Polychrome House No. 1, built in 1934, represents a unique attempt at producing sustainable and affordable prefabricated housing. It combined master craftsmen John Joseph Earley’s artistic colored concrete mosaics with the pre-cast slab construction that he developed in partnership with engineer Basil Taylor. Along with the four other houses that now comprise the Polychrome House Historic District, House No. 1 was one of many experimental or demonstration houses that sprang up in the suburbs of the nation’s capital in the wake of the Great Depression hoping to attract the attention of the federal government. As with other prototypes of the era, the Polychrome Houses sought to derive cost savings from increased automation or the prefabrication of building parts, and to take advantage of man-made building materials such as metal alloys and glass and concrete block. The Polychrome Houses differed, however, in their aesthetic appeal. Through the patented “Earley Process” of exposing the aggregate of various colors of crushed quartz and other rock forms, ceramics, and vitreous enamels in a mix of concrete, Earley created structures possessing both innovative construction and artistic value. In fact, in an effort to overcome the stigma associated with mass-produced prefabricated houses, Earley argued that his precast molds were subject to unlimited variations and that by changing the color and patterns of ornamentation, a great degree of individuality could be achieved. Moreover, the thinness of the panels used to construct the Polychrome Houses and the simplicity of their assembly, when compared to earlier attempts at concrete prefabrication, revolutionized the use of concrete within the building industry. In fact, Earley’s innovations in Silver Spring are credited with making precast architectural concrete a major cladding material before World War II.
At the time of his sojourn into prefabrication, John Joseph Earley was well on his way to earning a reputation as a nationally known master craftsman and a pioneer in the development of structural slab concrete construction. In 1911, the Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) funded Earley Studios to investigate the cause for failures in stucco construction, experiments that contributed to the development of the Earley Process. In 1916, the U.S. Office of Public Buildings and Grounds hired him to execute the stuccowork for the water cascades, terraces, and walls that comprise Meridian Hill Park, where important innovations in the Earley Process were also made. It was not uncommon for federal agencies like the Bureau of Standards, the Farm Security Administration, and the Forest Products Laboratory to provide foundational research for certain types of prefabrication. In 1934, after completing the multi-colored ceiling in the Department of Justice building, Earley was awarded the Turner Gold Medal of the American Concrete Institute for making concrete an “architectural medium” by developing methods for applying aggregates to add color and texture to the surface of concrete. He later served as President of the Institute. In 1936, he received the AIA medal for craftsmanship for his work on the Church of the Sacred Heart in Washington, D.C. (DC-01-MH32). Earley’s concrete mosaics appeared in approximately twenty Washington area buildings and in buildings in thirteen other cities nationwide. Although the Polychrome Houses represent his only venture into house construction, their impact was substantial.
In developing the Polychrome Houses Earley also appears to have been motivated by a social consciousness typical of the era and associated, in particular, with the subsistence homestead movement. Earley was convinced that the United States was coming to terms with the fact that “the security which we desire for ourselves and our dependents lies in the nation’s ability to provide food and shelter for everyone,” and he believed this could be achieved simply and effectively by “enabl[ing] everyone to procure a small house and a plot of ground, which can be cultivated and which will provide sustenance.” While Earley claimed that the total expenditure of his precast walls was greater than that of traditional building materials, he argued that in the long run his concrete panels would constitute a substantial savings because they required no maintenance. Thus, Earley’s venture into prefabrication sought to combine affordable housing with the promise of a better, more innovative housing future.
Earley undertook the design of the prototype, “Polychrome [House] No. 1,” in collaboration with architect J.R. Kennedy. In 1934 the prototype was assembled on site, at 9900 Colesville Road, by Earley and his team with panels made by the Earley Process Company in a studio in Rosslyn, Virginia. Using their patented process, precast, 2-inch-thick, mosaic concrete panels (4-10 feet wide by 9 feet high) were hung on a traditional wood frame and reinforced with concrete columns at each joint and embedded with steel dowels (quarter inch in diameter) placed along the vertical edges. House No. 1 is a single-story, rectangular-shaped structure with a front projection to the north end, each section having a low, hipped roof covered with slate. Ornamenting the pink-beige wall panels are buff-colored corner panels that resemble stylized fluted pilasters and a zigzagging frieze in red and black that wraps around the building. Together, these give the house an Art Deco flare. The metal casement window and door frames were also cast in the concrete panels; the wood front door has three inset decorative mosaic panels and is flanked by fluted pilasters; the windows are framed by plain surrounds and highlighted by bright cobalt-blue ribbed panels, located below each frame. Inside, Polychrome House No. 1 contains five rooms and just over 1,000 square feet of living space. Interior mosaic concrete includes a precast fireplace and a mantel that extends to the ceiling and is embellished with geometric patterns and fluted pilasters. Cobalt-blue concrete trim surrounds the window openings. A detached garage was erected south of the house using the same concrete mosaic panels; it, too, has a hip roof covered with slate shingles.
Polychrome No. 2, built at 9904 Colesville Road in 1935, is also a single-story house, but it has six rooms and a small wing at the south end along with an attached garage to the north. Red jasper in the concrete panels gives the house a rosy hue. Although less colorful than No. 1, it includes comparable stylistic features such as large, round portal windows on the front and rear of the house, as well as a front patio enclosed by a low, concrete mosaic wall with geometric pattern cut-outs. It, too, includes ornamental fireplace and window surrounds. This house has undergone some changes, the most significant being the replacement of the original tile roof with asphalt shingles. A small glass solarium was added to the rear of the house, enclosing the original mosaic concrete patio, and the original doors were replaced, although the wrought iron grillwork incorporated in the new doors is compatible with the overall Art Deco style of the house.
Three other Polychrome Houses were constructed in 1935–1936 and are located to the rear of Polychrome House No. 1 and No. 2. The three are identical in design and floor plan, but differ in color. The color scheme for 9919 Sutherland Road is predominately tan with buff and deep red accents, while 9925 Sutherland Road features rose and buff-colored mosaic panels with light green trim. At 9923 Sutherland Road, crystalline and opalescent quartz combine for a bright white effect that is thought to be the same that Earley used for his Baha’I Temple in Wilmette, Illinois; the trim and stylized maple leaf details are in forest green. All three houses are square-shaped, two-story structures with low, slate-covered, hipped roofs. Extending forward slightly from the side of each house is an attached carport (all of which are now enclosed) with a flat roof that also serves as an upper level roof deck. Flanking the house on the opposite side is a concrete privacy wall with cut-out pattern; a similar wall appears to the rear of the carport. The identifying decorative features include textured panels in a geographic maple-leaf pattern banded with metal casement windows in an overall streamlined design characteristic of the Art Moderne style. The concrete floor of the roof deck extends outward across the front of the house to shade the front entrance. The panel between the entry and the carport includes a cut-out chevron design that covers the casement window to a bathroom, providing added privacy. At the side wall looking onto the roof deck is a six-foot-square section of glass block set into the panels. The interior includes a large living/dining room area, original wood paneling, and Art Deco detailing on doors with circular cut-outs and a staircase with a stepped dividing wall. The second floor includes three corner bedrooms, one of which has access to the roof deck, and a large bathroom with corner tub and geometric tile.
Perry, Constance Peterson, “Polychrome Historic District,” Silver Spring, Montgomery County, Maryland. National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, 1995. National Park Service, Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
“Polychrome House No. 1,” Silver Spring, Maryland; HABS No. MD-1077. Historic American Buildings Survey, National Park Service, 1990.