It was the worst of times for Silver Spring. The owners of the Silver Theatre and the sleek little strip shopping center next door were attacking their own property: They ripped down the late-1930s tower marquee, took hammers to the building's distinctive chimney and smashed the beautiful maroon Vitrolite panels on one of the stores.
This was in the summer of 1984. Richard Striner, who as president of the Art Deco Society of Washington had affectionately adopted this endangered cluster of suburban buildings, alertly located a Montgomery County official willing to stop the destruction. But it was just the beginning of a standoff that lasted nearly two decades.
On the one side you had folks like Striner who saw great value in the modest array of commercial buildings at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road. On the other side you had developers and their allies who saw the buildings merely as worn-out economic units. "Obstacles to progress" was the phrase then in vogue.
How one defined "progress" was of course the key. Downtown Silver Spring, increasingly abandoned by shoppers in favor of newer, larger regional malls, certainly needed help. But to eliminate a fine old place in order to create a new one seemed to many -- myself most definitely included -- to be highly contradictory. The historic movie house and shopping center should be the centerpiece of any such effort, we argued.
Finally, somehow, this point of view more or less prevailed. More rather than less, in fact. Not everything about the new Silver Spring that's fast becoming a reality generates complete confidence, but what's been done so far is a satisfying combination of old and new.
That Silver Theatre tower marquee, rebuilt with the aid of old photographs, again lights up Colesville Road. The theater itself has been renovated and expanded, and has a first-class new tenant -- the American Film Institute. The shopping center is being renovated in its original configuration, with a couple of sensitively scaled extensions.
Plus, just across Georgia Avenue from the old shopping center there is a piece of new architecture worth saluting. With its bold, concave entry plane rising seven stories high, crisp metal-and-glass facades and two distinctive "hats," the new headquarters of Discovery Communications ups the qualitative ante in a suburb afflicted by mediocre or plainly bad architecture for half a century.
The theater and this new office building are not the whole story, of course, but they are crucial pieces in the puzzle of putting downtown Silver Spring back together again. The theater (and shopping center) provide links to the past and keys to reestablishing a sense of community and place. In addition to its fresh architectural presence, the Discovery headquarters, with 1,500 employees, contributes significantly to the vitality of this new-old suburban center.
Except for its tall, streamlined tower, the theater exterior, like that of the shopping center, is an authentic reminder of 1930s America, a modestly moderne period piece. John Eberson, the original architect, saved the design pizazz for the auditorium interior -- a subdued sort of pizazz blending richly patterned carpets and wall fabrics with rounded contours and cove lighting.
The interior, in short, is characteristic of the sort of movie-palace elegance for Everyman that Eberson and other theater architects of the time knew how to create. The auditorium has been changed a bit, but the renovation, under the leadership of Richard Logan, of the Washington office of Gensler, is very good. You walk into a time capsule.
As to the changes, they're basically for the better. Which is to say that they were necessary to equip the theater for its new life, and they were done with sensitivity to Eberson's design. To accommodate a larger screen, for instance, the original proscenium arch had to be hidden, and to fit the AFI audience, the number of seats was reduced from 1,100 to 400. (Very comfortable seats, I might add, with four feet of leg room between rows.)
But the most important alterations, perhaps, are technical. Behind the rebuilt ceiling are conduits capable of supporting one of the most sophisticated motion picture showcases in the nation. "It's beyond state-of-the art, it's ahead-of-the-art," says Ray Barry, deputy director of the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.
Barry is referring to the new AFI operation as a whole. In addition to the main auditorium, there are 200- and 75-seat theaters equipped with projectors for any kind of film that's ever been made and lots of other dazzling techie stuff. This new AFI complex clearly is an ideal tenant for a redeveloping urban place, giving Silver Spring a unique cultural centerpiece that will attract people from all over.
In addition to a cafe, a "film-based retail outlet," a conference room and offices, the two smaller AFI theaters are situated in a new building directly alongside the old Silver. Although the functions of the two buildings are nicely integrated, the new building is something of a missed architectural opportunity. Intended, perhaps, as a polite background, the glass and metal facades are rather weak and, unhappily, this characterless quality somehow draws attention to itself.
The architectural pace picks up, however, with the Discovery headquarters across Georgia Avenue. The big building occupies its prominent, tri-corner site -- bounded by Colesville Road and Georgia and Wayne avenues -- with crisp, playful authority.
Abstract and modernist to a fare-thee-well, the building is a collage of differing elements, held together in a tight composition. The list of elements includes blocks of ribbon windows referencing Silver Spring's unfortunate architectural past, those Le Corbusier-like "hats" hiding elevator towers and other mechanical equipment, contrasting silver and white metal finishes and other touches large and small. By and large, they're more engaging than distracting. They're like bits and pieces of a story you can put together as you walk by.
Chief architect David King, of the Washington office of SmithGroup, attempted with some success to reduce the impression of overweening size by breaking the building's L-shaped mass into two distinct units -- one arm of the L being 10 floors high, the other rising only seven stories. Then, to give the flat-roofed structure some presence on the skyline, he provided those hats -- they're architectural inside jokes (Le Corbusier in gleaming metal rather than brooding concrete), more impressive up close than from afar. They're seen to best advantage from the seventh-floor employee roof garden.
And then King broke off another piece to form a free-standing corner tower at the intersection of Wayne and Georgia avenues. Though the tower, connected to the main building by glass-fenced pedestrian bridges, contains nothing more than a fire stairwell, it makes a strong urban marker.
The building's sense of urbanity is indeed its strong suit. It embraces two parks -- a circular, paved opening at the corner of Wayne and Georgia avenues, and a larger, ambulating green tucked into the intersection of the "L." (Nicely designed by the landscape architecture firm EDAW, the latter is not truly a public park -- basically, it's a gated front yard, open to the public only during daylight hours.) And with that tower, a concave facade and a wonderfully open lobby (containing a skeleton of the fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex), it welcomes visitors with graceful aplomb at the corner of Wayne and Georgia.
With the strong forms, bright materials and sophisticated siting, the new building helps give shape and liveliness to a new urban place. For these strong virtues you can easily forgive minor faults. In the long run, the "faults" may prove to contribute to the architecture's charm. At night the building's a spectacular beacon, raising high hopes.
In combination, the Discovery building and AFI Silver Spring constitute an exceptional new beginning. Getting here has been a long, long haul. I still wince to think of the violence done 19 years ago to those Vitrolite panels. Broken, hammered, intentionally wounded.
But times change, sometimes for the better. The Montgomery County government deserves a lot of credit for realizing, finally, that it would take substantial public money and leadership to create results beneficial to a large public. County Executive Douglas Duncan personally lobbied both the AFI and Discovery to join in.
And preservationist Striner held on to this issue like a bulldog for 19 years. He merits the last word. "To have lived to see this day is quite thrilling and miraculous," he said.