Category Archives: Historic preservation

Replacing Dawsons Market Requires a Cluster of Solutions; That May Be Too Much for the Mayor and Council

Dawson’s Market in Rockville Town Square, shortly before its closing in October 2018.

At the end of October 2018, Dawson’s Market closed in Rockville’s downtown. It was a big disappointment for the City of Rockville, who hailed its arrival in 2012 as a major success for the new Town Square. They spent years searching for an anchoring grocery store to attract daily shoppers to support the adjacent stores and restaurants (see MyMCM video, which includes hopeful remarks by several current and former elected officials).

In response to its closing, Dawson’s opened a short-lived $100,000 GoFundMe campaign and the Rockville Mayor and Council held two special meetings to discuss the future of Town Square (a couple other businesses recently closed as well) on October 9 and November 13, which attracted standing-room-only crowds.  These meetings generated lots of questions, including current efforts by Federal Realty Investment Trust (FRIT) and the City of Rockville. Unfortunately, most of FRIT’s responses are vague and uninformative:

  • “not uncommon for independent business owners to have more challenges than larger chains” (so what are the major challenges and how are you addressing them?)
  • “lease rates are determined through…many variables” (so what are the lease rates and how do they compare to areas outside of Town Square?)
  • “we value and pursue feedback from our merchants” (so what are they telling you and what have you learned?)

So what are the challenges facing merchants in Town Square? According to Continue reading →

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No Confederate Flags in Rockville, but What About the Statue?

Confederate Soldier Memorial at Red Brick Courthouse, Rockville.

Confederate Soldier Memorial at the Red Brick Courthouse, Rockville.

No Confederate flags fly above any government or business building in Rockville, but what about the Confederate Monument on the grounds of the Red Brick Courthouse in downtown?  The United Daughters of the Confederacy erected the statue directly in front of the courthouse “to our heroes of Montgomery Co., Maryland, that we through life may not forget to love the Thin Gray Line,” unveiling it at a dedication ceremony on June 3, 1913 (Jefferson Davis’ birthday) that featured Congressman J. Thomas Heflin of Alabama, who was an outspoken proponent of white supremacy.

Rockville’s and Montgomery County’s sympathies for the Confederacy were strong both during and after the Civil War.  Of Montgomery County’s Confederate veterans, three were elected as county commissioners, five as state delegates, two as state senators, three as state’s attorney, and one as mayor of Rockville.  Vestiges still survive today. For example, Edward Wootton, whose family name is memorialized on a major street, park, and a high school in Rockville, had fought for the Confederacy. Matthew Fields, the founder of The Sentinel (now the only local newspaper in Rockville), was a vocal supporter of the South, mixing his political vision with a hatred for immigrants, blacks, and Catholics.  And of course the Confederate Monument in downtown Rockville.

The Confederate Monument was moved to the side of the courthouse in 1971 into a grove of trees as part of the urban renewal of downtown–but is that sufficient? Perhaps we’re still bound by nostalgia or too ignorant to fully realize the meaning and symbolism that was poured into that bronze soldier, who is forever gazing South.  The community still commemorated the arrival of Confederate Generals Jeb Stuart (on his way north to Gettysburg in June 1863) and Jubal Early (on his way south to Washington DC in 1864) during the 2013 Heritage Days.  The Beall-Dawson House and Glenview, two historic houses owned by the City of Rockville, barely mention the enslaved men, women, and children who lived and worked there and would have continued into slavery for generations had the Confederacy won.  Now that we have African Americans serving on our City Council and as the County Executive, isn’t time to rethink who and what we commemorate in Rockville and Montgomery County?  Isn’t time for us to reflect on the full meaning of the Confederate Monument?

Update July 31, 2015

Major postings about the Confederate Monument on other blogs or websites (in alphabetical order):

American Historical Association: All History Is Local: Debating the Fate of a Confederate Soldier Statue in Maryland

Bethesda Magazine: Rockville, Montgomery County Debating What to Do with Confederate Statue and Leggett Says Work Underway to Remove Confederate Statue in Rockville

Congressman Chris Van Hollen: Van Hollen Urges Immediate Removal of Confederate Statue in Rockville

History News Network: What Does Rockville, Maryland’s Confederate Monument Tell Us About the Civil War? About the Nadir? About the Present?

