Silver Spring’s Perpetual Building may be historic …

Former Perpetual Building Association building, 8700 Georgia Avenue, Silver Spring, Md.

Former Perpetual Building Association building, 8700 Georgia Avenue, Silver Spring, Md.

… But not necessarily for the reasons preservationists suggest.

In 2007 Montgomery County, Maryland,  historic preservation advocates asked county leaders to add the former Perpetual Savings Association bank building in downtown Silver Spring to the county’s Master Plan for Historic Preservation. The designation would have ensured the 1958 building’s presence along Georgia Avenue in perpetuity. Instead, the proposed designation led to litigation and recriminations. The Perpetual case was precedential, examining the pitfalls of preserving buildings of recent vintage and the minutiae of due process in county master plan legislation.

The Perpetual Building Association was a Washington banking institution founded in 1881. It built branches throughout the District during the early 20th century and expanded to Montgomery County after World War II.  The bank became one of the leading local mortgage lenders, helping provide the capital for homebuilding in Washington’s rapidly expanding automobile suburbs.

Perpetual in Silver Spring

Washington architect Robert Scholz designed the Silver Spring branch building. The architect had developed a corporate architectural brand for Perpetual that was deployed in the Silver Spring branch. The modernist design and the bank’s prominence in the metropolitan region gave the preservationists their bases for asking that the Silver Spring property be preserved for its architectural significance and its significant associations to local history.

 

Article announcing the opening of Perpetual's Silver Spring Branch reproduced in 2007 historic designation documents. The Washington Post, January 12, 1958.

Article announcing the opening of Perpetual’s Silver Spring Branch reproduced in 2007 historic designation documents. The Washington Post, January 12, 1958.

The Silver Spring Historical Society (SSHS) hired Washington preservation firm EHT Traceries, Inc., to research the property and prepare a report [PDF]. Jerry McCoy, the society’s leader, used the report to initiate the designation process in 2007. The Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission evaluated the proposed designation in the summer of 2007 and provided a lukewarm recommendation to the Montgomery County Planning Board that the property be designated under one of nine criteria in the county’s historic preservation law.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I was the Montgomery County HPC’s vice-chairman at the time and I chaired the meeting in August 2007 where the final vote was taken.

The Case for Procedure

The Montgomery County Planning Board heard [PDF] and declined to accept the HPC’s recommendation to add the Perpetual Building the Master Plan for Historic Preservation. The Planning Board transmitted a Master Plan amendment that recommended not designating the property. The cover letter written by then-chairman Royce Hanson transmitting the amendment read, “We were not convinced that the history or architecture of this building met the standards of Chapter 24A or the Master Plan for Historic Preservation.”

The County Council failed to act within 60 days on the draft amendment and no hearing was held. Montgomery Preservation, Inc. (MPI), an organization allied with SSHS, retained an attorney and sued the Maryland National Capital Planning Commission. MPI claimed that the Planning Board had violated state law by making the final determination about the property instead of the County Council.

The preservationists lost their case in circuit court. The lower court’s decision was upheld on appeals to the Court of Special Appeals [PDF] (in 2009) and the state’s highest court, the Maryland Court of Appeals [PDF] (2012). All of the courts found that the Planning Board had fulfilled its legal obligation to forward a recommendation to the County Council.

The Case for Historical Significance

Government historic preservation bodies are required to evaluate requests to designate properties using legally defensible criteria [PDF]. Adding a property to a local landmark list can have tremendous consequences for an owner who does not agree with the designation.

Silver Spring Historical Society marker outside of the former Perpetual Building Association building, Silver Spring.

Silver Spring Historical Society marker outside of the former Perpetual Building Association building, Silver Spring.

Though preservationists tout the benefits of designation — tax credits, prestige, etc. — they frequently understate the private- and public-sector costs associated with historic preservation. These costs include government agency staff review time and public hearing costs. As for property owners, they find themselves navigating a sometimes confusing and costly regulatory regime that involves academic discussions that focus on architectural and cultural history. Once properties are designated, both property owners and government bodies must go through what can be time-consuming regulatory reviews if changes to a designated building are proposed.

