… 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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