Removal of Sign from Historic Bethesda Community Store Causes a Stir
County's historic preservation officials say permit is required to remove sign that former tenant took down
The Bethesda Community Store with its sign on May 16 (left) and the store without its sign Thursday (right).
Updated Friday – The owner of the historic Bethesda Community Store site is looking for a new tenant after the previous one closed its doors in May, but the real drama over the store’s future might revolve around a large, three-sided metal sign on the front of building that disappeared earlier this month.
Montgomery County’s Historic Preservation Office says it was notified about the sign’s removal this week by a resident. Scott Whipple, supervisor of the office, told Bethesda Beat on Thursday the sign shouldn’t have been removed from the structure, which dates back to 1924, because it’s part of the historic site and no one applied for a Historic Work Area Permit that could’ve cleared its removal.
Arnie Fainman, who ran a store and deli out of the building for the past 15 years before shutting down last month, told Bethesda Beat on Thursday that he took down the sign.
He said the sign, which on two sides reads “Drink Coca-Cola” and on the front reads “Bethesda Community Store & Deli,” was made for him by Coca-Cola when he took over the store. He said because he paid for the sign at that time, he didn't think it was part of the historic structure.
On Friday morning, Fainman told Bethesda Beat he's been in touch with county officials and will return the sign if told to do so.
“The thing about it is someone may want to put up a new sign” on the building, Fainman said. “It doesn’t have to be called the Bethesda Community Store.”
But according to a 1985 document in the state of Maryland’s Inventory of Historic Properties, the sign (or a sign very similar to it) was already on the front of the building at that time.
Regardless of when the sign itself was installed, Whipple said county law “requires that any time there’s any sort of exterior change that’s proposed [to a historic building], it has to be reviewed and approved by the Historic Preservation Commission.”
“It’s part of the building and we review alterations to historic sites,” Whipple said. “We review signs and sometimes signs change, but it’s something that we review.”
Whipple said the Historic Preservation Office has referred the case to the county’s Department of Permitting Services (DPS), which has enforcement authority over changes made to buildings without required permits.
Ehsan Motazedi, chief of the enforcement division in DPS, said Thursday afternoon he’s looking into the matter. If DPS finds a violation, it typically issues a notice of violation that gives the offender an opportunity to fix the problem before a fine is given.
The Bethesda Community Store dates to around 1892, according to local historians, though the actual building that sits on the site today was built around 1924. The county’s Historic Preservation Commission designated the site historic because it is one of the few surviving commercial structures in Bethesda dating back to the early 20th century.
For longtime residents, the narrow, single-room building near the corner of Old Georgetown Road and Greentree Road has come to epitomize Bethesda before its rapid and ongoing growth. Across the street is the sprawling campus of the National Institutes of Health. Immediately to the south, construction crews are building a new garage that’s part of Suburban Hospital’s expansion project.
“There’s a real nostalgia play there. It really harkens back to going in there and getting penny candy, your cold bottle of Coca Cola in the summertime,” said James Caulfield, a Bethesda resident who contacted Bethesda Beat about the removal of the sign.
Caulfield pointed to the rapid pace of redevelopment happening at sites in nearby downtown Bethesda as another reason many have taken to Facebook groups such as “Bethesda-Chevy Chase Back in the Day” to mourn the store’s closing.
“At that point on Old Georgetown Road, the character is really important to maintain,” Caulfield said. “Nobody in the county should take it upon themselves to remove that sign.”
Members of the Back in the Day Facebook group began pointing out the missing sign after a photo of the store without the sign was posted June 4.
“The sign is what makes it worth saving!” one member of the group wrote.
Bethesda Community Store owner Stan Smith, who also owns local hardware store chain Strosniders, told Bethesda Beat in May he has hired real estate firm Streetsense to help with marketing the property. Smith said he plans to build an addition to the historic store building that will bump it up to about 1,000 square feet, a space that could be more suitable for a new community market.