It is essential, therefore, that requests to designate properties like the Perpetual Building be legally defensible. The proposal that Montgomery County officials heard in 2007 and 2008 simply wasn’t. Though the property may indeed have been historic in a vernacular sense and legally, the documentation submitted by the preservationists was little more than an appeal to save an interesting looking building that might have had an interesting story — a story preservationists could only support using digitized historical newspapers as their leading evidentiary source.

Advertisement announcing the opening of Perpetual's Silver Spring Branch reproduced in 2007 historic designation documents. The Washington Post, January 12, 1958.

Advertisement announcing the opening of Perpetual’s Silver Spring Branch reproduced in 2007 historic designation documents. The Washington Post, January 12, 1958.

I and other HPC members pressed the preservationists about their sources. The SSHS provided a lot of newspaper articles about the building and the business, but failed to make a compelling case for why it met the legal standard for historic preservation. After the first hearing in July 2007, I told SSHS members to come back with more information that connects the building to the community. I urged them to find people who recalled opening their first bank accounts there as children; folks who got their first mortgage there — anything to make the building something other than a block of midcentury corporate architecture.

According to the August 15, 2007 HPC transcript, I said, “We have a lot of information, but I don’t think we have sufficiently contextualized information.” The HPC voted 4-2 to forward a recommendation that the Perpetual building be designated because it had “character, interest or a value as part of the development of Montgomery County.” The HPC had rejected all of the arguments that the building was architectural significant and that it’s history was remarkable.

The New Information

I had all but forgotten about the Perpetual case, except for those occasions when I discussed it with clients in my consulting practice. The case also has made its way into the academic literature on historic preservation of recent past properties, as illustrated by University of Maryland historic preservation graduate student Joy Tober in her 2008 Master’s Paper, “It’s Not Ugly, It’s the Recent Past: Facing Aesthetic Challenges of Modern Architecture Within Historic Preservation” [PDF].

Last year I began doing a lot of research that involved editions of the Washington Afro-American newspaper published between 1950 and 1990. Among the ads for grocery stores, movie listings, life insurance, and cigarettes were display ads for the Perpetual Building Association. In many issues throughout the 1950s, the Perpetual ad was the only one for a bank.

Perpetual Building Association advertisement, The Washington Afro-American, April 3, 1956.

Perpetual Building Association advertisement, The Washington Afro-American, April 3, 1956.

Washington’s history of discriminatory real estate and mortgage lending practices has been well documented. Residential suburbs in the District, Maryland, and Virginia were built on legal foundations cobbled together from restrictive racial covenants and redlining. Yet, here was an established historic Washington bank marketing itself — and its mortgage lending — to African Americans.

Perpetual Building Association advertisement, Washington Afro-American, February 4, 1958.

Perpetual Building Association advertisement, Washington Afro-American, February 4, 1958.

None of the Montgomery County historic preservation documentation mentioned the role Perpetual might have played in African American suburbanization after World War II. Was this the missing history historic preservation reviewers wanted back in 2007? Perhaps. Do comments left in SSHS Facebook posts from people who remember banking at Perpetual qualify as the community link I urged preservationists to find a decade ago? Maybe.

Is Silver Spring’s former Perpetual bank building historic? Even after a decade has passed, including hearings by the HPC and Planning Board plus cases that worked their ways through the Maryland courts, I don’t think anyone’s fully capable of answering that question.

© 2016 D.S. Rotenstein

3 thoughts on “Silver Spring’s Perpetual Building may be historic …

  1. If this question is ever answered, I’d really like to know, given the way returning African-American WWII Vets were excluded from every other municipality’s suburban growth. If the banks would grant mortgages, real estate agents didn’t have to show and European-American sellers didn’t have to sell to anyone. If all of those hurdles were jumped in Silver Springs, that would be a perfect project to celebrate.

    Valetta

    • Excellent points. Though Montgomery County lagged behind neighboring Prince George’s County in African American suburbanization, there were some historical trends that favored African American land ownership. One was the long history of African American farm ownership v. tenant farming found in the deeper South. Another was the early development of African American hamlets in the near and outer suburban parts of the county. Like the rest of the country, much of Montgomery County’s residential subdivisions had racially restrictive covenants on them (until 1948 when the Supreme Court ruled them unenforceable) and lots of racist property sellers, realtors, and government officials. I hope that the local preservationists pursue this lead to determine if Perpetual followed through with its advertising that targeted African American borrowers and how these would-be buyers navigated the lingering Jim Crow landscape.

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