Opinion: Including Bethesda's Historic Properties in Development Plans

Opinion: Including Bethesda’s Historic Properties in Development Plans

Will the next generation of Bethesda buildings become landmarks?

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People may be surprised to learn that downtown Bethesda, with its surprisingly rich history, has only nine sites that are included on the Master Plan for Historic Preservation.

To put this in perspective, Bethesda has about 25 bank branches.

Most of these historic properties were built in the 1920s and 1930s. Together they make up approximately 1 percent of the land within downtown Bethesda. Over the decades many redevelopment projects have either skipped over or landed right on these designated properties, like a game of hopscotch running up and down Wisconsin Avenue. Now, under the new Bethesda sector plan, the game pace has picked up.

Recent activity at several sites has brought renewed attention to the importance and inclusion – or not – of historic properties into the landscape of the “new” more urban downtown Bethesda.

Historic designations give the county review authority and are meant to “protect designated resources from unsympathetic alteration and insensitive redevelopment.” But they do not mean a site is frozen in time.

Planning officials, architects, and residents are continually debating the best ways to blend the old and the new, and the past with the future – often with varying measures of success, shifting degrees of subjectivity and a range of emotions from excitement to apprehension.

The controversial relocation of the Community Paint and Hardware Store (Wilson Store) building from the Apex site to Middleton Lane may remind some of the cherished children’s book “The Little House.” In this story a quaint home is moved from a growing city to the country. While this building that once housed the hardware store (and later a bank) wasn’t exactly moved to the country, it was essentially moved “out of the way.”

A recent rendering of the modern glassy 290-foot Avocet tower on the corner of Montgomery and Wisconsin avenues next to the historic three-story quaint Colonial Revival brick Benjamin Perry building led a commenter to remark that it reminds them of “the house from [the movie] UP.”

While the architects of the new building purposefully attempted to recognize the smaller structure through the design of the open space, the contrast between the two adjacent buildings is undeniable and visually striking.

Across the street the centrally located historic neo-Georgian Post Office building was recently renovated and repurposed as a modern gym. And Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, with its classic Georgian revival red brick schoolhouse facade fronting East West Highway, has had a combination of more than a dozen renovations and additions over its long history.

It is now the historic Farm Women’s Market’s turn. The proposal for the prominent site and surrounding properties is perhaps the redevelopment project that has generated the most discussion and stirred the most emotion of late.

While some are understandably concerned that changes may mean losing a connection to Bethesda’s history, others see chance to improve upon the past and want to ensure the building can support a future that includes a functioning market and more green space.

While everyone wants what is “best” for the site, there is no single interpretation or definition of what that means. But there is an opportunity here to improve upon a special place that should not be skipped over.

Residents also often ask why certain other older or landmark buildings are not officially considered historic. In fact, in the 1980s, just before Metro arrived on the scene in Bethesda, the Historic Preservation Commission actually considered designating a historic district with up to 20 buildings, including the Tastee Diner, Bank of Bethesda, Pumphrey Funeral Home, Chevy Chase Chevrolet, and C&P Telephone buildings. But those properties, and others, did not make the cut.

Looking ahead many years, it is interesting to wonder which buildings being constructed today may one day be considered historic – worthy of designation and preservation? How will the historical hopscotch game play out in the future?

Amanda Farber has written about the impact of planning, zoning and development issues on the quality of life in Bethesda, where she has lived for almost 20 years with her husband, two sons and several four-legged family members. She serves on the East Bethesda Citizens Association, Coalition of Bethesda Area Residents Board, Conservation Montgomery Board and the Bethesda Implementation Advisory Committee.

 

The Bethesda Farm Women’s Market – 1934

The old Post Office (now True Body gym) – 1938

The Madonna of the Trail sculpture – 1929

The Benjamin Perry/Brooks Photographer’s building (now Remix) – late 1920’s

The Bethesda Theater (now Bethesda Blues and Jazz Club) – 1938

BCC High School – 1935

The Community Paint and Hardware Store (now relocated, owned by DOT, and currently vacant) – 1890

The Little Tavern (now Golden House Chinese Food restaurant) – 1939

The Mrs. Withers House (now Art Works) – 1925

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