In the steamy days of July 1953, Rockville ran out of water.
This ironic development—the town is surrounded by streams, and is named after one of them, Rock Creek—spurred a campaign to modernize both the government and infrastructure of the quaint county seat of about 7,000 residents.
The next municipal election swept a group of reformers onto the city council and into the mayor’s office. They quickly went to work, ending no-bid contracts, hiring a professional staff, and publishing the budget and zoning rules so the public could understand how the government worked. It happened so fast and worked so well that in 1954 Rockville was proclaimed an All-American City by the National Municipal League and Look magazine.
Six years later, with land annexations and a population that had swelled to 26,000, Rockville’s leaders became emboldened with can-do optimism. They signed up for an innocuous-sounding national program called “urban renewal,” and bulldozed 47 acres of the downtown that had grown organically for more than 160 years.
A total of 111 buildings were torn down. Only a few iconic structures, such as the Red Brick Courthouse that dated to 1891, were saved.
Having made a dramatic split with its past, Rockville has been trying to get its downtown right ever since. With the recent construction of Rockville Town Square in the mixed-use, neo-traditionalist model, it has bet on a back-to-the-future approach.
Some of the early history of Rockville coincided closely with that of the United States. In 1776, when delegates in Philadelphia declared American independence, Montgomery County was carved out of Frederick County and the county seat was located at Hungerford’s Tavern on today’s Washington Street. In those days, the street was no more than a dirt wagon road, part of a byway that stretched from Georgetown in the District through tobacco fields, pastures and woodlands to the town of Frederick (by the 1830s, a daily stagecoach service linked the two and made a stop in Rockville).
In 1801, a few months after the federal government took up residence on the banks of the Potomac River, the Maryland General Assembly ordered a survey of a town plan for the area around the Montgomery courthouse. That year, the settlement became known as Rockville.
Only 150 people were counted within its limits, along with countless farm animals. The General Assembly quickly passed a law banning geese and pigs from running loose within the village limits. A visiting writer dismissed the courthouse as being “without either taste or elegance.”
The county clerk based in Rockville was a busy man who had to work six days a week to serve Montgomery’s citizens. But the town itself grew slowly during the first half of the 19th century. It had a private academy for boys, a small hotel, and merchants who catered to basic needs. The most notable event in those early decades, it seems, was a large meteor shower in 1833 that reportedly convinced many townspeople to repent their sins.
On the eve of the Civil War, slavery was common, and many town and outlying residents were Southern sympathizers. The county’s political leaders were only able to muster a two-vote majority on a motion to urge Maryland to stay in the Union, and even then the resolution backed the continuation of slavery. A few months later, federal troops disarmed a pro-Southern militia, the “Rockville Riflemen,” and raided numerous homes to confiscate weapons and arrest advocates of secession. The town’s sympathies are well represented by the statue of a Confederate soldier that still stands next to the old courthouse square.
About 15 years after the end of the war, a former slave gave birth in Rockville to a baby boy who would become a prominent African-American evangelist. George Baker Jr., better known as Father Divine, grew up at a time when lynchings took place in Montgomery County. In addition to his religious career, he was active in efforts to pass a national anti-lynching law.
As with many communities around Washington, the coming of the railroad in the late 19th century spurred greater economic growth. Rockville became popular as a summer destination for well-off families wishing to escape the capital’s muggy heat.
Edwin Smith, an astronomer for the Washington-based U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, built a 16-room Queen Anne-style home on Forest Avenue in 1890 that still stands today. Smith added a small observatory in the back yard so he could take advantage of the dark night sky in the relatively unlit town.
Smith used the train for his commute, as did other travelers who could afford it. Rockville Pike, so worn that some sections were 12 feet below the adjacent lands, had “long been known as one of the worst pieces of main highway in the state,” the Maryland Geological Survey declared in 1899. The road wasn’t paved until 1925.
Through two world wars, Rockville kept its small town feel, but with rapid expansion and a population boom in the 1950s, leaders were seduced by the urban renewal philosophy. In exchange for federal money, “blight” would be vaporized, and a clean, modern template placed on the downtown.
No matter that there weren’t vast slums or industrial wastelands to be cleaned up. Vocal citizens wanted more parking, and had yet to develop nostalgia for Victorian lines and scale. A photograph from May 1965 shows Rockville Mayor Alfred Ecker hurling a ceremonial rock at a handsome, two-story building to kick off the urban renewal offensive.
“The result was disaster,” The Washington Post architecture critic Wolf Von Eckardt declared in 1979. Despite the participation of such planning heavyweights as Robert Geddes, dean of Princeton University’s architectural school, and Arthur Cotton Moore, a nationally recognized urban redesign expert, all Rockville got for its downtown was a squat concrete mall and hulking, style-free municipal buildings.
In 1995, eerily repeating the action of Ecker three decades earlier, County Executive Doug Duncan took a ceremonial sledgehammer to the bankrupt Rockville Mall and called for a new town center. By mid-2007, the 15-acre center was a reality, with a redesigned central library, residences, offices and upscale eateries. Backers hope the “new urbanist” design will save downtown Rockville, now in its third century.
Steve Dryden is a freelance writer who lives in Bethesda.