Chain Bridge Road and University Terrace Modern Mecca

Mid-Century Neighborhoods Tour

Beginning in the 1940s, Chain Bridge Road and University Terrace in the Palisades became a hot bed of Modern residential design. The difficult terrain with its steep inclines, expansive views and unhindered exposures, lent itself well to the tenets of emerging Modernism.

Custom-designed Modern houses in the District can often be found clustered in areas of the city that were hard to access before the automobile age. Early 20th century developers who built the city's residential suburbs and filled the lots with Revival-style dwelling forms generally focused on areas that were accessible to streetcar lines and city services. More remote areas with hilly and wooded terrain, like the bluffs above the Potomac River in the Palisades, were generally overlooked or, if platted were slow to develop. As the automobile became more prevalent, however, these remote areas became attractive to individuals with the vision and money to build their own custom houses on the often challenging lots.   

For three decades beginning in the early 1940s, well over two dozen Modern houses were built along Chain Bridge Road, University Terrace and adjacent roads, making this area one of the most important enclaves of Modernist houses in the city. Today, about half that number survive as new and larger houses have, in recent decades, been replacing the once-cutting edge, architect-designed custom houses. 

The following are distinctive surviving examples:

Howard B. Meyers House, 2940 Chain Bridge Road NW, Chloethiel Woodard Smith, 1949-50
From the street, the Howard B. Meyers House with its cubic form, geometric features, flat roof and lack of ornamentation appears severely Modern. At the rear, however, the house, designed by woman architect Chloethiel Woodard Smith, presents a less sterile and more organic form and shape that takes advantage of the steep slope and southern exposure. Two V-shaped wings embrace a landscaped garden and feature large windows that allow the sun to heat the house in the winter and wide eaves to keep it cool in the summer. At the time of its construction, the house was dubbed the "Climate Control House" for these and more innovative features that contributed to the home's thermal efficiency such as the louvered windows that offered air circulation in the rain and large exhaust fans and a system of thermostatically controlled water sprays to keep the roof cool.  

Lewis Mulitz House, 2895 University Terrace NW, Jean-Pierre Trouchaud, 1951
This house was designed by French architect Jean-Pierre Trouchaud who had a short, but influential architectural career in Washington. He designed over a dozen custom Modern houses in the city and immediate suburbs in the late 1940s to mid-1950s. Eight of these, including his own house, were located along University Terrace and Chain Bridge Road, contributing to the area’s cachet as an enclave of Modernism. Just two of those eight houses--the Mulitz House and the Bazelon-McGovern House at 3020 University Terrace (see below)--survive. The Mulitz House, set into a steep incline, exposes only its roof to the street, providing the occupants with upmost privacy. Though not readily visible from the street, its Roman brick walls are irregularly laid and heavily textured in keeping with the Mid-Century focus on variety and texture in the use of materials. In addition to his designs along Chain Bridge Road and University Terrace, Jean-Pierre Trouchaud designed houses in Forest Hills and Crestwood.

John Hechinger House, 2838 Chain Bridge Road NW, The Architects Collaborative, 1950
Richard England House, 2832 Chain Bridge Road NW, The Architects Collaborative, 1952
These two side-by-side houses were commissioned by Richard England and John Hechinger, chairman of the board and president, respectively, of the Hechinger Home Improvement Company. They hired The Architects Collaborative (TAC), an architecture firm led by world famous architect Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus School in Germany and pioneer of the Modern movement and then-chair of the Department of Architecture at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. Both of the houses, designed by TAC's Robert McMillen, reflect strong European Modern influences--geometric forms, open floorplans, flat roofs, and minimal ornamentation. The variety and palette of the house's surface materials, including painted redwood siding, point to a more organic and emerging Mid-Century aesthetic that would come to define the other houses along the road. 

Bazelon-McGovern House, 3020 University Terrace NW, Jean-Pierre Trouchaud, 1957
In 1957, Miriam and David Bazelon, Chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, commissioned architect Jean-Pierre Trouchaud to design their house on University Terrace. The couple admired Japanese design and challenged their architect to design them a Japanese-inspired house where they could live an “uncluttered life.” Upon completion of the house, Trouchaud noted that he had sought to achieve the “restraint, quietness, harmony, and repose that are among the most appealing characteristics of Japanese homes…” But he also emphasized that, despite the Japanese influences, he had not designed a traditional Japanese house, but rather a “convenient, livable, modern American home according to design features plainly and openly expressed.” These features include sliding shoji screens which divide the central area into separate spaces, sliding glass doors in each room, connecting them to the exterior, and terraces that integrate the house to its garden. In 1969, Senator George McGovern and his wife, Eleanor, purchased the house and three years later, it became the center of McGovern's presidential election campaign. 
The Bazelon-McGovern House was listed in the DC Inventory of Historic Sites and the National Register of Historic Places in 2021. 

A.F. Maxwell House, 2800 University Terrace NW, Vosbeck-Ward & Associates, 1960
This distinctive corner house with its geometric massing and colorful gridded facade takes full advantage of its hilltop site. Second-story porches and balconies, recessed and projecting from the building's principal massing, offer treetop views and breezes. The house was designed by Vosbeck-Ward & Associates, a Modernist architecture firm.  

Greenfield House, 2964 University Terrace NW, Brown & Wright, 1965
Greenfield House was designed by Brown & Wright, the city's most prolific Mid-Century Modern architecture firm. Built into the hillside, the house features low-lying massing, an overhanging roof with exposed rafters and open plan with extensive windows. An open colonnade merges the interior with a landscaped outdoor patio. See the tour entry on Michigan Park Modern for more information on Brown & Wright.

5011 Garfield Street NW, 1953
This house was built in 1953 by local abstract modernist painter Leonard Mauer. It is located on Garfield Street, immediately adjacent to its intersection with University Terrace. The massing, roof form and materials are indicative of the then-emerging Mid-Century aesthetic of the University Terrace-Chain Bridge Road Modern enclave. No architect has yet been credited to its design, but it is not inconceivable that the artist designed the house himself.