WHEN PEOPLE TALK ABOUT the unusual house on Allan Road in Bethesda, some call it the “mushroom house.” Others refer to it as the “hobbit house.” Since 1967, Edward and Frances Garfinkle have simply called it “home.”
If you haven’t driven past it–it’s just off Western Avenue–you may have read about it in the Washington Post, as far back as 1970. Or seen it on local TV news when the Garfinkles put it on the market this past fall.
If the structure is unusual–and it is–so are the Garfinkles. They look a good decade younger than their mid-70s, maybe the result of living in a hippie-artist fantasy.
The Garfinkles are not shy about sharing their story, and about how their house and a couple of their businesses almost bankrupted them a couple of times. But the same imagination and vision that created this fantasy home came through for them time and again as they raised a family, a son and a daughter, in this Never-Never Land.
“Eddie doesn’t brag,” says Frances Garfinkle. “I do.” With that, she skips out on the house tour. She’s talking about the artist in Eddie that seeps through the very stones of the building.Nothing is left alone; even the most mundane item in the 3,600-square-foot home, the doorbell or the mailbox, looks as if it’s alive (and having a lot of fun).
The house began as a Spanish-style villa built in 1923.. It had its own charm, but, says Eddie, “We didn’t want to live in a box.”
Given that most houses are built with straight lines and crisp corners, this might have stymied some people. (Practical people, for instance. “I asked Frances the other day,” Eddie says with a grin, ” ‘Why didn’t you say no to me more often?’ “) It took some years to marshal forces and money to transform the house, but once they started they dreamed and built until the money ran out (and it did).
The Garfinkles have done various things over the years to make their living. Eddie is a sculptor, once with metal and now with rocks, Frances an interior designer. But in the 1970s they had a store in Georgetown, The Tiffany Tree, where they sold very whimsical, offbeat crafts–such as the “face pieces” done by sculptor David Davis, mugs and bowls and such with terra-cotta faces on them. In the late ’70s they had a contemporary art-glass gallery, also in Georgetown.
“Do you know what RIFs are?” Eddie asks. “Reductions in force.” When President Reagan came in, he says, there were government cuts. Their customers were scared, and their business died, just stopped.
Ever inventive, the Garfinkles came up with other businesses. At one point Frances discovered Valencia peanuts in New Mexico. “They’re sweeter,” Eddie says, “and come three nuts in one hull.” The Garfinkles marketed them in long clear plastic tubes, as a gift item.
One of the funniest ideas for a business came one day as Eddie was walking through the living room. Over in the sunken seating area, the pit, there used to be a television, and “On Golden Pond” was playing. “As I walked past, I heard the line, you know, where the kid says, ‘Wanna suck face?’ I stopped and thought, That should be on a button.”
And soon it was. And they were sold all over the country. And they were joined by a whole line of buttons. And then posters and keychains.
But back to the house. From inside the mushroom home you can see just about the only right angle there is: It’s the exterior corner of the original house. Working with an architect, the Garfinkles came up with an armature that curved and swooped up and out over the original structure. The whole place was sprayed with Pyrocrete, an exterior-quality cementitious fireproofing material, to quote the manufacturer’s write-up. The Garfinkles and the architect even developed custom skylights, formed to meet the curves of the roof and cemented into place with nary a leak since.
Some of the rooms have a cave-like quality, such as the pit, which is at the level of the original house and where there’s a fireplace and an indoor fish pond (the water bib from the original exterior wall is still in place here, handy for filling the pond). Elsewhere. a little alcove lined in shaggy carpeting proved the perfect place for a young girl to climb into and read.
The main room, though, is anything but cavelike. More like Luray Caverns, with a soaring ceiling and open-plan areas that lead from kitchen to breakfast area to living room and dining room, all in a rough circle. The four bedrooms upstairs show the same lack of respect for right angles.
The Garfinkles find that their big, idiosyncratic house is a bit empty now that daughter Tiffany is getting good notices as an actress and Chase is a computer engineer. So they listed it with Donna Wartofsky of Long & Foster for $1.2 million.
Eddie Garfinkle still finds magic in the house. “Stuff came to us like magic. We were thinking about what the floors would be, and one day a large truck pulls up outside and the guy asks if we want to buy wood from a barn he had just taken down. So we have two-inch-thick oak floors that are just as solid as they were 40 years ago.”
There’s a saying about marriage that applies equally to selling a unique property such as the mushroom house: It takes only one person to fall in love with you or to fall in love with your house, fantasy that sprang from the minds of Eddie and Frances Garfinkle back in 1967.