For months, the end appeared likely for Montgomery Arms, a small, World War II-era apartment complex in downtown Silver Spring, and retiree Wilma Claypool couldn't imagine where she would go if the buildings were destroyed.

"Everything is so expensive, you know," said the former federal employee who has lived at Montgomery Arms for 15 years.

The owners had decided to demolish the three squat, red brick buildings, where rents for some tenants still hover around $400 a month.

They proposed replacing them with a lean, luxury apartment building with a penthouse pool and spa, reserving nearly a third of its units for low- and moderate-income people.

Claypool was skeptical. So on Thursday night, despite a touch of arthritis in her knees, Claypool joined about a dozen of her neighbors to back a more unusual plan to designate the 130 garden apartments as historic.

The county Planning Board voted 3 to 0 to recommend the plan, noting the Art Deco detail and the fact that all but one other of the county's 1940s-era low-rises had been torn down. The plan for historic designation now goes to County Executive Sidney Kramer, who has 60 days to make a recommendation and send it to the County Council for final approval.

Neighbors and advocates of slow growth in Silver Spring applauded the board's decision.

"There are certain things in the community that are part of the fiber of the community, certain things that you should really think about before you start tearing them down," said civic activist John A. Gilson Jr.

It is not certain that the county executive or the council will go along with the Planning Board's recommendation. The developer, Percontee Inc., of Silver Spring, offered to double the number of units set aside for low- and moderate-income tenants, up to 111 of the proposed 372 units.

The developer is proposing to design a 16-story building, whose first five stories would have patios, to be attractive for families. The building also would include an interior court, a recreation area on the top floor and a corner park that would be open to the public.

If the complex is designated as historic, there is nothing the county can do to stop the owners from rehabilitating it and raising rents, which one development official said would likely happen.

"In order for it to be an economical feasible rental community, it will take some rehabilitation," said Percontee Vice President George C. Stone. Renovation, he said, doesn't "come for free. I'm sure the tenants will incur rent increases in the future."

"It's a close call. We do need new apartments for Silver Spring," said county housing director Richard J. Ferrara, who noted that while there are new units planned, none have been built in 20 years. On the other hand, he said, Montgomery Arms "is something that is unique to Silver Spring."

For 50 years, Montgomery Arms provided an oasis of affordability in downtown Silver Spring. Rents remained relatively low for many long-time residents.

Built at the start of World War II, residents could watch The Hecht Co. building rise and can now watch parts of it being destroyed to make way for a new mall, City Place. It was designed by George T. Santmyers, architect of more than 400 apartment buildings in the area, who gave it such distinctive Art Deco details as ornamental panels and brick treatments, glass blocks and corner casement windows.

Planning staff members said the apartments were representative of the kinds of multifamily housing that have almost disappeared in Montgomery County.END NOTES