In the 1930s, the trip to work for many Americans was measured in miles, not blocks. Subdividers and builders had reconfigured the landscape, increasing reliance on the automobile. Salesmanship, like the clever idea to build a 1939 World’s Fair home replica in a Silver Spring subdivision, drove much of the development.
Now, we recognize the benefits and costs of those changes. While it is easy to criticize the subdivision sales machine for paving over paradise, the Washington area’s subdividers created enduring chapters in American history.
Some, like the history of charming railroad and streetcar suburbs like Takoma Park, Garrett Park, and Chevy Chase, are well known. Others, like the stories behind many of Montgomery County’s ubiquitous 1930s subdivisions, are more elusive. Silver Spring’s 1939 World’s Fair home is one of those stories, which I will discuss at a lecture on November 2.
Mario and Pauline Scandiffio with their daughter outside of their new Silver Spring home. Photo courtesy of Ann Scandiffio.
Mario and Pauline Scandiffio were just the kind of buyers Garden Homes, Inc., wanted to move into Northwood Park. In 1939 Mario Scandiffio (1902-1996) was a Washington pediatrician who was gaining national prominence in a growing battle over the new field of managed healthcare. His wife, Pauline (1903-1989), was a singer and radio personality who also worked as a Bureau of Engraving tour guide.
After spending the first nine years of their marriage living in a Washington apartment, the Scandiffios wanted a home in the suburbs near Dr. Scandiffio’s new Silver Spring medical office; Mrs. Scandiffio, an avid golfer, wanted to live near the Indian Spring Country Club. The Northwood Park subdivision and the Scandiffios were a perfect fit when in August of 1939 a Washington Post photographer captured the image of Mrs. Scandiffio taking the key to the couple’s new house: Washington’s New York World’s Fair Home.
Pauline Scandiffio receives the key to the 1939 World’s Fair Home from developer James Wilson. The Washington Post.
Platted in early 1936, Northwood Park quickly sprouted single-family homes marketed to young professionals like the Scandiffios. Using common real estate trade tools, Garden Homes lured prospective buyers through creatively illustrated and worded display ads hawking Northwood Park’s rustic charm, affordability, and proximity to Washington.
The firm used themed models like the Bachelor Girl Home and the Bride’s Home, which were fully furnished and equipped with the latest modern gas appliances. Some of these model homes came with a brand new car in the garage and a supply of groceries.
For three years Northwood Park’s marketing efforts shared affinities with subdivisions throughout Montgomery County and the nation. Then, in February 1939, in anticipation of the spring sales campaign to sell off its remaining properties, Garden Homes set out to capitalize on the growing publicity surrounding the opening of the World’s Fair later that May.
The developers saw a unique intersection between their efforts to sell suburban homes and the 1939 World’s Fair’s mission to sell dreams of modern convenience and technological wonder to Americans visiting the fair as well as those experiencing it through the media.
For much of the nineteenth century, the parcels that ultimately became Northwood Park were part of a 56-acre farm between the road linking Four Corners with Wheaton and the Ashton and Coleville Turnpike, now the congested University Boulevard and Colesville Road intersection.
Louise Vonne, a Washington, DC subdivider, in late 1935 bought 28 acres carved out of the original farmland. She quickly had the property surveyed and filed a subdivision plat for “Northwood Park” one month after the purchase. The new subdivision had 93 lots, most of which had 70-foot frontages on one of six streets dissecting the property. After holding the property for less than half a year, Vonne sold it to Waldo M. Ward.
1894 Map showing the road linking Wheaton and Four Corners. Northwood Park’s location is shown in yellow. Maryland State Archives.
While the nation remained mired in economic depression, Washington and its suburbs experienced phenomenal growth fueled by a growing federal workforce and subsidized by easy credit guaranteed by the new Federal Housing Administration. Single- and multi-family developments sprouted in the County’s more urbanized areas as well as in outlying rural communities that became increasingly more accessible and appealing as the automobile began to dominate our transportation network. Montgomery County-based developers competed with Washington-based speculators for prime real estate. Vonne and Ward were minor subdivider-developers compared to Morris Cafritz, E. Brooke Lee, and others who reworked the landscape on a large scale.
