Montgomery council rejects historic status for moldy Wheaton recreation center building


The Wheaton Community Recreation Center is seen in Wheaton, Md. (JUANA ARIAS/For The Washington Post)

The Montgomery County Council gave the green light Tuesday for demolition of the Wheaton Community Recreation Center, a pagoda-like building praised by preservationists as an exemplar of modern design and decried by neighbors as a moldy, dilapidated obstacle to a long-promised new library.

The county has set aside $36 million in its capital construction budget to raze the 51-year-old structure and replace it with a combined library and community recreation center.

Construction is scheduled to begin in 2016, with the new facility slated to open in 2018.

Last year, Montgomery’s Historic Preservation Commission and its Planning Board recommended the building — originally known as the Wheaton Youth Center — for historic designation, which would have protected it from destruction.

The recommendation pitted architecture buffs who are dedicated to preserving fast-disappearing pieces of Montgomery’s past against a predominantly Latino community north of Silver Spring that has waited years for a new library and community center.

Commission members cited the building’s curving, pagoda-style roof, entrance pavilion and small-sized original rooms, which resemble those in traditional Japanese houses. It was designed by Arthur Keyes, a mid-century architect whose work was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The center is a nostalgic landmark for some baby boomer music fans because of its brief history as a concert venue in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Local bands played there — including one with a guitarist named Marc Elrich who would grow up to serve on the County Council — as well as big-name acts such as Bob Seger, Iggy Pop, Etta James and, some allege, Led Zeppelin.

But the building, at Georgia and Hermitage avenues, is plagued by mold, a leaky roof and an outmoded electrical system. It is still used for sports, meetings and other community activities.

County officials said that integrating the existing structure into plans for the new facility would delay construction and increase costs. Preservation of the old center would also cut down on green space available for the project, officials said.

The youth center’s fate was essentially sealed at a Feb. 27 joint meeting of the council’s planning and health and human services committees, which unanimously recommended against historic designation. The council’s vote Tuesday also was unanimous, with little discussion beforehand.

Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), chair of the council’s planning committee, expressed the hope that “some attractive and appropriate elements” of the old youth center might be incorporated into the new facility.

Perhaps, she quipped, there could be a plaque commemorating a long-ago appearance at the building by the amateur band for which Elrich (D), an at-large member of the council since 2007, played guitar.

“We’ll leave that to the Friends of Marc Elrich,” said Floreen, referring to the title of Elrich’s reelection campaign fundraising committee.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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