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Slice of 1930s Saved
Last of 'Treetops,' Bldg. 15K Is Refurbished

By Carla Garnett

Modern Photos by Ernie Branson

On the Front Page...

If only the walls of Bldg. 15K could talk. Then we'd know far more colorful details about the real estate on which much of NIH now sits. In its day, say some, the old homestead hosted a President, presidential hopefuls and not a few more prominent and influential guests. It was also reportedly the site of many a grand party. Sadly, not a lot of artifacts remain to tell the tales. This August, however, thanks to diligent preservation efforts arranged by the Office of Research Services, a component of the National Institute of Mental Health moves back into the newly refurbished 1930s house that offers visual flashbacks to those earlier times.


The last of "Treetops," Bldg. 15K is in the final stages of a major renovation project.

Sure, the NIH Almanac offers the basics: Over the course of 7 years beginning in 1935, Luke and Helen Woodward Wilson donated 92 acres of prime Bethesda land to the 48-year-old National Institute of Health (housed at that time in a relatively small facility at 25th and E Streets in Northwest Washington). Located along the main thoroughfare leading from Frederick to Georgetown, the donated acreage was part of the Wilsons's estate called "Treetops."

What may be less familiar, though, are some of the events of the era that led up to the series of incredibly generous gifts. Dr. Herbert Tabor, chief of the pharmacology section in NIDDK's Laboratory of Biochemical Pharmacology, recalls a conversation with Mrs. Wilson that reveals her adamant support for scientific research.

It's easy to see how the property got its name, looking at this entrance to Treetops from Rockville Pike, circa 1930s.

Philanthropy Amid Protests

It was around the time of the first donation, shortly after the Great Depression. The Wilson family's intention to give away more of its land to the National Institute of Health had been rumored in the close-knit community. Merchants and other local landowners thought it was a bad idea. It would change the atmosphere of the neighborhood, they argued. It could be unhealthy for residents, if the government was allowed to study infectious diseases and conduct research on animals so close to homes, others felt. The issue came to a head at a protest meeting held at the Bank of Bethesda.

Addressing a roomful of her friends and neighbors (most of whom lived on large estates in the area), Mrs. Wilson reputedly said, "There are only three reasons anyone would want to own an estate: You can raise chickens, raise children or raise hell. I think we're a little too close to the highway for any of these, and thus I decided to give the land to the government for NIH."

Bldg. 15 was used as an NIH office building not long after the Wilsons donated their former residence in the early 1940s.

Tabor, who actually lived in part of Treetops after it was part of NIH for a few days in 1943 (just after he served on transatlantic convoy duty for PHS with the Coast Guard), came to NIH shortly after earning his M.D. to pursue medical research. The NIH director at the time offered Tabor temporary lodging in Top Cottage — one of several estate guest houses — that sat just in back of Bldg. 1 then.

Mrs. Wilson was the last surviving member of the Woodward family, cofounders of the D.C.-based Woodward & Lothrop retail stores. Her husband Luke was heir to the Wilson Brothers clothiers out of Chicago.

"Originally," Mrs. Wilson's son told Tabor, "Helen Wilson and her family wanted to give the land away for some kind of international relations research or diplomatic work. Soon though, they came to believe that only in science can you truly cross borders."

Top Cottage — one of several Treetops estate guest houses — was relocated from behind Bldg. 1 to this spot. Behind the cottage, Bldg. 31 is being built circa 1962. Later, the cottage was razed to provide the circular driveway now in front of Bldg. 31.

Presidential Visit, Plan

According to a 1997 report commissioned by NIH to research the property's background, the Wilsons "had strong philanthropic convictions...Helen, in particular, was strongly drawn to the mission of NIH. She had an academic interest in science and, as a result of her mother's battle with cancer, a personal interest in medical research."

The Wilsons began correspondence with federal officials about their intention to donate land, but initially did not receive a response. In 1935, despite objections by the Bethesda Chamber of Commerce and the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, the Wilsons sent a letter directly to President Franklin Roosevelt, formally donating the first 45-acre parcel of Treetops to NIH. Days later, the Social Security Act was enacted, providing $2 million annually for "investigation of disease and problems of sanitation." The NIH Almanac reports that then-Assistant Surgeon General Lewis Thompson is credited with actually securing the property for NIH.

