Last month, members of the Montgomery County Council voted against historic designation for the Wheaton Community Recreation Center, an award-winning 1963 building. The vote came as a surprise; the council had been scheduled to decide the issue this month. Why the rush?
At a public hearing held the week before the vote, residents testified both in favor of and, mostly, against the designation, which had been recommended by the county planning board. (The Maryland Historical Trust judged that the center qualifies for the National Register of Historic Places.) Two days later, in a committee meeting, council members sided with the opponents. The full council is set to take up the issue this month, but that vote may have sealed the building’s fate.
If the rec center is demolished, it will be a blow to Montgomery County. The building is an underappreciated and irreplaceable asset. Losing it would diminish our heritage and undermine Wheaton’s ability to attract businesses and residents.
Every thriving place needs good buildings from its past. Think about what draws people to cities: Streets where buildings from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries rub shoulders, with a mix of brick and glass and stone — architectural diversity, in other words. This richness is one reason cities have rebounded in recent years and why young people increasingly prefer urban living.
Most places in Montgomery don’t have a building stock that goes back centuries. So the county must be especially protective of the high-quality older buildings it does have. Millennials are growing up and starting to settle down. Why should they move somewhere — or stay somewhere — that doesn’t value its heritage? How can a county that razes its landmarks compete with a city next door that is conserving its midcentury gems and commissions new, world-class public buildings ?
With its dramatic curved roof and entryway that looks like a Japanese gate, the Wheaton Rec Center puts an Asian spin on Modernist design, a visual language that regular people — not just architects and academics — can appreciate. Yes, the building is in bad shape and needs costly repairs. But most of the features that won it architectural awards are still intact: the massive but gently curving roof beams, the textured brick and concrete walls, the rich wood paneling.
Because the building’s centerpiece is a large auditorium, it is also well suited to reuse. Already, 13 groups, ranging from theater ensembles to the Ethiopian Cultural Center, have expressed interest in taking it over. In Southwest Washington, a tired Best Western hotel built one year before the youth center has been reborn as the popular Capitol Skyline Hotel , renowned not only for its architectural merit but as a hangout for the young creatives that Montgomery County is trying to draw. The youth center can have a second act, too.
Understandably, Wheaton residents are frustrated by the small size and rundown state of the building, and they worry that preserving the original youth center will interfere with construction of a new center and library next door. But we don’t have to choose between old and new. As the planning board has proposed, the county can move forward with the new complex and keep the old one beside it, allowing it to be converted to a different use. It could pay for renovations by phasing them over time, with a public-private partnership or even through a creative ownership change such as a land swap. Not considering these options shows a lack of imagination on the part of the county.
There are also concerns about ample green space for outdoor recreation in the neighborhood. But the site is large enough to offer generous green space without the rec center being removed. Wheaton Regional Park is nearby, with more than 500 acres.
Those in favor of demolition show little love for the building: “A dump,” “squat” and “ugly” are terms they’ve used to describe it. Like other important buildings from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, the rec center has entered a preservation danger zone. It’s no longer new, so it doesn’t function perfectly or conform to current tastes. But because it isn’t all that old, many people have trouble seeing it as historic.
Every style of architecture has this midlife crisis. For much of the 20th century, Victorian architecture was unfashionable. The style we know as art deco slipped so far from public esteem that it acquired its name only in 1968. Now buildings from four or five decades ago are passing through this phase.
The irony is that there are plenty of signs — from in-vogue Danish modern furniture to TV’s “Mad Men” — that buildings of this era will come roaring back into style, just as art deco did. A full-blown revival is probably only a few years off. Soon, we’ll regret having torn down buildings such as the Wheaton Rec Center.
The county should reopen the debate it silenced with its rushed vote last month. At the very least, important buildings deserve the careful deliberation of our elected officials. Their job is to make the county more attractive and competitive. That won’t happen unless they prioritize excellence in the built environment.
Dan Reed is an urban planner who writes about Montgomery County at the blog Just Up the Pike. Amanda Kolson Hurley is a freelance writer in Silver Spring and a former executive editor of Architect Magazine.