Luke and Helen Wilson purchased the land that would become their Tree Tops estate in the 1920s, during a period of growth for Washington suburb Bethesda. The Wilsons were philanthropists and interested in donating land for government use. Over the 1930s and 1940s they donated parcels of land to the National Institutes of Health, and eventually donated the Tree Tops house as well. The Tree Tops mansion, an English rustic style structure designed by Edward Clarence Dean and Arthur B. Heaton, is also known as the Wilson building. It is designated as Building K or Building 15K in NIH documents and maps.
Backstory and Context
Luke I. Wilson (1872-1937) and Helen Woodward Wilson (1877-1960) built their Bethesda estate after Luke Wilson's retirement in 1924. Helen Wilson had purchased the land on the former Britton farm tract the previous year. "Tree Tops" was one of many grand estates constructed along Rockville Pike in this period. Unlike many of these other estates, which tended toward the Georgian Revival style, Tree Tops exhibited English rustic architecture.
The Wilsons were interested in fostering international relations through donating land for the establishment of a diplomatic school. The Great Depression interfered with this plan as well as several other offers the Wilsons made to donate land for office space, think tanks, or a park. In 1934, Wilson, a progressive Democrat, wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to offer a land donation. The letter circulated among government officials, catching the interest of Surgeon General of the Public Health Service, Hugh Cumming and NIH Director Lewis R. Thompson. NIH facilities had become crowded by the 1930s. The NIH first thought of using the land as an animal farm for test subjects, but then considered moving all NIH operations to Bethesda. The Wilsons agreed to donate the land to the NIH in 1935.
Neighbors opposed the construction of an NIH campus in the area, fearing the risk of infectious diseases. Additionally, the residents of the area wanted to avoid encroachments on the prestige of the neighborhood.
The NIH moved to Bethesda in the 1930s, establishing a campus on land donated by Luke and Helen Wilson. Bethesda had been growing as a suburb for several years. The Wilsons donated land to the federal government from their estate between 1935 and 1948. After Luke Wilson's death in 1937, his widow Helen continued living in one of the smaller Tree Tops houses, The Lodge, a structure which incorporated part of the former Britton farmhouse. Buildings 15A and 15K remained in use by the Wilson family. Building 15K was the mansion, now used by the National Institute of Mental Health.
The Tree Tops estate includes several residential buildings on an eight-acre site, formerly residences for the Wilson family and now part of the NIH campus. Edward Clarence Dean is most likely the designer of the site. Washington architect Arthur B. Heaton may have also contributed to the design of the house, completed in 1926.
Ewing, Heather, Tory L. Taylor, and Judith Robinson. Wilson Estate, Maryland Historic Trust. July 19th 1995. Accessed February 24th 2020. https://msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/stagsere/se1/se5/036000/036300/036396/pdf/msa_se5_36396.pdf.
Historic American Buildings Survey. Wilson Estate, 9100 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, Montgomery County, MD, Library of Congress. Accessed February 23rd 2020. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/md1469/
Lyons, Michele. 70 Acres of Science: The NIH Moves to Bethesda. 2006. Accessed February 23rd 2020. https://history.nih.gov/research/downloads/70acresofscience2.pdf.