Bethesda

Bethesda is a census-designated place in southern Montgomery County, Maryland, just northwest of the United States capital of Washington, D.C. It takes its name from a local church, the Bethesda Meeting House (1820, rebuilt 1849), which in turn took its name from Jerusalem’s Pool of Bethesda. (In Aramaic, bethesda means “House of Mercy” and in Hebrew, means “House of Kindness”.) The National Institutes of Health main campus and the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center are in Bethesda, as are a number of corporate and government headquarters.

Bethesda is one of the most affluent and highly educated communities in the United States, placing first in Forbes list of America’s most educated small towns and first on CNNMoney.com’s list of top-earning American towns in 2012. In April 2009, Forbes ranked Bethesda second on its list of “America’s Most Livable Cities.” In October 2009, based on education, income, health, and fitness, Total Beauty ranked Bethesda first on its list of the U.S.’s “Top 10 Hottest-Guy Cities.”

Bethesda is situated along a major thoroughfare that was originally the route of an ancient Native American trail. Between 1805 and 1821, it was developed into a toll road called the Washington and Rockville Turnpike, which carried tobacco and other products between Georgetown and Rockville, and north to Frederick. A small settlement grew around a store and tollhouse along the turnpike. By 1862, the community was known as “Darcy’s Store” after the owner of a local establishment, William E. Darcy. The settlement was renamed in 1871 by the new postmaster, Robert Franck, after the Bethesda Meeting House, a Presbyterian church built in 1820 on the present site of the Cemetery of the Bethesda Meeting House. The church burnt in 1849 and was rebuilt the same year about 100 yards south at its present site.

Throughout most of the 19th century, Bethesda was a small crossroads village, consisting of a post office, a blacksmith shop, a church and school, and a few houses and stores. It was not until the installation of a streetcar line in 1890 and the beginnings of suburbanization in the early 1900s that Bethesda began to grow in population. Subdivisions began to appear on old farmland, becoming the neighborhoods of Drummond, Woodmont, Edgemoor, and Battery Park. Further north, several wealthy men made Rockville Pike famous for its mansions. These included Brainard W. Parker (“Cedarcroft”, 1892), James Oyster (“Strathmore”, 1899), George E. Hamilton(“Hamilton House”, 1904; now the Stone Ridge School), Luke I. Wilson (“Tree Tops”, 1926), Gilbert Grosvenor (“Wild Acres”, 1928–29), and George Freeland Peter(“Stone House”, 1930). In 1930, Dr Armistead Peter’s pioneering manor house “Winona” (1873) became the clubhouse of the original Woodmont Country Club (on land that is now part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) campus). Merle Thorpe’s mansion, “Pook’s Hill” (1927, razed 1948) — on the site of the current neighborhood of the same name — became the home-in-exile of the Norwegian Royal Family during World War II.

That war, and the expansion of government that it created, further fed the rapid expansion of Bethesda. Both the National Naval Medical Center (1940–42) and the NIH complex (1948) were built just to the north of the developing downtown. This, in turn, drew further government contractors, medical professionals, and other businesses to the area. In recent years, Bethesda has consolidated as the major urban core and employment center of southwestern Montgomery County. This recent growth has been significantly vigorous following the expansion of Metrorail with a station in Bethesda in 1984. Alan Kay built the Bethesda Metro Center over the Red line metro rail which opened up further commercial and residential development around the surrounding vicinity.