The old blue building just north of Gorman Plaza is finally coming down.
Originally the American National Bank building, it’s been vacant and doomed for some time now; but last week, demolition began in earnest—starting from the inside out, apparently. Thanks to John Floyd II for these photos that document the beginning of the end, which will likely happen this week.
Photos: J. D. Floyd II, Royal Blue Ltd. archives
I can’t help but think that in another thirty, maybe fifty years from now, someone will spot a photo of this classic mid-century modern building in one of the Laurel Historical Society’s publications or exhibits (or on an antique roll of Laurel Leader microfilm still languishing in the library’s basement) and wonder, “Wow—why did they ever get rid of that?!” Odds are, the Walgreens that’s slated to take its spot won’t have quite the architectural pedigree.
It’s not only replacing the old blue building, but the rest of the 600 block of Washington Blvd. to its north—which most recently included Irene’s Restaurant (the former Kenny Rogers Roasters and Rustler Steakhouse), Mango’s Grill, and Ace Cash Express (a location that once housed Murry’s Steaks).
Granted, the block has certainly seen better days. In fact, it’s seen better decades. And the new Walgreens will undoubtedly be much more aesthetically pleasing than what passing motorists have been subjected to in recent years. But my real question is this—why was a building like this ever allowed to become an eyesore in the first place? This kind of architecture deserves to be repurposed, not replaced.
Case Study: The Starr Building, Austin TX
A very similar building in Austin, TX (also originally an American National Bank, coincidentally) recently survived a proposed demolition and is now enjoying a fitting new life as an ad agency.
A Texas preservation society recognized the The Starr Building’s architectural significance and promise, and added it to an endangered list in 2009. Later that year, Austin-based Kemp Properties purchased the building, and advertising firm McGarrah Jessee signed on as its lead tenant. It was a perfect match if there ever was one—and the ad agency literally built their own brand around the building, which clearly inspires them:
McGarrah Jessee absolutely showcases the building on its website, as it should. They include a fascinating video piece highlighting its unlikely history… an arc that could just as easily have applied to Laurel’s old American National Bank building, had the right minds been in place.
A slide in the video reads:
“Kemp Properties and McGarrah Jessee were among the few suitors who recognized that great bones lay beneath the carpet and cubicles. They had a vision that the building could be restored and rehabilitated—that it could make the same kind of statement in 2010 as it did in 1954.”
And it has. Kudos to all involved.
When I first heard of plans to demolish the Laurel building (and that entire block) for a Walgreens, I wasn’t surprised. But it made me wonder why the city of Laurel (or Prince George’s County, or even the state of Maryland, for that matter) apparently never considered stepping in when the building began to slide into decline—over ten years ago.
At a time when the city itself was outgrowing its own municipal buildings, did no one see the potential that lay within this distinctive blue building in the center of town—one of just a few spacious, vertical structures in the city limits?
At some point during its decline, you think the city would’ve at least considered how they might have been able to capitalize on preserving it. With a proper facelift, it could’ve been any number of municipal buildings to be proud of. Think of the facilities that were already outgrowing their original spaces: the library (even after a costly expansion in 1992) and the police department immediately come to mind. The old blue building could’ve accommodated either, and made a bold architectural preservation statement in the process.
Ironically, one of the locations considered for this latest library expansion was the former Laurel Police headquarters off of Main Street—which the police department itself had outgrown. (Coincidentally, I hear they’re also planning to demolish that soon, as well. Stay tuned.)
Getting back to the Starr Building comparison for a moment, perhaps you were wondering why it was called “the Starr Building”. Perhaps not, but just humor me for another couple paragraphs or so. There are just a few more parallels worth noting.
After the American National Bank failed in the 1990s, the State of Texas took over the building and made it the headquarters of the State Comptroller of Public Accounts. They christened it the Starr Building after James Harper Starr—physician, treasurer of the Republic of Texas, Land Commissioner, and banker. Then they did what most government agencies do to government buildings—they filled it with cubicles and bad carpet. But it got even worse. In 2005, the Comptroller’s Office moved out and gave control to the state’s General Land Office—who allowed it to sit vacant for the next four years, coming dangerously close to demolition. Interest in the building came and went; with most of the proposals involving tearing the building down and putting up something new.
Laurel isn’t exactly Madison Avenue, of course—it’s an unlikely locale for a top-level advertising agency to base its headquarters. It’s not Austin, Texas, either. And to be fair, the state of Texas didn’t do a great job stewarding the Starr Building itself. It took a preservation society and visionary developers to recognize the potential in salvaging that building.
But couldn’t Laurel’s own mid-century modern American National Bank building have been converted to something, other than a decaying eyesore? Something that could’ve inspired new tenants, rather than hinder them with repair costs and tax burdens? Did it really have to reach the point to where we’d read a quote like this from the city’s own longtime planner:
There was a time when the city of Laurel was proud of that building, and of itself.