By Eileen McGuickian and Max A. van Balgooy
A centerpiece of Rockville’s Civic Center Park today, Glenview Mansion traces the history of our region from the 1830s to the present day.
In the early 1800s, Rockville was a crossroads between the ports of Georgetown, Bladensburg, and Baltimore to the western frontier. Near the small village of 200 residents, Catharine and Richard Johns Bowie purchased 500 acres and cleared forests to grow corn, wheat, rye, potatoes, and hay as well as raise cattle, horses, sheep, and pigs. In 1838, they built a two-story house on the highest point, naming it Glenview because of its view of the valley below. But the Bowies were much more than farmers. Richard was working as an attorney and serving as a state senator when Glenview was under construction and by the time of his death in 1881, he had served as States Attorney for Montgomery County, a member of U.S. Congress, and Chief Judge for the Maryland State Court of Appeals. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, Judge Bowie was a Union sympathizer and anti-secessionist, but he was also opposed to abolishing slavery—his home and farm was built and maintained by two dozen enslaved Africans.
Glenview remained in the Bowie family until 1904, then changed hands several times before 1917, when it was purchased by Irene and William Smith, a recently married couple whose wealth gave them political and social connections in DC and New York. With the arrival of the automobile, wealthy heirs, business leaders, department store owners, newspaper publishers, and other elite residents of Washington created country estates around the town of Rockville to entertain friends and escape the summer heat and urban congestion of Washington. Unfortunately, William died shortly afterwards and in 1923, Irene married James Alexander Lyon, a prominent cardiologist and highly-decorated U.S. Army officer. They hired architects Lochie and Porter to transform Glenview from a farm to a fashionable country estate designed for entertaining. The original house the Bowies built still survives in the center of the much larger Neoclassical mansion.
With newcomers flocking to the nation’s capital during and following World War II, Glenview was no longer in the country but in the suburbs. From 1940 to 1960, Rockville’s population increased from 2,000 to 26,000. After Irene Lyon’s death in 1950, her husband began selling off parcels of the estate for housing developments, eventually selling the mansion to the Montgomery County Historical Society in 1954. In 1957, the City of Rockville purchased Glenview and 28 acres for $125,000 to become a civic center—a controversial decision based on a referendum that passed by only 40 votes. Although some feared it would be a “white elephant,” it immediately became a “public country club” for community meetings and events. In time, the City expanded the park to 153 acres and added a theater, tennis courts, rock climbing gym, hiking trails, and nature center. Once a working farm and private country estate, today Glenview welcomes more than 100,000 people and hosts 1,200 events and activities annually as Rockville’s Civic Center Park.