13 June 2009

Mushroom House

I have to tell you about a local oddity my mother showed me one time when I was in D.C. a while back. It's really just a private house in Bethesda (the neighborhood known as Glen Echo, to be precise--where there used to be an amusement park by that name when I was a little kid), off of Western Avenue at 4940 Allan Road. According to some of the sites I hit on the ‘Net, the house was built either in the '20s or the '50s, like most of the houses in its neighborhood (the exact date is variously reported)--but the current owners, Eddie and Frances Garfinkle, who bought it in 1967, turned it into what is variously dubbed the Mushroom House or the Hobbit House (or by some, a Smurf home)--because that's exactly what it looks like!

Back in the ‘70s, many families insulated their houses against the energy crisis. Most injected the insulation into the vacant space between the outer and inner walls. Not Eddie and Fran Garfinkle. They hired Futurist architect Roy Mason to put the insulation on the outside of the farmhouse and mold it “into a swooping pattern” that completely reshaped the house’s silhouette. Mason redesigned the house inside and out in the mid-'70s and, using environmentally-friendly polyurethane foam, he sculpted a Tolkienesque structure with oval windows sunk into thick gray walls. The whole house, roof and sides, is covered in the polystucco, as the material is called. No other material is visible on the outer structure. The chimney is molded into the building and so are the windows and doors, which are also the only rectangular shapes on the structure’s fa├žade. In fact, there are reportedly no straight lines inside or outside the building (though there are few published photos of the interior to confirm this). The renovation took three years, starting with the interior and then moving on to the exterior. The idea, Eddie says, was to build the house of their (admittedly idiosyncratic) dreams, and to keep costs low. With respect to the latter criterion, however, history upset their plans: the oil crisis intervened and, because polyurethane is petroleum-based, the cost tripled almost immediately. Plans shrank.

The Garfinkles were thinking along the lines of “circus tent,” but they accept the “Mushroom House” sobriquet. "It's a magical space," Eddie said. "The main living area goes up to a peak of 30 feet. We've got an interior pond and a garden, a bridge. It's a fantasy world. The house is very earthy and free and natural." I doubt I can describe it adequately (or at all, really), so here's what it looks like (the flag wasn't out when I saw the house; I don't know when the photo was taken):

Now you see, I hope, why I went off topic to tell you about this place. It's a hoot (and kinda theatrical)--though I don't know if the neighbors all agree. Of course, it's been there like that for decades now, so they must either have decided to enjoy it or they gave up fighting. It seems to be mostly known in the D.C area--and it is known, at least “among long-time DC residents or high school kids smoking pot in their cars who happen to drive by it”--as the Mushroom House, but if you're a LotR fan, you know immediately, despite the lack of round doors, that it's a Hobbit House!

Fran and Eddie Garfinkle administer and teach the outreach program of the Dennis and Phillip Ratner Museum in Bethesda. (The Ratner is devoted to fostering love of the Old Testament through the graphic arts.) Eddie is a sculptor and Fran is an interior designer, and they owned a contemporary-art gallery and were caught up in the avant-garde scene of the 1960s and ‘70s, so the aesthetics of the new house may have derived from the combined creative minds of the couple and architect Mason. “We were looking for something . . . out of the ordinary,” said Eddie. “We didn’t want to live in a traditional box.” The couple also blame the times and their youth to a degree: “You do a lot of things in your youth that you don’t do later on. . . . It was the ‘70s. Believe it or not, it was never an issue in our minds that this was out of place in the neighborhood.” Neither Fran nor Eddie mentioned anything about intoxicants or drugs--though maybe that explains some of the, ummm, “youthful abandon” of the era they experienced in the moment. (I cast no aspersions. I’m just sayin’ . . . .)

The Garfinkles are reportedly reluctant to answer questions about their house. “We had no idea we’d stick out like a sore thumb then,” said Eddie in Washingtonian magazine--though that strikes me as somewhat disingenuous. How could they not see, even in the 1970s when the work was done, that their house would contrast dramatically with the little colonials and ranches on the rest of the block? Small children whose parents drive them by the Mushroom House, just as my mother did with me, bombard their folks for weeks with questions like, “Who lives there?” “What goes on inside?” “When can we go again?” and “Why can't we live there?” Some of the neighbors apparently hate it, but others have said, for example, “I . . . live across from this house. I like it. It accurately reflects the world view of its artist owners, who are also warm and generous neighbors.” Eddie Garfinkle says appreciation is a matter of proximity: the closer the neighbor lives to 4940, the less she likes the house. One neighbor conceded, however, that he hadn’t liked the house at first but does now. Eddie Garfinkle explains: “It’s a mushroom that grows on you.” The Garfinkles assert that they decided to remake their house for practical reasons--they say it costs much less to heat and cool it than the smaller houses of their neighbors cost their owners. “It’s like living in a thermos bottle,” Eddie has said. But that hardly accounts for the aesthetics they selected, does it?

Architect Mason--apt name, I think, for his profession--is a bit of a mystery himself. The year of his birth is uncertain (ca. 1938), somewhat odd for a contemporary American figure, and he was murdered on 19 May 1996 for reasons I haven't learned. He was also a lecturer and writer, and he designed futuristic and environmentally-friendly housing and other structures in the 1970s-80s, using inexpensive alternative materials and alternative-energy sources. He was a founder of the World Future Society and served as architecture editor of Futurist Magazine. Among his other projects was one called the Xanadu Houses (1979-1983; with Bob Masters), which featured computer-automated homes, a concept he promoted. (Mason helped introduce the idea of the "smart house" that adjusts to the needs of the residents.) Three of these experimental "homes of the future," which became tourist attractions until they were demolished in the 1990s, were built in Kissimmee, Florida; Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin; and Gatlinburg, Tennessee. (Another emblematic design was the "Star Castle" in New Fairfield, Connecticut.)


  1. I live a block from the Mushroom House.

    Most people my street like the house very much.

    In a far-too-serious-about-itself Washington, DC, in a neighborhood full of similar small brick colonials, we think it is great that there is room for a dreamer or someone whose house is different. I don't know the Garfinkles, but they seem like very nice people.

  2. I used to live in the Glen Echo neighborhood and have always loved the Mushroom House. I was too far on the other side to go trick-or-treating there, but would visit it at night when I was older by car. We moved away when I was 13, but years after that I'd try to find it and I could never remember what street it was on - I could only remember it was a guy's name - and when I couldn't find it, I'd tell the person with me that the house had magical cloaking powers:) I never knew how close I used to live to the house - I was on River Road between Saratoga and Newport - I could've walked by it all the time had I known! Thanks for the info on the house!

  3. It's fun to hear from people who know the Mushroom House or live nearby. Thanks for commenting. I didn't see the house until I was middle-aged (when I was a kid, it hadn't been remodeled yet), but it was a real kick. I told all my friends about it before I ever started "ROT."


  4. Dear Rick,
    I stumbled upon your blog while searching for information about Star Castle and Roy Mason. I am visiting my parents in the New Fairfield CT area, and I remember the house from my childhood. It is very hard to find information about this house online (I teach writing online, and I have used two library databases and several search engines). I drove up to it today, but the No Trespassing signs scared me away.
    Do you have any information about this house you'd be willing to share with me? I love your blog, by the way.
    Tara Jill

  5. Ms. Jill:
    Thanks for the compliment concerning ROT. I wish I could help you out. You didn't leave me a way to respond easily, so I'll just tell you that I know nothing more about any of this than I have already written here. There's nothing more I can tell you. Sorry.