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Silver Spring Then & Again • Jerry A. McCoy

Blair Mansion

Then: Blair Mansion, circa 1920s

Photo: Courtesy SSHS

Loading dock

Again: post office loading dock, 2003

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 of the

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, 2003.

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 sshistory@yahoo.com. The society's web site is www.sshistory.org. Future residents of Silver Spring will thank you!

 

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