Waldo Ward (1885-1959) began his professional life in Washington selling automobile and fire insurance. In the early 1920s he founded the Union Finance Company and began developing residential properties throughout the District of Columbia. Ward’s Washington developments included rowhouses in Holbrook Street Northeast and in Madison Terrace Northwest. Ward also owned, built, and sold houses in Southeast’s Fairlawn neighborhood. By 1935 he was developing and selling properties in Montgomery County’s Huntington Terrace subdivision.
James A. Wilson, a former civil engineer turned salesman, became Ward’s selling agent. In business together for at least a year, Wilson and Ward set their sights on a joint venture north of Silver Spring near Four Corners. On 25 June 1936 Ward bought Vonne’s Northwood Park subdivision and Wilson bought 14.3 acres adjoining Northwood Park to the south. Ads touting Northwood Park’s homes began appearing in the Washington Post in July of 1936, one month after the sale of the subdivision’s first home. Garden Homes, Inc., was created as the entity to develop and sell the subdivision for Ward.
Garden Homes marketed Northwood Park as a “Woodland Community” with “individually designed, moderately priced homes … [in] a location in the very heart of nature, guarded by protective restrictions.”
The location, just north of established Silver Spring subdivisions along one of Montgomery County’s five major transportation corridors and less than half a mile from the Indian Spring Country Club, was ideal. A 1939 building industry article noted that builders could effectively sell homes using advertising campaigns that turned on one of several themes: “large wooded building sites … an exclusive neighborhood … closeness to good transportation … [or] a low price for that classification of house.”
Ward, who owned the largest number of parcels with the original Northwood Park subdivision, was the partner with the most assets and he moved to protect them as the young subdivision began to take off. Two days after Garden Homes filed its articles of incorporation, restrictive covenants were recorded in Montgomery County Land Records. The covenants limited buildings to single-family houses and a garage; limited the subdivision of lots; established seven-foot side- and rear-yard setbacks; set $3,500 as the minimum cost for houses; prohibited nuisance trades; and, restricted non-whites — “any persons of a race whose death rate is at a higher rate than that of the White or Caucasian race” — from buying or renting property in the subdivision.
The Washington Post reported, “Established restrictions and personally supervised sales have resulted in a fine community.” Signatories to the covenants included all of the parties who bought into the subdivision in the preceding five months. By filing the covenants with the Recorder of Deeds, Northwood Park’s owners obviated reproducing them in individual instruments. Subsequent deeds executed among Ward and new buyers specifically referenced the 25 November 1936, covenants or contained the clause, “subject to covenants of record.” Although restrictive covenants typically were associated with Montgomery County’s larger and more affluent suburbs, their use with lower-middle-class homebuyers was common throughout the nation.
Ward let Garden Homes take the lead on developing and selling Northwood Park. Most of the original 93 lots were sold by March of 1937. As the year’s building campaign began that spring Garden Homes surfaced all of Northwood Park’s streets. Ads running in May of 1937 in the Washington Post boasted that 21 homes had been built and occupied and six others were completed and open to potential buyers. Ten houses were under construction and another five sites were under contract for construction.
Throughout 1937 Garden Homes used the Washington Post as its primary selling tool. Display ads run throughout the year carried photos of the new homes and copy targeting middle class homebuyers offering “a sane, safe price range”: $6,500 to $9,750. Although the subdivision’s natural amenities and convenient location defined Garden Homes’ earliest marketing efforts, they failed to distinguish Northwood Park from its neighbors.
In 1938 Garden Homes changed its merchandising strategy. From the outset, the company bet on using model homes and marketing that relied on a symbiotic relationship between the developer and a newspaper hungry for advertising dollars. This was routine in the real estate business and Nelle Wilson, James’ wife, deftly managed all of Garden Homes’ advertising campaigns. She found creative new ways to sell the company’s homes as the firm’s “publicity director.” Builders and developers had long recognized that local and national news events made good publicity coattails to ride and the 1939 World’s Fair seems to have been custom made for Garden Homes.
