Category Archives: Historic preservation

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.

Peerless Rockville Brunch Starts New Year

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Today’s Peerless Rockville Brunch at Glenview Mansion was packed with lots of members, friends, residents, and community leaders.  Mayor Marcuccio was joined by Rockville City Councilmembers Bridget Newton, Mark Pierzchala, and Tom Moore; Montgomery County Council by Phil Andrews and Hans Riemer; Maryland State Delegate Kumar Barve and Luis Simmons; and Maryland State Senator Jennie Forehand.  Everyone was generous with their potluck dish and I regretfully made it to the dessert table long after Brigitta Mullican’s famous Christmas cookies had been devoured.  During the presentation, Peerless Rockville noted the important achievement of this last year was the designation of Glenview as an city landmark and that this year they’ll be focusing on simplifying the historic designation process in the city.

Rockville’s Veterans Remembered

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Memorial Day, Remembrance Day, Decoration Day.  The name has changed over the decades but it still has the same meaning–a day set aside to remember those who died in service to the United States.  Rockville has many of those people with us from the days of the American Revolution to the present day and a quiet way to remember them is to visit the many historic cemeteries found throughout the city.  The epitaths carved in stone or the flags pushed into the ground mark those who served, and you’ll find streets and bridges named in honor of some of them. Those who know our nation’s history can easily recognize the meaning of a date and place, such as France 1918 or Burma 1945.  In others, you are reminded of the complexity of life, with soldiers who fought each other in Civil War now silently sharing the same earth or two brothers who leave to fight in the same war, but only one returns.  These places are worth preserving because of the memories and lessons they contain.  These pictures from the Rockville Cemetery on Baltimore Road in Twinbrook are just a glimpse of what’s available in these quiet places.

“Choice Hotels Lane” a Bad Choice for Rockville

Choice Hotels Lane?

Choice Hotels International is proposing to move their world headquarters to downtown Rockville but it includes a request to rename “Middle Lane” to “Choice Hotels Lane.” Really, this is no April Fool’s Joke–in a letter to the City of Rockville on March 11, Dan Slear of Choice Hotels International stated,  “To clarify, Choice requests to change East Middle Lane in its entirety to Choice Hotels Lane.”   It’ll be considered at the April 13, 2011 Planning Commission Meeting–but if it happens, the joke will be on us.

Although the name change was proffered as an incentive by the City of Rockville (really? really??), the staff report to the Planning Commission mentioned several concerns:

  1. it raised eyebrows at the Emergency Communications Center and the Montgomery-National Capitol Park and Planning Commission, who not only were concerned about confusion by emergency responders (are we going to the hotel or the street?) but thought it odd that we’d rename a street after a company.
  2. it changes the name of this street three times within a three block stretch–West Middle Lane, Choice Hotels Lane, and Park Road–in downtown.  Boy, that’ll help people find their way around downtown.
  3. downtown businesses, such as Gordon Biersch and HSBC Bank, who would be effected by the name change haven’t had sufficient time to respond, but I’m guessing they don’t want to change their neutral address to one that advertises another business.
  4. it changes the name of an historic street, indeed, the name of a street that’s been part of downtown Rockville since 1803, when the first map of Rockville was drawn.  Let’s see, which has the better track record?  Middle Lane has been around for more than 200 years while Choice Hotels has been around since 1981.

I’ll add a couple of my concerns: Continue reading →

Exploring Rockville’s Downtowns on May 7

I’ll be leading a 1.5-hour walking tour of Rockville’s downtowns for Peerless Rockville on Saturday, May 7 at 10 am.  Wear comfortable shoes, be prepared for the weather, and consider enjoying lunch afterwards (unfortunately, some of the tour is not accessible to persons with limited mobility).  Space is limited so please register in advance with Peerless Rockville.

Historic Designation Process Confounds Council Once Again

The City of Rockville’s process for designating historic landmarks has confused the city leaders and staff once again.  For many years, the process has vexed property owners, preservationists, neighbors, staff, and city officials, despite continual calls for reform from the Historic District Commission.  It’s frustrating and costs time and money, and yet, here was another discussion about it at the March 14, 2011 meeting.  It borders on the surreal, so I’m providing a transcript so you can see it for yourself:

Councilmember Pierzchala:  On next week’s tentative agenda, Item Number 11…this is Glenview Mansion, it’s listed as 45 minutes and I’m not sure why.  I am planning to vote to Authorize to File and get a Public Hearing going, and I’d rather have staff presentations and whoever is for, whoever is against, all at one point, and where we can ask questions, and so I’m just wondering why we need 45 minutes for next week.

City Manager Ullery:  I would agree with you.  I don’t think that item requires 45 minutes.

Mayor Marcuccio:  Well, is there someone who requested 45 minutes?

City Manager Ullery: It probably came in through the agenda from Rec and Parks department.  I think we can probably do it in 20 minutes. Continue reading →