Rockville Nights: Rockville Confederate statue hearing draws a diversity of opinions

Rockville Patch: Group Offers Ideas on What to Do with Confederate Statue

The Sentinel: Man on the street interviews regarding the confederate statue (video); Committee releases report on Rockville Statue; and County can move confederate statue, state says

The Seventh State: Civil War Skirmish in Rockville

WAMU: Should Anything Be Done With The Confederate Monument In Rockville?

Washington Post: Confederate soldier statue in Montgomery spray-painted with ‘black lives matter’

WJAL: Confederate memorial in Rockville sparks controversy

WTOP: Confederate statue in Rockville vandalized

Rockville Firm Leading Efforts to Preserve Clara Barton’s Office

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Rockville’s OLBN Architectural Services is leading the efforts to preserve and restore Clara Barton’s Civil War-era office and warehouse on 7th Street in downtown Washington, DC–where she worked and lived before founding the American Red Cross in 1881.  The historic site doesn’t open to the public as a museum until fall 2014 but last week I had a special sneak peak at the work underway.

From the street, you’d never imagine that this was a nationally significant historic site.  It’s a simple three-story brick building in Penn Quarter surrounded by restaurants, towering condos and offices, popular museums, and the Verizon Center.  Its historical significance was forgotten for most of the century until 1997, when a nightwatchman hired to keep vagrants out of the vacant building noticed a document jutting out from the ceiling.  It turned out to be part of a cache of artifacts belonging to Clara Barton that had been stored in the Continue reading →

Twinbrook’s Beginnings Explored in Chairs and On Foot

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Nearly sixty people gathered this morning for an illustrated lecture on the history of Twinbrook by Dr. Richard Longstreth of George Washington University.  In the 1940s and 1950s, Joseph Geeraert developed Twinbrook on a 200-acre farm that spanned Viers Mill Road.  Geeraert’s Twinbrook was roughly south of Broadwood between Rockville Pike and Baltimore Road, although today Twinbrook is considered to be much larger and runs up to First Avenue (much to the consternation of those who live in the neighborhoods of Viers Mill Village and Silver Rock).

Geeraert was born in Belgium but came to America as a young man, getting started in construction in Takoma Park.  Although he had many projects around the Washington, DC region, Twinbrook was his largest, longest running, and most complex development.  He built as funding came available and eventually these small developments interconnected to become  the neighborhood of houses, schools, churches, library, post office, and shopping centers that we know today.   Most people who drive through Twinbrook assume the houses are all the same, but Geeraert modified and enlarged the designs over time to appeal to the changing tastes of buyers.

After the lecture, the audience discussed the names of streets, racial discrimination, and evolving construction practices.  Then about half of the group went on a short walk around the neighborhood to see various types of houses and take a stroll on a hidden walkway.   It was great to see so many current and former Twinbrookers (including some who lived here for 50 years!) and to hear their stories of living in the neighborhood.

This lecture is the first in a series on Rockville’s recent neighborhoods, so check Peerless Rockville’s website for the times and dates of upcoming events, as well as a two new interpretive maps of Twinbrook.

JBG Reveals Updated Plans for Downtown Rockville

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The JBG Companies, who are currently building a large complex of offices, residences, and stores around the Twinbrook Metro station, are also working on a portion of downtown Rockville that’s slated as phase two of the Town Center.  The 2008 economic downturn slowed development considerably but is now picking up, as evidenced by the construction of the corporate headquarters of Choice Hotels.  JBG owns the former Giant Grocery store at 275 North Washington Street (across from the Beall’s Grant Apartments) and has been exploring various uses for this vacant building and adjoining parking lot.  Today, they shared the following plans:

New shopping, apartments and offices are slated for an overlooked city block in Rockville’s downtown, offering the opportunity to energize a long-vacant Giant grocery store site and adjoining tracts. The JBG Companies is proposing to demolish the grocery store and build new offices and shopping as a complement to busy Rockville Town Square next door. JBG has shared its plans with multiple audiences including neighbors, city officials, community groups and civic users.

