Acquainting ourselves with the past can be not only fascinating, but also quite useful in shaping the future. Having been an active Lexingtonian for less than a decade, researching the history of Chevy Chase – one of Lexington’s oldest and most beloved neighborhoods – enlightened me to a local past that was unknown, but that many longtime residents remember well.
And while the specifics may have been unfamiliar to me, the ups and downs that the neighborhood has experienced reflect similar trials and tribulations that Lexington continues to face now – and likely will continue to face well into the future. Building up vs. preserving; the visions of private developers vs. those of citizens; traffic issues, cherished businesses closing their doors, new businesses opening – these are all old stories, and ones we haven’t grown tired of adhering to.
For the intents and purposes of this article, we’ll focus on what has been referred to as the “business district” in Chevy Chase since 1948 – specifically, the block of Euclid Avenue between Ashland Avenue and High Street – with hopes of informing Lexington newcomers about this district’s past, while at the same time rousing some memories for Chevy Chase veterans.
The block has enjoyed its share of years of being a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly business community that provides a quaint alternative to the offerings of both downtown and suburbia, but has also experienced periods of commercial decline and lack of unified vision, to the point where it was heeded “bordering ghost-town” at one time by local business owners. Hundreds of businesses have thrived, survived, flailed and failed over the years, and some have stuck around – particularly noteworthy staples include Charlie Brown’s Restaurant (it’s been there since the ’70s), Farmer’s Jewelry (since the ’50s) Oram’s Flower Shop (since the ’40s), and The Chevy Chase Inn (originally opened in 1933).
Chevy Chase residents and frequenters hold near and dear the quaint neighborhood charm of the district, its vicinity to downtown, its abundance of locally owned, independent businesses, and its success in (for the most part) retaining its original scale. It seems the biggest controversy in Chevy Chase history was when developer Ted Mims proposed the nine-story, mid-rise, multi-use development Chevy Chase Plaza. It was met with such opposition from the public that he scaled the design down to the five-story building we all know on the corner of Euclid and High.
Chevy Chasers may be opinionated, but they are also diverse. “You get anything from hippies to Junior League Ladies,” former storeowner Leslie Maclin was quoted saying of the Chevy Chase clientele in a 1980 Herald-Leader article (2/29/1980). And to a certain extent, that remains true. While a degree of its “local, independent” flavor has been diluted over the past decade or so, with national chains, franchises, and a corporate TV studio, overall, the eccentricity of the Chevy Chase business district has remained intact. Today, in addition to the staples mentioned above, local businesses include a dress shop, a Cajun restaurant, a contemporary boutique, a salon, an investment headquarters, a Mexican restaurant, a dance club, and a shop specializing in mastectomy garb – and who’s to say what will be there in five years?
Chevy Chase has always brimmed with “eclectic” – perhaps the most recurring and beloved business in all my research was a restaurant that specialized in just that. Saratoga Restaurant operated for 40 years at 856 and 858 E. High before shutting its doors for good in 1995 (Tomo and Buddy’s now stand in the place where the original building was razed in 2000). Rumor has it that when it closed its door that year, it posted a sign saying, “We will reopen in two weeks.” To the disappointment of hundreds of Saratoga loyalists, that statement was not upheld. Overall, the restaurant seems to be remembered not so much as a culinary phenomenon as a diversely popular gathering place with “knock-your-head-off-cocktails.” At any given time the eatery catered to UK students, businessmen, highfalutin government officials, ball game crowds, families, the horse crowd and the occasional celebrity, with a menu that specialized in frog’s legs and fried bologna.
Another point of particular interest to me, and surely to others, is that Euclid Avenue housed a movie theater for many years. 1n 1949, Ashland Theater opened (where the Blue Moon Saloon now stands). Families would line up on the weekends for “Lexington’s first neighborhood theater.” The theater closed and reopened a number of times over the years under different management and different names, finally closing its doors for good in 1986.
Saratoga and the cinema may be part of the past, but some history still remains. Chevy Chase Inn (CCI) hasn’t budged since it opened as The Blue Goose, a bar for the R&C Grill (where Saratoga once was) in the 1933. This year they celebrated their 75th anniversary, and not much has changed.
“The only ones that aren’t still coming in here are the ones that are dead,” said Mike, a CCI bartender, of his regulars. Which may sound kind of dismal, but if you’ve ever been in the place, you know the atmosphere is anything, anything, but.
Bill Farmer Jr., of Farmer’s Jewelry, jokingly says the two most memorable moments in Chevy Chase history were when the CCI started taking credit cards, and when they started opening at 1 p.m. instead of 11 a.m. (these occurrences were within the last five years).
He would know about Chevy Chase history. His family’s jewelry store, Farmer’s, has been in the same spot since 1950 (though they went through a considerable expansion in the ’80s, upping their square footage from 500 to 2,500). Farmer and his sister, Kristi Farmer Lykins, currently operate the store opened by their father, William Farmer Sr., 58 years ago.
As to how they ended up in Chevy Chase: “My father had a determination to get a business on the sunny side of town, and he got it,” Bill says.
Bill points out the irony that the new trend of outdoor shopping centers (think Hamburg and the new development on Mall Road near Fayette Mall) are really just trying to simulate the experience, the “basic opulence of convenience,” that one gets by shopping in Chevy Chase. A customer recently marveled in the fact that in dashing to take care of an errand at Farmer’s, by the time he was back in his car ready to drive home, he would have just entered the mall, had he chosen to go that route.