The New York World’s Fair Corporation divided its show into multiple divisions which in turn had several stages keyed to themed focal exhibits in seven interest zones. The Town of Tomorrow was a spurious cul-de-sac located north of the iconic Perisphere and Trylon. The Town of Tomorrow’s fifteen demonstration homes had twelve single-family homes that relied on historical stylistic vocabularies and three modernistic homes. All of the homes recapitulated the Fair’s embedded theme of looking forward with an eye on the past.
Fair planners viewed domestic architecture as a product. To them, “a home was not just a house. It was the demonstration of the impact of technology on the most mundane aspects of human behavior.” Families were not groups of related people; they were consumer units and all of the most familiar American brands, from Heinz and Coca Cola to General Electric, RCA, and Westinghouse, were there to reach consumers.
Each of the Town of Tomorrow’s demonstration homes had several corporate sponsors. These were companies who made the appliances inside the home, the utilities that connected it to the outside world, the stores that provided the furnishings, and the various building industry entities who supplied the designs and materials for each home.
Sponsored by the Johns-Manville Company, Demonstration Home No. 15’s official name was the Johns-Manville Triple-Insulated House. Described in Fair marketing literature as a “Long Island Colonial Home,” House No. 15 was aptly described by its architects as a fusion of Colonial architectural vocabulary with all of the modern conveniences — the latest household appliances — including air conditioning — new building materials, and innovative internal spaces — designed to appeal to contemporary homebuyers.
Home No. 15 was one of three demonstration houses the Fair contracted with the New York City firm Godwin, Thompson & Patterson to design for $3,500. The Johns-Manville house was a one-and-a-half-story T-plan cottage with a symmetrical front façade and interior center chimney. Johns-Manville asbestos shingles clad the exterior walls and roof, except the gable ends; the gable ends were whitewashed brick veneer attached to hollow concrete blocks.
1939 World’s Fair promotional brochure for Demonstration House No. 15. From the author’s collection.
The $9,500 Johns-Manville house was co-sponsored by the American Gas Association as an “all gas house.” Appliances included a Servel Electrolux refrigerator and a Magic Chef Gas Range. Heated by a Crane Co. system and cooled by a Janitrol air-conditioner, the interior included a finished basement, a first floor with a kitchen, dining room, living room, workshop, maid’s room, and a bathroom. The second story had three bedrooms and two bathrooms. The house could be entered through the front door, a side door into the kitchen, or through the rear attached garage. Singled out by the media as one of the most desirable homes in the Town of Tomorrow, the house was featured on the cover of the June 1939 issue of American Builder and Building Age and it was illustrated in McCall’s magazine as well as in the Washington Post and the New York Times.
Northwood Park had been touting all-gas homes since its first marketing campaigns in the summer of 1936. In 1938, for example, the company marketed its “Second Anniversary Home” which was equipped with “Every Available Modern Gas Home Appliance.” James Wilson appears to have forged a strong relationship with the American Gas Association’s Frank Williams. At Williams’ suggestion, Wilson in February 1936 wrote to Edward Wilke, director of the Fair’s Shelter Exhibits, asking for permission to construct a “duplication of house number 15 in the Town of Tomorrow” in Northwood Park just south of what is now the intersection of Lorain Avenue and Sutherland Road. Fair officials quickly replied with their conditions for licensing the Fair’s name and Home No. 15. The conditions required, “that the plans and specifications used by the Fair Corporation in the construction of House No. 15 of the Town of Tomorrow will be followed exactly” and that Garden Homes retain the original architects, Godwin, Thompson, and Patterson:
The architects will be given credit for the design of this house and that they will be compensated for the use of these plans. This compensation would be around $100 although this is a matter that would have to be worked out between you and the architects.
