Not so long ago, train stations were places that were ideally suited for use as -- one hesitates to sound old-fashioned -- train stations.
Today, in a fast-growing city like Rockville, the gabled, red-brick station that for more than a century served its purpose is a bounty of commercial possibilities, even if it isn't the model of the station house in the Atlas model train sets as is widely believed. (The model nonetheless was displayed at the station on a table and looked suspiciously like the station.)
Entrepreneurs, architects, railroad buffs and preservationists made tracks yesterday to look over this rare listing on the real estate market and, since no one was laying out any money, dream big things for the former station's future. Some of the new incarnations discussed by Rockville planners include offices for opticians, (not that there is any shortage), studios for photographers, premises for restaurateurs.
Any number of thirsty visitors touring the property yesterday for the first time suggested a bar.
"I'd make it a saloon and call it The Last Stop," said Rockville lawyer William Kraham. The only hitch, which no one really wanted to discuss, is whether the station is far enough away from St. Mary's Church to satisfy state liquor laws.
The building was rescued from the wrecking ball in 1978 when it was listed on the federal Register of National Historic Places. Until 1981, when it was moved 80 feet east, it was standing in the path of the Metro Red Line extension. Cost-conscious Metro officials at one time had earmarked $3,000 to raze it.
Metro has since spent more than $500,000 to move the station and a smaller freight and luggage warehouse onto a new foundation. The buildings are surrounded by grass and shrubs and separated from the railroad tracks by a barbed wire fence and the new subway rails. Metro, which does not want the station, put it up for bids and plans to sell it in October. Yesterday, 52 persons picked up bid contracts indicating their interest in the station.
"Most of the people seemed interested in establishing a restaurant," said Ross Sublett, a real estate specialist with Metro.
Keeping the station in roughly the same form it was when it was erected in 1872 has been the mission of a group called Peerless Rockville Preservation Ltd. Members were on hand yesterday to discuss the historic nature of the station and point out restrictions to prospective buyers who cannot change the exteriors, but can do what they want inside the buildings.
Only lately has Rockville troubled to preserve its past. The station has special meaning because Rockville is a city that suffers, some of its residents believe, from what council member Steve Abrams calls "a civic guilt complex," stemming from its decision to demolish the old downtown and build a woefully unsuccessful mall.
Phyllis Fordham, vice president of Peerless Rockville, and, as it turns out, a candidate for State Senate, put it grandly: "Preserving this building is more than keeping something as it is. We're keeping a link to the past. That link to the past is a link to humanity."
The years have not been kind to the station. It is done up with gingerbread trim, stone arch doorways and slate roofing in an architectural style known as Railroad Gothic. For years termites gorged themselves on the joists that underpin the floors. Spray painters scrawled the names of favorite drugs on the walls. An arsonist caused $40,000 worth of damage last year.
Inside, paint is flaking from the ceiling, the windows are boarded up and a copy of the 1934 Labor Act hangs from a door. Amtrak used the downstairs part of the station until the building was moved. The upstairs was rented out to a model railroad club, then a VFW chapter and finally Peerless Rockville itself.
Even its claim, which has been reported in local newspapers, to being the inspiration for the Atlas miniature has proved spurious. "We're trying to downplay that," said Eileen McGuckian of Peerless Rockville. "I called the man who did the model. He lives in Rockville. He said absolutely no."
This year Peerless Rockville featured an ink sketch of the station on the cover of its calendar, drawn by Eric Mohn, a paraplegic who holds his pen in his teeth.
The group began refurbishing the building about two years ago. Requisitioning Boy Scouts and drawing heavily on their own membership, group members spent hours sanding and painting in an effort to reverse the station's decline.
"I wish you could have seen it when we started," sighed Phyllis Fordham. "Never in a million years did I think people would be able to use it."
Yesterday, then, prospective buyers considered a handsome piece of real estate. Conversation was briefly interrupted by a passing freight train, but returned quickly to the minutiae of fire codes, wiring, city permits. William Kraham, who said he had been involved in developing several historic buildings, was worried about headroom upstairs.
"I had to move a staircase once to meet county regulations," he said. "It cost me $1,000 to get half an inch of headroom."