The 50-year-old Wheaton Community Recreation Center on Georgia Avenue smells of mold, caused by water from a chronically leaky roof and windows. One corner of the basketball court is elevated by a mysterious hump. Rooms of institutional cinder block for pottery and other activities are dingy and uninviting. On Monday, the carpet in the computer room was soggy from weekend rain.
And so Wheaton residents said good riddance last year when Montgomery County set aside money in its capital construction budget to raze and replace the crumbling facility with a $36 million combined recreation center and library.
But the county’s Historic Preservation Commission looked at the center last month and saw something different. It declared the building, with its unusual curving, pagoda-like roof, courtyards and large, exposed wooden trusses, an exemplar of “Asian-influenced modern design.”
The commission also acknowledged the brief history that the center’s gym enjoyed as a late ’60s and early ’70s concert venue for local bands, top-line acts such as Bob Seger, Iggy Pop and Etta James and — some boomers of a certain vintage insist — Led Zeppelin.
The panel’s recommendation that the building be preserved, which will be taken up Thursday by the Montgomery Planning Board and later the County Council, could complicate and possibly derail plans the community had been counting on.
“You can’t be serious,” said Kim Persaud, president of the Wheaton Regional Park Neighborhood Association. “A dilapidated building that smells like mold can be considered for a historic preservation site?”
For the eastern Montgomery community north of Silver Spring, uncertainty over the recreation center project comes as other revitalization plans seem to be finally coming together. After some false starts, the county recently selected two real estate developers, Bozzuto Group and StonebridgeCarras, for a $200 million project to turn the area around the Red Line Metro station into a more walkable urban community. The plan calls for a town square, apartments, retail and new quarters for the Maryland-National Park and Planning Commission.
The preservation commission said it doesn’t view the rec center issue as an either-or proposition. Chairman William Kirwan urged the county in a letter to integrate the old center into its construction plans. Kirwan said the “dual goals of preservation and development of a facility that meets the community’s needs can be met through high-quality, thoughtful design.”
County General Services Director David Dise said that although certain features of the old center could be incorporated into the new facility, a full integration would almost certainly raise the price tag and delay construction, set to start in 2016 for a 2017 opening. Older buildings invariably pose problems that are not discovered until after renovation is underway.
“It’s extremely challenging to meld a new structure to an older structure,” Dise said. “With all due respect to the Historic Preservation Commission report, [the center] is a nice memory, something we want to pay respect to, but it’s not worth preserving the entire building.”
Library advocates are also unhappy. The plan calls for the 35-year-old Wheaton library, which is next to the center on the other side of the intersection of Georgia and Hermitage, to be razed and replaced. They say it suffers from maladies similar to the rec center’s, including moisture problems and an outdated electrical system. They regard the commission’s proposed designation as out of touch with the real needs of the community.
“The historic preservation world exists in a closed system,” said Art Brodsky, a member of the Montgomery County Library Board. “There is nothing in this building that is still useful to the community. It’s a very narrow discussion that is going on.”
As for its musical heritage, Brodsky added: “The Beatles played Shea Stadium, and the place was still torn down.”
The board sent a resolution to County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), asking that part of the old center’s design be included in a new building or “at a minimum, an exhibit, model or photographs depicting the history and contributions of the building.”
There’s another issue surrounding the project. Although the county owns the library, the recreation center is in the portfolio of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. The county has proposed a swap of the center site for land elsewhere, but there is no deal yet.
The Wheaton Youth Center, its original name, is the legacy of an effort by county officials in the late 1950s to meet public requests for ways to divert and entertain restive teens. A staff sociologist for the Park and Planning Commission, Joseph Marches, wrote at the time that among teenage needs and characteristics were “an abundance of energy,” an “awakening heterosexual nature” and “free time after sundown.”
The commission hired Arthur Keyes, one of many mid-20th-century modernist architects interested in designs of the Far East, according to Clare Lise Kelly, a researcher for the Historic Preservation Commission. Keyes was also heavily influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, who had been inspired by Japanese architecture during his early work in Tokyo.
The center, which opened in 1963, includes an entrance pavilion resembling a Japanese gateway or torii, traditionally used to mark a sacred space, Kelly wrote. Many of the smallish original rooms are consistent in size with those in traditional Japanese houses.
Although the planning board will discuss the issue Thursday, the final say belongs to the County Council, which approved the funding for a consolidated recreation center and library.
“Wheaton has already waited too long for a new Library and Rec Center,” council President Nancy Navarro (D-Midcounty), who represents the area, said in an e-mail. “I do not want this project to be delayed, and I am concerned that a historic designation could compromise the County’s ability to deliver a marquee combined facility. I am hopeful that the Executive branch will work with the Historic Preservation staff to find ways to honor the history of this facility in the new design.”
Nuri Fumes, who lives near the rec center, said she hopes Navarro’s position will prevail. She said she sees too many children playing in the median on Grandview Avenue, where she lives, and that the old center is past its time.
“It doesn’t represent the community,” she said.