“We are fortunate to have strong support from neighbors and businesses alike who have long been asking for renewed vigor in this part of downtown Rockville,” said Anthony Greenberg, a JBG official. “Redeveloping this property is an excellent opportunity to Continue reading →

Rockville’s New Police Station Unveiled

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After five years of discussion, planning, and construction, the City of Rockville unveiled its new police station with a dedication and public open house on Saturday, October 20, providing a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse inside both buildings and all floors.  It was a bit difficult to tell how many people showed up given the informal nature of the open house, but I’m guessing it was about 100-150 people.   Most of it consists of (yawn) offices, but some of the more interesting spots were the armory and communications center.  The best part, though, was meeting the staff and officers who gave tours or explained the work of their department–so much nicer than when you typically encounter them on the street when they’re handing a crime or a conflict.

The federal government abandoned the 1938 post office a few years ago and transferred it free to the City of Rockville so it could be used for a police station.  The decision to undertake the $8.5 million rehabilitation and construction project was controversial at times but the new building provides much needed space for public safety and consolidates city offices that were rented and scattered throughout the city.   The architects did an outstanding job of preserving the historic post office’s distinctive features, including the lobby and its mural, as well as adding a second building that’s modern but doesn’t compete.  One feature that’s not obvious is the emphasis on saving energy, which can be seen in the extensive use of skylights, white roofs, and motion-detecting light switches.  One element that does rattle my design sensibilities are the signs, which seem a bit cartoonish and dated, plus I don’t like the colors of green and silver.  Chief Treschuk explained that green is a color that’s being increasingly adopted for places of safety (much like yellow for school busses) so I can live with that choice, but the otherwise, the signs really need to be rethought (okay, I’m partially to blame–I sat on the Historic District Commission when it reviewed the plans back in 2010).

Rockville’s Connections to Watergate on its 40th Anniversary

Rockvillian James McCord’s connections to Watergate uncovered by the Washington Post, June 1972

Sunday, June 17 marked the 40th anniversary of the arrest of five burglars caught in the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate in Washington, DC in 1972. Little did people know at the time that this burglary was actually part of a much larger effort by President Nixon to undermine his opponents and support his allies through threats, harassment, lies, fraud, sabotage, bribes, and crimes for many years. For those who aren’t familiar with the story, James McCord, Bernard Barker, Frank Sturgis, Eugenio Martinez, and Virgilio Gonzales broke into the offices of the Democratic National Committee to plant listening devices on the phones and in the rooms, as well as photograph financial records and donor files. When they were initially arrested, they gave false names and it was unclear who they were and who they worked for (there was some thought it might be Cuba) but two days later, Edward Martin revealed his true identity as James McCord of Rockville and that he formerly worked for the CIA. It quickly became apparent these weren’t burglars but spies–and they were working for the White House.  The Watergate break-in was one of several clandestine operations coming out of the Nixon White House and as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein stated in a recent Washington Post article, “It was only a glimpse into something far worse. By the time he was forced to resign, Nixon had turned his White House, to a remarkable extent, into a criminal enterprise.”  In addition to the five “burglars,” another 35 of Nixon’s closest aides and associates went to prison.  Nixon was pardoned by President Ford.

Few people know that Rockville, our fair city, had many connections to the incident that eventually led to the downfall of President Nixon. My research continues but at this point, there are at least a half dozen places Continue reading →

Suburban Dreams or Nightmares?

The “lakeside villas” at New Mark Commons in Rockville, Maryland.

This Wednesday, May 16, I’ll be leading a tour of 20th-century planned communities for the American Institute of Architects’ annual convention.  We’ll start with 1930s Greenbelt (one of a handful developed by the federal government to demonstrate how communities could be intentionally planned, not just haphazardly developed) and then visit two other nationally significant planned communities, both in Rockville:  1960s-70s New Mark Commons and 2000s King Farm.  I’ll be joined by Dr. Elizabeth Milnarik, Dr. Isabel Gournay, and Jim Wasilak (Rockville’s Chief of Planning).  By the end of the day, participants will have a nice overview of “community making” in the 20th century, all very different responses by some of the best minds of their times.

