Big times in Bethesda -- even the opening yesterday of the $60 million Hyatt Regency Hotel on a congested strip of Wisconsin Avenue -- still come in small town ways.
It's the kind of place where Montgomery County high school bands, heavy on the brass, play marches to welcome a new neighbor to the block. Where office workers like those at Keyes Insurance Agency a couple blocks down the street look out their windows to catch a bit of the hubbub. Where hotel bellmen, bartenders and desk clerks unfurl flags in the hotel lobby and belt out "The Star-Spangled Banner" in an opening ceremony that would have made Walt Disney blush.
"They said it couldn't be done and we couldn't do it," developer Alan I. Kay told a crowd of more than 100 who began clinking champagne glasses at 11 a.m. to celebrate the opening of the keystone of the Bethesda Metro Center. "What do you think?"
For a moment, the gathering of blue suits and muted ties forgot the place and the hour and let out a roar.
"I'm just delighted to welcome the Hyatt Regency to good old-fashioned Bethesda," County Executive Charles Gilchrist said. "This will be a vibrant new commercial center for years to come . . . it isn't just brick and mortar, it's a tremendous addition to our quality of life."
It is also one of the first additions to a strip of Wisconsin Avenue that once was home to coffee shops and a five-and-dime store. The 400-room, 12-story hotel is the cornerstone of Rozansky & Kay Construction Company's $160 million commerce center at the Metro station and the centerpiece of a new business district.
What will follow completion of the commerce center, which will include a 17-story office building, retail area, and an ice-skating rink that will double as an outdoor concert site, are 10 more office buildings, hotels and retail areas along Wisconsin Avenue, Old Georgetown Road and East West Highway.
The changes are what many at yesterday's celebration called a new beginning for a community that began as a pioneer trail crossing and grew during the postwar years into a shy Washington suburb. For others not at the party, the new face of Bethesda is one they may never know.
Three blocks south of the Hyatt celebration, the cash register at Community Paint and Hardware was taking in some brisk business, much as it has during all the 53 years the Broadhurst family has sold nails and paint and turpentine there. Alfred Broadhurst, company president, was behind the register and chatting, much as he has for many of those years.
"I guess it's all for the best," said Broadhurst, a 64-year-old Bethesda native who can remember riding his bike on Old Georgetown Road when it was just a dusty open track. "But we're still old country people and we don't like the rush and bustle. In Washington and New York, it's always on the rush . . . you never slow down. And now, Bethesda."
Broadhurst and his brothers plan to retire and will be out of the old wooden building, the one that shook and shuddered when the workmen were blasting to make room for Metro underneath, in February. The last days of business are ones to savor with customers who are neighbors and friends.
"I'm glad to see the changes -- but I'm not glad," said company Treasurer Louis Laborde. "It's like we're losing something . . . The bigger you get, the more you lose the personal contact."
Laborde walked across the store's pine and oak floorboard and a sharp odor of dust arose. English china teapots are on one shelf and cast-iron skillets on another. There are 30 kinds of light bulbs, 38 kinds of electric wire and, if needed, a single nail to hang a picture.
"See," Laborde said, wiping his hand across a dusty bottle and cracking a smile. "That's charm. You have to see it that way." Later, he described the store closing in a way that said goodbye to more than what the Broadhurst family liked to think was the best little hardware store Bethesda ever had.
"This is home. We'll be leaving our home."