An early view of the NIH campus: The top left corner of this photo shows the grounds of Treetops, before Bldg. 31 was built. Bldg. 4 holds centerstage.

According to the 1997 report, the Wilsons' donation, the passage of the Social Security Act and enthusiasm expressed by recently appointed Surgeon General Thomas Parran all contributed to the decision to begin a major construction project for an NIH campus. In early 1937, Luke Wilson died of cancer. The Wilson family's friendship with Roosevelt and their connection to the Washington political scene had been cemented, however.

According to one story, Roosevelt reportedly once visited the Wilsons at their home. While relaxing on the porch of Treetops, so the story goes, the President looked out over Rockville Pike, remarked on the bucolic and peaceful Bethesda environs and pointed out land he thought would be a perfect site for the future Naval Medical Hospital. Builders broke ground for the Navy facility on June 19, 1939.

In 1938, Helen deeded 25 additional acres to NIH for development of a building for the National Cancer Institute. By 1942, she and her family had moved out of Treetops' main house (Bldg. 15K) and into the nearby guest cottages. She gave the main house to NIH shortly after the move, but sources also recall the Wilsons allowing their federal friends — including the USO, which often employed Treetops buildings and grounds for entertaining troops during World War II — liberal use of the estate for many years after the last donation.

An artist's watercolor of Treetops

According to former NIH Associate Director for Administration Cal Baldwin, the Wilson family's participation in politics continued, with support of Vice President Henry Wallace's unsuccessful campaign for the White House in 1948. At that time, Treetops was a beehive of rallies and parties, and NIH was rapidly flourishing and growing around the estate, he said.

"What is extremely interesting is that the Wilson property has been the site of many fascinating events in history," Baldwin noted. "And, all the while, thanks to the generosity of the family, NIH — this incredible research enterprise — was rising around it."

As much as possible of the house's original construction has been marked for preservation.

Preserving the Past

Bldg. 15K was the former 19th century Britton family farmhouse, which the Wilsons employed architect Edward Clarence Dean to redesign, according to various historical sources. The design, the 1997 report said, was a mixture of "English and American country house tradition. The main house had a formality in its large rooms and sophisticated finishes appropriate for entertaining, while the smaller house had a more rustic flavor."

As much as possible, ORS's Division of Engineering Services has arranged to preserve the original wood finishes, floors and trims in the building, while bringing it up to code for today's structural, heating, plumbing and ventilation standards. The project began its design phase in February 2000, with construction starting last October.

The original fireplaces will remain, but the outdated radiator heating system will not.

The large rooms will soon be occupied by 50 staff members in NIMH's Mood and Anxiety Disorder Research Program, under the direction of Dr. Dennis Charney. It's probable that the homey new Treetops will house not only offices, but also a screening clinic for prospective child, adolescent and adult patients.

"We think it's going to be a very user-friendly atmosphere," Charney said of the converted farmhouse.

Six of the original fireplaces have been preserved as has the spiral staircase with polished hardwood rail, remarked Maimon Levy, DES project manager. None of the fireplaces will be active, however, in deference to safety regulations for federal facilities. All windows have been replaced, and a skylight has been added. "All in all, it's going to be a 'greener' building," he said, explaining the many energy conservation and natural resource preservation concepts employed in the refurbishment.

The grand spiral staircase and (below) much of the original hardwood floors and wall paneling are also being preserved.

Much of the original hardwood floors and wall paneling are also being preserved.

Eventually, the grounds will be re-landscaped as well, so that the outside of the house looks as fresh as the inside. Treetops had a more minor facelift in 1995, Levy recalled, but the work was mainly a temporary fix until decisions could be made about the building's future. The last remaining original structure of the Britton/Wilson estate, Bldg. 15K is eligible for the historical register.

More than 65 years after the first gift of land was bestowed, Treetops — and the 300-acre NIH campus that grew out of it — is now in position to far surpass its benefactors' original vision.

A substantial addition to Treetops's left side will allow the building to house about 50 NIMH employees.

Here, one brick wall was knocked out near the doors to the terrace. The extra space will help accommodate the sizable addition to what will be the new home of NIMH's Mood and Anxiety Disorder Research Program.

Soon, Bldg. 15K's exterior will look as fresh as its interior.

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