Then: Blair Mansion, circa 1920s
Photo: Courtesy SSHS
Again: post office loading dock,
Photo: Jerry A. McCoy
With the soon-to-be completed
demolition of the 1950 Blair Post Office complex, located
on the corner of Kennett and Newell streets, all remaining
vestiges of the site's association with Silver Spring's founder
Francis Preston Blair (1791-1876) will be lost.
The circa-1920s Silver Spring: Then image shows the front
entrance of Blair's summer home. Wanting to escape the summer
heat of Washington, D.C., where he had a home on Pennsylvania
Avenue near the White House, Blair began construction of the
three-story home in 1842, two years after he discovered a
nearby mica-flecked spring that sparkled like silver when
struck by sunlight. The house featured 20 rooms, 4 baths,
9 fireplaces, 2 kitchens, and a wine cellar. Named Silver
Spring, the estate eventually encompassed over 1,000 acres,
taking in a large portion of present downtown Silver Spring
as well as areas of Takoma Park and the District of Columbia.
On April 17, 1917, grandson Gist Blair (1860-1940) described
the estate in a lecture read before the
Columbia Historical Society entitled "Annals of Silver Spring":
"The old carriage drive wound through heavy forests, until
it neared the house, when one drove through a row of horse
chestnuts trees, beautiful to look at when in bloom, then
through a row of large silver pines...Crossing a rustic bridge
one arrived at the house, in old days of mouse color, and
of the type of a French chateau. The circle enabled one to
turn conveniently and look at plants and shrubs in a little
valley below the drive...A fine row of sugar maples lined
the walk from the house to the spring...on both sides of which
were lawns improved with shrubs and trees, many of which wee
imported. The rose garden and vegetable garden...the grapery,
peach orchard and some great fig bushes, which furnished quantities
of fruit, were in close proximity and all the land surrounding
them were kept in a high state of cultivation and interspersed
with walks and paths and hedges."
Upon retirement in 1854, Blair enjoyed the bucolic beauty
of his estate, permanently living there the remainder of his
life. Upon his death, the mansion passed to Samuel Phillips
Lee (1812-1897) through his
1843 marriage to Blair's only daughter, Elizabeth (1818-1906).
By the mid-20th century, rapid
commercialization of the downtown area and its resulting
increase in property values pushed Lee family descendents
to develop the site of the family homestead.
In 1954, the 112-year-old "French chateau" was completely
cleared from its site to make way for an addition to the Blair
Station Post Office, which had been built two years earlier
literally in the back yard of the mansion. Named in honor
of the Blair family, this post office station itself became
part of not only Silver Spring's history but, three years
later, United States history.
In April of 1957, the Blair Station Post Office became the
testing site for TRANSORMA, the first successfully operated
semi-automatic mail sorting machine tested in the United States.
The name was an acronym for Transport, Sorting, Marchand,
and Andriesen (the two Dutch inventors of the machine). Weighing
15 tons and measuring 13 feet high, the machine filled nearly
an entire room of the 1954 addition. Operated by five key
punchers, the machine could sort 15,000 letters an hour into
300 chutes, as opposed to 7,500 letters an hour into 75 chutes,
done by hand. Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield called
TRANSORMA "a breakthrough" in handling the mail.
It was because of this development in the automation of U.S.
mail delivery that the Blair Station Post Office was found
eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic
Places. But the never-ending forces of development were too
powerful to overcome, and despite a three-year effort on behalf
Silver Spring Historical Society to convince developers to
incorporate parts of the complex into redevelopment, the original
1950 Blair Station Post Office was demolished on March 7,
In its place will be a small park, with the rest of the complex
site occupied by "loft-style" condominiums, which will sell
for $200,000 to $355,000. The loading dock of the 1954 addition,
shown in the Silver Spring: Again image, sits exactly where
the carriage drive circled in front of the mansion. Soon the
mansion's original footprint will be encased in the interior
of a five-story structure, which itself will overlook the
site of the original "silver" spring.
If you can share with the Silver Spring Historical
Society photographs or memorabilia of downtown Silver Spring
from any years for use in a future book, please contact SSHS
at PO Box 1160, Silver Spring, MD 20910-1160 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The society's web site is www.sshistory.org.
Future residents of Silver Spring will thank you!