The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The building looked like a Pizza Hut. This aficionado of suburban architecture was convinced it used to be something else.

This Pizza Hut in Landover wasn’t always a Pizza Hut. Reston blogger Addison Del Mastro was determined to discover the building’s history. (Addison Del Mastro)
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Our suburbs can seem indistinguishable from one another — and indistinguishable within themselves: just endless, sidewalk-less accretions of tract homes, gas stations and strip shopping centers.

But grow up in the suburbs and you come to know the architecture as a cowboy knows the landmarks along his cattle drive: the Golden Arches of McDonald’s, the fauxdobe of Taco Bell, the rising sun of Roy Rogers. When the topography looks a little off, your brain notices.

And so it was when Addison Del Mastro was caught short as he drove through Landover not long ago. There was something weird about a Pizza Hut that caught his eye.

“The building was a square and not a rectangle,” Addison said. “The roof was a little different.”

The windows were a little off, too. Most Pizza Huts have trapezoidal windows, but this one didn’t. It was clear to Addison that before it was a Pizza Hut, this little building at 6747 Annapolis Rd. was something else. But what exactly?

Addison lives in Reston, where he writes about urbanism, land use and the built environment on his Substack newsletter, the Deleted Scenes.

“But I also have this adjacent interest in architecture, commercial landscapes and retail history,” he said.

The mystery of the Landover Pizza Hut brought all of Addison’s interests together. He told the story in a Feb. 2 post titled “Didn’t Used to Be a Pizza Hut,” a nod to a blog that catalogues buildings that began life as part of the pizza chain.

“It’s kind of like a magnum opus,” he said of his essay.

It’s also an exploration of what we think we know — and in the very limits of knowing.

Addison began by going online and searching aerial images. Pictures from 1977 and 1980 showed the building. One photo was in color, revealing that the roof was then orange. It was also a different roof, a more steeply angled structure than the shingled pilgrim hat mansard of Pizza Hut.

Addison looked for information on Facebook pages devoted to local history. Many people surmised the building was once a Howard Johnson’s: orange, angled roof. Or maybe a Krispy Kreme: green, angled roof.

But those didn’t seem quite right. In 1981, according to a story in the Evening Star, there was a fire in the building, which by then had become the Studio 450 Restaurant. Before that, the story noted, it was home to Fat Albert’s Rib Shack.

Addison searched property records, but he was no closer to unearthing that initial seed.

It turned out that it was more of an egg than a seed. A Facebook acquaintance sent Addison a newspaper ad from 1971 that included that building among the locations of a new restaurant. What became a Pizza Hut — a global company with more than 18,000 locations — started life as an outlet of a restaurant chain hatched in Salisbury, Md.: English’s Chick’n Steak House.

The chain promised “authentic Eastern Shore home-style cooking,” including “Delmarvalous” fried chicken.

“It was a concept piloted by this small regional chain,” Addison said. “It basically fizzled out in the 1980s, I believe.”

English’s never garnered the fan base of other defunct chains, such as Little Tavern or Miles’-long Sandwich Shop.

“There’s nothing on the Internet that attests to the fact that it ever existed,” Addison said. “It took tracking down old newspaper clips, property records and phone books to find any evidence of it at all.”

It’s a reminder that just because some place or event isn’t online, that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist or didn’t happen. Addison said it can be unsettling to people when they realize something from their childhood left no digital trace. Not that English’s Chick’n Steak House was ever part of his childhood. He’s 28.

“I have no nostalgia for it,” Addison said. “Maybe it sounds silly, but it brings me joy to uncover stuff that means something to other people and to feel that maybe someone will look that question up one day and my essay will pop up and that will be the answer.”

Addison’s quest to uncover the story of the building has become the most-read post on his newsletter. And while it may not be in the same category as stumbling across an unknown Shakespeare play or finding a Viking runestone in a New England field, it is its own tale of discovery.

“The fact that ultimately this isn’t a momentous story makes it more meaningful to me in a way,” he said. “It’s such ordinary stuff, it feels like it should all be there, and it’s not. It’s ubiquitous and mass-produced and already skipped into the past.”