After selling the Fair Corporation on the idea, the clock began ticking on Garden Homes’ carefully crafted marketing campaign which was strategically timed to coincide with the Fair’s grand opening at the end of April 1939. Nelle Wilson quickly stepped in to take over all communications about the project, and worked relentlessly to secure logos, brochures, and other information to link the Garden Homes enterprise as closely as possible with the Fair.
Garden Homes staged a ceremonial groundbreaking for April 7, 1939. Over the next three months the Washington Post published articles documenting the progress on the house, all in keeping with real estate marketing best practices to place articles in newspapers at various stages of construction. When the house was completed in July 1939, Garden Homes hosted another event that included a parade from downtown Silver Spring and up Colesville Road ending at the World’s Fair Home. The 14 July 1939 dedication included a speech by Maryland’s secretary of state followed by a private cocktail party for local, state, and federal officials as well as the project’s various corporate sponsors.
Washington Post coverage of July 1939 parade from downtown Silver Spring to the 1939 World’s Fair Home.
The home remained open to the public throughout July and into August of 1939. According to the Washington Post, about 4,500 people visited the first day of public viewing. By the end of the publicity campaign more than 27,000 people had visited the home and Northwood Park. On August 13, 1939, Garden Homes held its last public event at the home when James Wilson gave the house’s key to new owners: Dr. Mario and Pauline Scandiffio.
Undated Scandiffio family self-portrait shot by Pauline Scandiffio inside the 1939 World’s Fair Home. Photo courtesy of Ann Scandiffio.
The Scandiffios paid for the house with the help of a nine thousand dollar mortgage from First Federal Savings and Loan Association. Over the course of the next dozen years the Scandiffios raised their son and daughter in the home. Daughter Ann Scandiffio recalls walking to nearby St. Bernadette’s Catholic School and playing with other children in the neighborhood. The Scandiffio home had an African American live-in housekeeper, Lucille — the kids called her “Sha.” Parties were held in the finished basement and Mrs. Scandiffio documented the family’s life in the home with her Crown Graphic camera, developing the photos in the room designed as a workshop.
Scandiffio housekeeper Lucille with Ann Scandiffio in front of Silver Spring’s World’s Fair Home. Undated photo from the collection of Ann Scandiffio.
The Scandiffios lived the suburban ideal until 1952 when Dr. Scandiffio sold his practice and moved the family to Florida. Ads for the home’s sale in the Washington Post noted that it was “Washington’s Official New York World’s Fair Home of 1939.” John L. and John C. Kirby, along with their wives, bought the home in June of 1952. More than fifty years later, the home remains in the Kirby family.
Northwood Park’s World’s Fair Home was built at the intersection of corporate consumer culture and vernacular entrepreneurialism. The four-month campaign was Northwood Park and Garden Homes’ last. With most of its lots and homes sold, Garden Homes, at its November 1939 board of directors meeting, voted to dissolve the company. It ceased to exist on April 18, 1940. Three days later the Washington Post ran an ad placed by James Wilson offering for sale the remaining 30 lots “in a well established million dollar residential suburb.”
Silver Spring’s 1939 World’s Fair Home. Undated photo by Pauline Scandiffio. Courtesy of Ann Scandiffio.
The subdivision’s birth and growth were not unlike subdivisions built throughout the United States between the World Wars. Garden Homes relied on established real estate marketing techniques to sell its lots and homes. As its principals moved farther away from their initial partner and majority landowner Waldo Ward they developed seasonal marketing campaigns that began to set them apart from competitors in suburban Washington and throughout the nation.
Garden Homes effectively sold the suburban ideal by reaching beyond convention. Garden Homes in its finale pulled off a feat recognized by the leading consumer hucksters of their time as a sublime publicity stunt.
I’ll be presenting this and more of the history at the November 2 lecture, 7:00 pm at the George Washington University’s Media and Public Affairs Building, Room 309, 805 21st Street NW. Reservations are not required. It costs $10.00 for Latrobe Chapter members, student members (full time) free with ID, $18.00 for non-members.