The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Demolition of Bethesda radio towers takes a piece of history, rare open space

Four radio towers in Bethesda, Md., were demolished with explosives on Nov. 4 to make way for 309 new homes. (Video: Katherine Shaver/The Washington Post)

When the four orange and white steel towers first soared over Bethesda in 1941, they stood in a field surrounded by sparse suburbs emerging just north of where the Capital Beltway didn’t yet exist. Reaching 400 feet, they beamed the voices of WMAL 630 AM talk radio across the nation’s capital for 77 years.

As the area grew, the 75 acres of open land surrounding the towers became a de facto park for runners, dog owners and generations of teenagers who recall sneaking smokes and beer at “field parties.”

Shortly after 9 a.m. Wednesday, the towers came down in four quick controlled explosions to make way for a new subdivision of 309 homes, taking with them a remarkably large piece of privately owned — but publicly accessible — green space. The developer, Toll Brothers, said construction is scheduled to begin in 2021.

Local radio buffs say the Washington region will lose a piece of history. Residents say they’ll lose a public play space that close-in suburbs have too little of.

“I think it’s safe to assume the value of land in Bethesda is high enough that a place like this is going to be developed,” said Zach Lipson, a Realtor and president of the Wyngate Citizens Association. “But we don’t like change. You’d like to keep something from the past and just the fact that there was some open space. Otherwise, everything is so congested with houses on top of houses.”

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The demolition took about 25 seconds as four “boom-boom” explosions, about five seconds apart, filled the air under a bright blue sky and pale moon. Neighbors gathered in yards and on back decks to take it in. After each double-blast, a tower listed to the side, taking about nine seconds to crash to the ground amid small puffs of dark smoke.

Earlier, Thom Doud, field operations manager for Phoenix, Md.-based Controlled Demolition Inc., said four explosives technicians would set the explosive charges at one leg of each three-legged tower. That would cause the towers to fall, one by one, in the direction of the lost leg.

“It will be like felling a tree,” Doud said.

A chain-link fence blocked the area where the towers fell, and security personnel kept spectators out of the surrounding field.

Three homeowners associations fought the housing development for three years, arguing that it would violate the county code by wiping out too many trees. They took their case to the state’s Court of Special Appeals but lost in December. Residents also had argued that the development would overwhelm roads and schools.

“It’s a very peaceful neighborhood,” said George Wolfand, president of the West Fernwood Citizens Association, one of the organizations involved in the legal challenge. “The thought of cramming 309 homes into that area — it’s going to be an extraordinary amount of activity in an area that hasn’t had it … They’re packed in there with every nook and cranny filled.”

The towers at 7115 Greentree Road, between the Beltway and the western leg of the Interstate 270 spur, sat on valuable land — the site sold for $74.1 million — in Washington’s close-in suburbs.

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For Bethesda resident David Sproul, who was WMAL’s chief engineer when he retired in 2014 after 40 years at the station, losing the towers felt personal.

“I think I’ve seen that site my whole adult life,” Sproul said before the demolition. “When it’s gone, it’s going to be a real blow. It will definitely be the end of a long, long chapter that’s bigger than any one of us.”

When Sproul started at the station as a relief engineer in 1973, the station’s studios were near the towers in a small brick building. While the Beltway now emanates a distant, dull roar, the area was once so quiet that announcers would broadcast with the windows open.

Sproul said he remembers the place as friendly, laid back and “idyllic,” where employees would fire up an outdoor grill amid the sweet smell of wildflowers and green weeds. Sometimes the announcer and engineer would slip outside to play a quick round of horseshoes while a 30-minute pre-produced program played, “just to show they could do it,” he said with a laugh.

The staff rigged up a bell, triggered by a hose lying across the studios’ driveway, to warn them when a manager pulled in.

“It was like a fraternity,” Sproul said. “It was a fun, simple life.”

The towers transmitted the voices of every U.S. president and national newsmaker since 1941. Sproul particularly remembers the WMAL traffic reporter being one of the first to broadcast from the icy Potomac River in 1982 after Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the 14th Street bridge and the station’s general manger reporting from near the Pentagon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“We had everything people wanted to know coming out of those towers,” Sproul said.

Radio voices are a crucial part of history. But they’re being lost.

The WMAL studios soon moved to Jenifer Street NW, but the towers remained. The station has changed owners over the years and is now WMAL 105.9 FM talk radio.

After WMAL’s owner, Cumulus Media, eyed the Bethesda land for sale, the station began broadcasting from towers in Germantown in May 2018.

The Bethesda towers were initially scheduled to come down in the spring, but the county demolition permit was delayed. On a brisk February afternoon, runners and dog walkers circled the towers just beyond the new chain-link fence, where a path had been worn into the grass.

Alec Marks took a run while visiting his parents at the home where he grew up. Marks said the field has been a favorite place to hang out. He remembered a family friend, an avid golfer, using the field as a driving range.

“I run here all the time,” Marks said. “I grew up running here. In high school, we played Frisbee out here. It’s a big staple of my childhood.”

Sarah Thatch, who lives nearby, said she and Murphy, her Portuguese water dog, have been part of a friendly group that gathers at the field every morning and evening, when dogs run off-leash and roll around in the grass together.

“It’s a real community here,” Thatch said. “It’s been a sweet little place to be in the neighborhood.”