Silver Spring’s newest visual junkyard

This … is not written in anger. It is written in fury … it is a deliberate attack upon all those who have already befouled a large portion of this country for private gain, and are engaged in befouling the rest. — Peter Blake, Preface to God’s Own Junkyard: The Planned Deterioration of America’s Landscape (1964)

Ellsworth Place Mall, Colesville Road and Fenton Street facade, September 2016.

Ellsworth Place Mall, Colesville Road and Fenton Street facade, September 2016.

After more than a decade of false starts involving redevelopment plans and rebranding campaigns, an urban mall in Silver Spring, Maryland, has a new name, new look, and new stores. Ellsworth Place, née City Place, was completed in 1992 in an effort to jumpstart redevelopment in Silver Spring’s central business district. The mall was built as an addition to a historic Hecht’s department store, which was completed in 1947 and which left Silver Spring 40 years later for a new regional mall in nearby Wheaton.

Rebranding City Place involved converting its worn and bland suburban commercial spaces and “re-tenanting,” a process the owner described as attracting more upscale merchants to attract millennials and other new middle class residents moving to Silver Spring.

Montgomery County’s historic preservation law was one hurdle owners had to clear. The former Hecht’s building is a protected county landmark and the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission has regulatory jurisdiction over changes to the building’s exterior. Changes like new entrances, windows, and signage.

Ellsworth Place Mall/Former Hecht's, Ellsworth Ave. and Fenton Street facade, September 2016.

Ellsworth Place Mall/Former Hecht’s, Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street facade, September 2016.

After renovations to the mall were completed earlier this year, two things bothered me. Both involved the massive Jumbotron digital billboards and other signs attached to the building’s facade. First was the fact that the Montgomery County HPC approved a Historic Area Work Permit for the Jumbotrons. Second was the county’s history as a pioneer in enacting anti-billboard legislation to reduce visual blight.

In 1968 Montgomery County revised its zoning code regulating the height, width, and placement of new billboards and the removal of non-conforming signs. The county spent almost 30 years litigating challenges to the law and in the 1990s the last non-conforming billboards were removed. By the turn of the 21st century, Montgomery County was billboard free.

The county’s historic preservation code strictly regulates changes to a historic building’s exterior features, which are defined as

The architectural style, design and general arrangement of the exterior of an historic resource, including the color, nature and texture of building materials, and the type of style of all windows, doors, light fixtures, signs or other similar items found on or related to the exterior of an historic resource. [Montgomery County Code, Chapter 24A, §2; emphasis added]

Signs, including billboards, are specifically addressed in the section outlining which types of activities require regulatory review by the HPC and Historic Area Work Permits:

Erecting or causing to be erected any sign or advertisement (with the exception of those signs which temporarily advertise for sale an historic site or an historic resource located within an historic district, or which for a temporary period advertise a political viewpoint) on the exterior or on the environmental setting of any historic site or any historic resource located within any historic district. [Montgomery County Code, Chapter 24A, §6(3)]

The former Hecht’s building became regulated under the Montgomery County Historic Preservation ordinance in 1984. The property has long been recognized by historians and architectural historians as significant locally and nationally for its streamlined architecture and its associations with suburban development.

hechts-1947

Silver Spring Hecht’s shortly after its completion. The store’s southeast corner at the intersection of Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street is illustrated. Source: Longstreth 1997.

George Washington University architectural historian Richard Longstreth described the Hecht building as the anchor for a key experiment in postwar commercial development that expanded from established city centers into automobile suburbs:

The location of the Hecht Company Silver Spring store was practically without precedent. Unlike any previous example, whether in the urban core or an outlying district, the site did not front on a major artery.[1]

Longstreth also emphasized the Hecht building’s architectural significance: “A no-nonsense design that looked efficient and modern but had no frills.” In a later article, Longstreth expanded his discussion of the building’s architectural importance and the character-defining features associated with its southeast corner at the intersection of Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street. “On the exterior, Hecht’s pushed new limits of simplicity,” Longstreth wrote. The [design] was no-nonsense to say the least: no frills, no adornment, no variation-even in the massing-save the rounded corner. This sort of near-utilitarian minimalism was then unusual for a major store, offering a stark contrast to the extravagance of prewar work.”[2]

Fast forward to 2016 and the corner of Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street. The iconic rounded corner has been concealed by metal brackets anchoring the Jumbotron to the historic building facade as well as signs advertising the renovated mall’s new upscale tenants.

Silver Spring's new "great White Way" or a return to visual blight? Ellsworth Place Mall/Former Hecht's, Ellsworth Ave. and Fenton Street facade, September 2016.

Silver Spring’s new “great White Way” or a return to visual blight? Ellsworth Place Mall/Former Hecht’s, Ellsworth Dr. and Fenton Street facade, September 2016.

Does the new Fenton Street and Ellsworth Drive facade add or detract from the building’s historical character? To me that’s a no-brainer: the illuminated signs and the massive Jumbotron clearly diminish the historic building’s integrity. The Montgomery County HPC is required to deny Historic Area Work Permits if proposals are “inappropriate, inconsistent with or detrimental to the preservation, enhancement or ultimate protection of the historic site or historic resource.”

I wonder what regulators were thinking when this project was approved. Were Montgomery County leaders so desperate to breathe new life into downtown Silver Spring that they were willing to overlook the county’s pathbreaking role in eliminating visual blight and ignore the the county’s historic preservation law? Were well-heeled developers held to a lower standard than small business owners and homeowners who must comply with the county’s historic preservation law? These are questions that concerned citizens and historic preservation advocates should ask our county’s elected and appointed officials.

NOTES

  1. Longstreth, Richard. “Silver Spring: Georgia Avenue, Colesville Road and the Creation of an Alternative `Downtown’ for Metropolitan Washington.” In Streets: Critical Perspectives on Public Space, edited by Zeynep Çelik, Diane Favro, and Richard Ingersoll, 247–58, 294. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994, p. 253.
  2. Longstreth, Richard. “The Mixed Blessings of Success: The Hecht Company and Department Store Branch Development after World War II.” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 6 (1997): 244–62, p. 250.

UPDATE:

Facebook exchange with Montgomery County Councilmember Hans Riemer on the historic preservation issues raised in this post:

© 2016 D.S. Rotenstein

 

 

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