When the Woodley Gardens pool in Rockville opened in 1962, it hosted luaus and picnics for its members who lived on surrounding streets with floral names like Crocus Drive and Aster Boulevard. Legions of children joined the Woodley Gardens Waves swim team and lazed through summer days splashing in the aquamarine water. In recent years, families have enjoyed movie nights and Fourth of July barbecues at the pool.
But nearly 60 years of summer fun almost came to an end when on a frigid January night in 2019 a fire tore through the preschool, Georgetown Hill Early School, attached to the pool’s clubhouse and locker rooms. Although damaged, Woodley Gardens’ neo-Colonial brick building, designed to look like the other homes in the neighborhood, survived the flames; the wood-frame preschool couldn’t be saved.
Insurance claims problems dragged on for months, and the pool’s owner, Steve Beck, decided it might just be easiest to sell the property. The aging clubhouse, barely updated since it was built, was in dire need of a facelift. A senior living community considered buying the property, but ultimately did not.
Losing the preschool and then possibly the pool as well was devastating, says Rachael Plett, a Woodley Gardens resident of 11 years. “I grew up with a community pool, so that really resonated with us when we were looking for a house,” she says.
“Georgetown Hill and the pool became such a big part of our lifestyle,” says Stacy Kaplowitz, who moved to the neighborhood five years ago from Austin, Texas. The community’s mix of split level and Colonial-style homes, as well as townhouses and diversity of friendly residents, makes it feel like “Sesame Street,” she explains. “The pool is the heartbeat of Woodley Gardens.”
That was the plan from the beginning. When Monroe Warren Sr. developed Woodley Gardens with his son starting in 1961, he advertised it as a “country club community,” in part to lure city dwellers to what was then a far-flung suburb of Washington. The community would be far different than the massive Art Deco Kennedy-Warren apartment building he had built 30 years earlier. In fact, Woodley Gardens became Montgomery County’s first pre-planned community.
Warren’s daughter Jackie Davis moved from California to Woodley Gardens in the 1960s and has lived there ever since.
“He was very enthusiastic about the idea of including [the pool]. It would make Woodley Gardens a complete community,” writes Davis in an email to local historian Joan Zenzen after the fire. “My father was so proud of it. What he had envisioned had now been built and was a beautiful building and pool with parking area, and matching the houses in its community. The pool and clubhouse were a welcoming sight to the community.”
Zenzen lives on the same street as Davis. She and her husband bought a split level house there in 1998 after attending a baby shower for coworker in the neighborhood. “I thought, oh my God, I love this place, with its big trees and little shopping center. It’s so welcoming and pretty,” she recalls.
A few years later, she and her husband, along with their 2-year-old and baby, moved to Woodley Gardens. “We immediately joined the pool. It was a great way to connect with neighbors. My kids learned to swim there,” she says.
So on that Sunday night in January 2019, when fire engines raced into Woodley Gardens, residents gathered in dismay and disbelief. And that summer, Woodley Gardens its and its surrounding neighborhoods found different places to swim. The 200-member Waves swim team was allowed to practice at other pools.
The damaged building sat at the edge of Woodley Gardens Park, a few hundred yards from the Woodley Gardens Shopping Center, which has the same brick Colonial façade as the pool clubhouse. The fire was ultimately ruled an electrical fire with no obvious foul play, according to Plett.
“From my perspective, it sat forever,” says Kaplowitz. “It was an eyesore.”
Beck contacted the Rockville Historic District Commission for permission to demolish the buildings and sell the site. Eventually, the remains of the preschool, attended by both Plett’s and Kaplowitz’s kids, was demolished in January 2020. The children scattered to different preschools, including other nearby Georgetown Hill Early School locations. Still, losing the preschool took away a piece of the community for young families, Kaplowitz says.
But the community was determined to get its pool back. So Kaplowitz, Plett and other residents formed the nonprofit Woodley Gardens Swim and Recreation Association in August 2019, leasing the pool and building from Beck using community donations and membership dues. Dozens of community volunteers worked to refurbish the building, replacing worn carpeting and restroom fixtures with plans to open Memorial Day weekend 2020.
“But in March 2020 everything stopped. We had negotiated a lease. And then Covid hit,” says Plett. “We’re like what the heck? Not the fire, not the property owner, but Covid is going to prevent us from opening the pool? The irony was too thick. No way was that going to happen.”
In the end, the association managed to open the pool. More community volunteers power-washed the pool deck and dredged the sludge out of the bottom of the main and baby pools. They washed two years of grime off deck chairs and cleared debris and clutter from the clubhouse.
“2020 so scary, but opening the pool gave us a sense of normalcy. Other pools were on the fence. We said, ‘We don’t care. We’re opening,’” Plett says.
“Last summer, that pool saved our lives,” Kaplowitz says. “We respected the Covid rules. It gave people a place to be outside.”
This Memorial Day weekend, the pool plans to open for its 58th season, leased again by the Woodley Gardens Swim and Recreation Association. Two residents have stepped in to purchase the pool from Beck so that it will be owned by community members in summer 2022.
“When the fire happened, it was traumatic and caused such a huge loss. I still don’t think some have gotten over it,” Plett says. “But we are coming out to the other side. It’s almost summer again, and that’s something we’re all celebrating.”
This story originally appeared in our June-July 2021 issue.