — were Roger C. and Etta M. Wells. He was a chief chemist for the U.S. Geological Survey research laboratory. Etta stayed in the house after he died in 1944, and upon her death in 1954 it was passed down to sons Arthur B. Wells and Roger C. Wells. Etta’s grandson, Michael Wells, a statistician who now lives in Silver Spring, said he often visited the house where his grandmother and uncle Roger lived, but he was only six years old and doesn’t have any memory of whether a Victorian fireplace existed or not in the living room.
The Wells family sold the house in 1954 to Patrick S. and Mary Kathleen Cooney. Mr. Cooney, a retired Labor Department official, died of a brain tumor at age 60 in 1966, but it remained in the Cooney family until 1972, when Lawrence H. Schwartz and his wife Judith Schwartz bought it. Lawrence Schwartz was a lawyer and public defender who taught at George Washington University Law School. While living at the house, in 1988, he helped win the largest medical malpractice claim in DC history at the time, a $3 million settlement against Greater Southeast Hospital for a three-year-old who had been paralyzed during her childbirth. The team of plaintiff attorneys, Schwartz included, shared a $1 million payout. The Schwartzes moved out the following year. (Unfortunately, Mr. Schwartz died of a brain hemmorrhage at age 58 in 2000. By that time, he was living in 16th Street Heights.)
In 1989 Freya and Burton Sonenstein bought the house from the Schwartzes. Freya Sonenstein recalls that the house did not come with a Victorian fireplace. “I had heard that the original fireplace had been removed by some owner in the past,” she said in a telephone call recently. They sold it in 2003 to the current owners who likewise have no knowledge of a Victorian fireplace previously existing in the living room.
5609 Chevy Chase Parkway: Gray Marble with Gold Flecks
The house next door is 5609 Chevy Chase Parkway. The original Branson structure was torn down in 2009, but the fireplace was saved. In its early years, the house appears to have gone through several owners, changing hands every 10 years or so. Its 1924 owner listed it with urgency, asking only $15,250 (the original asking price was $16,500 but what the exact terms were are not public.). The home address made the newspapers for various events: A lawn party to benefit the Mount Vernon Chapter of the Children of the Revolution was held in 1953; in 1950 a pair of “irreplaceable delicate Chinese lanterns” were stolen from the back yard Friday night.” The lanterns were recovered in a stolen beer truck that also contained 350 cases of beer, 50 cases short of its load, according to the Washington Post on Sept. 10, 1950.
When Mary Strauss and her husband Patrick bought the place in 2007, they decided to tear down the house and build new, doubling its size. They searched for architectural elements to preserve. “The house was rather mundane. There was nothing fancy in it except for the fireplace. It stood out,” Mary Strauss said. When asked about the provenance of the fireplace, she recalls hearing that it might have come from a hotel downtown, but she never got to the bottom of it.
With painstaking effort, they disassembled the fireplace and stored it. “It came apart in about 30 pieces. We were afraid we weren’t going to be able to put it back together again,” she remembered. But they did, thanks to a tile specialist hired for the job.
The Victorian fireplace now sits in a cozy front parlor of the 4,800 square-foot bungalow with double front-facing gables. The living room in the back part of the new house was just too large in scale to support the fancy original, Mary Strauss said. “We were just happy the guy could piece it together again.”
5611 Chevy Chase Parkway: Pink Marble
The Simchaks were in a long line of former owners of 5611 Chevy Chase Parkway. Online tax records are confusing so it’s difficult to say how many times it changed hands in the early years. But a signature under the wallpaper on the stairwell traces the house back to a family who bought the house in October 1938. When the Simchaks renovated the house in the ’70s, they had wallpaper on a stairwell removed, and there written on the plaster wall was the name of the wallpaper hanger and the date, October 1938.
The tradesman reportedly worked for the family of Jane Dortch Gray, who owned the house for a decade, raising her children there.
“I was at the house one Sunday when a woman came up the sidewalk and said she lived in this house in the late ‘30s, early ‘40s,” Simchak recalls. She told him how all the neighborhood kids played in the street and one day they noticed a black car parked with two men inside wearing overcoats and hats, sitting and watching, day after day. The kids asked them who they were and what they were doing there, but got no answer. Then, Simchak said recalling her story, “the men got out of their car, walked up to a house across the street and arrested everybody there as spies.”
The incident he was referring to occurred across the street from his house at 5700 Chevy Chase Parkway, where a Hungarian ambassador lived in 1941 and was indeed taken into custody like other Axis-power diplomats in Washington after Pearl Harbor. The woman who told him this story — along with verifying the wallpaper hanger hired by her parents — was probably Jane Gray Cumings, who was a child of eight at the time of Pearl Harbor. Her daughter, Catherine Cumings, who grew up in Rockville but now lives in Florida, told me she’d heard the spy story more than once.
“My mom loved that house,” Catherine Cumings said, noting that her mother died at age 85. “When we were kids we would drive by and she would talk about what it was like to live there. Everything, even the groceries, were delivered.”
In the 1980s, the Simchaks moved two blocks over to Morrison Street (they now split their time between Massachusetts Avenue and their country home) and the family they sold it to — Kit and Marnie Briggs — lived there 36 years, the longest of anybody. In 2019, the Briggs sold it to a couple who plan to do massive renovations — but are keeping the marble fireplace.
Branson’s Later Years
Bruce S. Branson made newspaper headlines in 1924 when he swerved to avoid an oncoming car and plunged 15 feet over an embankment into the sunken gardens of McMillan Park at First Street and Michigan Avenue Northwest.
“Passers-by rushed down the incline into the park expecting to find Branson severely injured, but were greeted by the contractor climbing out of his overturned machine,” a story in the Oct. 24, 1928, Washington Post reported. With a heave-ho of spectators, “the machine was righted and a bent fender and headlight was found to be the only damage.”
Branson died of a heart attack at Georgetown Hospital in October 1942, having made it only 58 years. At that time, his address was listed at 3701 Massachusetts Avenue NW and he had been owner of Ironclad Roofing for 20 years. It seems the provenance of the fireplaces died with him.