November-December 2009 | Features

The History of Bethesda

Advances in transportation transformed a rural wayside stop into a bustling metropolis.

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Between 1930 and 1940, Bethesda’s population more than doubled to 26,000. But all was not well in boomtown. Residents were becoming concerned about the haphazard appearance of their new commercial district. Fast-paced but fragmented development over the past 20 years had left the village with a patchwork look, which some felt unbefitting its new status in the county. As one community leader noted in 1939, despite the fact that Bethesda was on its way to becoming the county’s major retail trade center, “in growing, it has developed a hodgepodge of conglomerated architecture in which brand new stores adjoin age-old frame houses, and the large and the small, the brick and the frame, the stone and the stucco are jumbled together.” Despite their plea for architectural quality, civic leaders had little control over what was built—and how the new shops and offices contributed to the expanding streetscape.

After World War II, as the nation headed into the halcyon days of the 1950s, the residential and commercial boom continued with vigor. But geographical restrictions—the circling of the business district by stable residential communities, country clubs and federal lands—would work to contain the downtown’s outward expansion. Development was forced upward, and by the 1960s, eight-, nine- and 10-story office buildings had begun to cast longer shadows on Wisconsin Avenue. The East Tower of the Air Rights Building on Wisconsin Avenue, completed in 1964, was one of the downtown’s first 10-story high-rises. Gradually, many older retail businesses succumbed to demolition or folded to ever-rising leases and land costs. Local and national stores alike began to retreat to the new, sprawling outer-suburbia shopping centers that were starting to exert their dominance in the area’s retail scene. Wheaton Plaza, whose plans were laid in 1954, would offer consumers a wonderland experience, with covered walkways, major department stores and rows of specialty shops. It would become the first regional mall in the Washington area and, by 1963, the fourth largest in the United States. Then, in 1968, Montgomery Mall would take shopping to even greater heights as the area’s first totally enclosed, all-weather mall, further luring major retailers away from possible downtown Bethesda locations.

Meanwhile, the continuing patchwork nature of the downtown area continued to present a built environment with no distinguishable character of its own. John Westbrook, former head of the urban design division of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, recalled in the 1980s the Bethesda he first encountered in the early 1970s. “The central business area had no heart,” Westbrook said, “no sense of identity, exposed parking, concrete buildings mushrooming out of asphalt, no trees, no greenery. What was there was dying in the median strips.” Soon, however, the county would step in and attempt to control the architectural quality of any new construction—and bring a sense of place to the downtown area.

With the selection in 1972 of the Wisconsin Avenue and Old Georgetown Road intersection as the site of the Bethesda Metro subway station, a rush of new development in the downtown was inevitable. Again, the progress of transportation—from turnpike to trolley to automobile to subway—seemed destined to direct the town’s future. That sparked residents’ fears that Metro’s arrival would trigger even greater unregulated development, so the county government adopted a master plan in 1976. Citizens and planners agreed that the only options were spreading new construction throughout the district, or concentrating it at one point. What the planning board eventually recommended was a pyramidal development scheme for downtown Bethesda, with the tallest buildings massed around a Metro station “core.” As buildings moved away from the town center, height limits would be reduced, stepping down to a scale more in keeping with that of the residential communities. Additional buffers between homes and offices were to be provided by interposed parks, playgrounds and public buildings.

In 1984, Bethesda’s Metro station opened—one year after the county had approved plans for 14 medium- to high-density buildings surrounding it, in a package redevelopment plan unprecedented in the county’s history. When completed, the mélange of post-modernist architecture would add 3.1 million square feet of new commercial and residential space to Bethesda’s former 9 million square feet of commercial space, with an estimated 13,000 to 15,000 new employees filling the office towers.

Mark Walston is an author and historian raised in Bethesda and now living in Olney.