I love sharing Rockville with anyone who’s interested but unfortunately, this tour is limited to members of the AIA.  But you can easily explore these neighborhoods yourself and if you want more details, Greenbelt has a museum in one of the original residences and Dr. Isabel Gournay at the University of Maryland has written a scholarly essay on King Farm (and Woodley Gardens) in Housing Washington: Two Centuries of Residential Development and Planning in the National Capital Area , edited by Richard Longstreth (2010).  If you’d like a guided tour, suggest it to Peerless Rockville and perhaps they’ll put one together in the near future.

New Mark Commons and King Farm are hailed as idealistic suburban communities, but it wasn’t true of all neighborhoods in Rockville.  In 1956, John Keats criticized the monotony and isolation of the suburbs around Washington, DC in his popular novel, The Crack in the Picture Window.  He follows the lives of Mary and John Drone, a young family trying to get established.  They move up from a small old apartment in northern Virginia and move to a new house in suburban Maryland, supposedly based on Rockville’s Twinbrook neighborhood:

[John Drone counted his blessings and said,] “Great.  I have a wife and two swell kids, a new split level with everything in it, a new car with all the extras, and I got myself not one but three jobs.  I’m meeting all my payments, every month.”

As for Mary’s life, the first few weeks were spent in the charming exhilaration which new surroundings always bring.  Gaily, she explored the cellar bedroom which had been added to her domain.  She liked the little thrill of going up two steps to the living room, and then up another two into the bedrooms.  She was as happy as a squirrel in a new, three-ring cage.  This light mood persisted through nearly two months, until at last there came that day when her new world suddenly became only too familiar.

It was the day she stood looking out her picture window and for the first time became completely aware of the picture window across the treeless street.  For a horrid moment she stood there, staring.  The she ran to her door and tore it open, looking up and down the block.  And everywhere she looked, she saw houses exactly like her own, row on row of them, the same, the same, the same…

Homes and Hospitality Tour this Saturday

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Get to know your city a bit better through the upcoming Homes and Hospitality Tour on Saturday afternoon, May 12.  Peerless Rockville organizes this special one-day exploration of a neighborhood every two years, and this year’s focus is East Rockville.  Most people don’t realize that this neighborhood east of the tracks not only has one of the densest collections of historic houses, but also some award-winning contemporary homes.  Once directly connected to downtown Rockville via Baltimore Road, after the streets were rerouted in the mid-20th century, East Rockville became hidden and forgotten, with many of the houses being cut up into apartments or falling into disrepair.  During the last couple decades, however, young couples and entrepreneurial investors saw the potential of this derelict neighborhood and began restoring the historic houses or building new ones on rare empty lots.  Interest in this neighborhood continues to grow given its long history, its architectural diversity, and its proximity to Metro, MARC, and downtown.

The Tour includes six different places to visit at your own pace and in any order:  three historic houses, two modern houses, and one public building.  All have remarkable stories (one of the first electrified houses in the city, another linked to a typhoid epidemic, and another that stands on a former “laboratory to prepare for Armageddon”–wow!) and by exploring them together, you’ll leave with a new appreciation for your community and be inspired by the care of your fellow residents (several have won awards).  Unlike most home tours, however, the event is staffed by many community leaders (so you may greeted by your Mayor, Police Chief, or State Delegate), many local restaurants provide refreshments (such as Carmen’s Ice Cream and Tower Oaks Lodge), and music is provided by local artists and students.  For $25, it’s a bargain for a special afternoon in your own town (and a great gift for Mother’s Day!) but if you buy in advance or if you’re a Peerless Rockville member, you can get a discount of up to 25% off.  Get your tickets in advance at PeerlessRockville.org or on the day of the event at the Pump House at 401 South Horner’s Lane.

Max For Rockville Now on Twitter

If you use Twitter to keep up with what’s happening, you can follow this blog @MaxforRockville.  Every blog post is automatically shared on Twitter, plus I often use Twitter to report on immediate events in Rockville as I encounter them, such as traffic snarls and city meetings.  If you’ve been following @MaxvanBalgooy, those tweets will now focus on my professional work in historic preservation, community engagement, and urban design.