Laurel Shopping Center/Cinema Sign Replaced

Technically, I haven’t lived in Laurel for about 15 years. But being just around the Beltway in Northern Virginia, I do enjoy coming back for frequent visits; and for photographs and research for Lost Laurel. Maintaining that close proximity to my old hometown is particularly important to me when things happen—like when buildings are torn down, or when malls are closing their doors.

While I enjoy a west coast vacation as much as the next guy, I was sad to learn that the old Laurel Shopping Center Cinema sign was quickly (and apparently without much advanced notice) dismantled last week while I was in Los Angeles. Had I known, I would’ve hopped onto said Beltway in a heartbeat to get as many photos of the process as possible. Fortunately, there were some like-minded readers who happened to be nearby, who did just that—a big thanks to those who posted them and tipped me off to the impending changes!

There were also a few surprises to be found as the old sign was pulled apart… but more on that in a moment. First, let’s take a look at a few photos I’ve found of the sign from the past decade or so—a decade which saw a rapid deterioration of one of the most prominent signs along the Route 1 corridor.

Photo: Kingkongphoto & (Flickr)

The above photo brings back vivid memories of dusk at Laurel Shopping Center, despite the unusual selection of films. These are the same neon hues that I recall when The Breakfast Club was highlighting the marquee in 1985. But by March 2010—and after at least one period of closure—the Cinema had reopened with an apparent emphasis on Bollywood films.

Photo: Kingkongphoto & (Flickr)

Admittedly, I haven’t seen a film in that theater since 1995’s Braveheart, when the sign was already showing its age badly. Over the next few years, the neon lights that comprised the word “CINEMA” gradually blew out and/or broke, and weren’t replaced. Equally visually-crippling, sometime after Laurel Centre officially rebranded itself as “Laurel Mall” in April 1998, the sign lost its oval Laurel Centre logo which co-branded it with Laurel Shopping Center. The result was a blank white, functionless oval that projected off the sign like a tumor.


And when the Cinema finally closed again, the sign sat unused at all, simply gathering rust. I’d actually been wondering if there were going to be any plans to tear it down… before it eventually fell down on its own.

(Photo: Dan Gross, MD Gazette)

(Photo: Dan Gross, MD Gazette)

Fast-forward to just a couple of weeks ago, when a whimsical message appeared on the old marquee:

Photo: Federal Realty

Sure enough, within days—and despite the vicious DC heatwave I managed to avoid while in LA—friends were posting photos on Facebook of the sign coming down. And it was in this first one, by Joe Leizear, that something caught my eye:

Photo: Joe Leizear

Do you see it, too? Red lettering.

The word “LAUREL”in large, red block letters—not something that I had ever seen on the Cinema sign. In fact, it had been hidden beneath the Cinema marquee all along. I realized that the Cinema sign had merely covered the original Laurel Shopping Center sign, which I never had the chance to see before in person. In fact, it was only while recently digging through old directories that I came across a logo representation of it—this one from 1976:



Subsequent photos, such as the one below, showed the additional elements of the original sign, including the end of the arrow—which had been obscured all this time by the clumsy “Laurel Shopping Center” top band and aforementioned oval protrusion which covered/replaced the arrowhead:

(Photo: Federal Realty, via Laurel Patch)

Facebook user Spleenless Jen shared some fantastic images of what was left of the original panels before they were dismantled, shedding even more light on the faded red typography that had been hidden for over three decades:

(Photo: Spleenless Jen)

(Photo: Spleenless Jen)

(Photo: Spleenless Jen)

That brings us to the new sign.

I’ve seen a few photos floating around, including an early artist’s rendering (the signature type of which has been modified in the final product, apparently).

Illustration: Federal Realty

Photo: Lisa Geiger

What to make of this more modernized and functional signage, which includes a digital screen and a colorful, decorative motif? Is it an improvement? Over a rusted, misused sign that was likely beyond repair—yes, absolutely. As a promising retail beacon that will draw shoppers for decades to come? Frankly, I’m not that optimistic.

For starters, nothing about the new sign is unique or differentiates it from countless other shopping centers. It’s not necessarily the sign’s fault, mind you—it takes more than just a sign to successfully brand a franchise. Unless someone is planning to update the entire shopping center and integrate the new motif—or at least the colors, to some degree—they’re stuck with a new sign that simply doesn’t fit the shopping center it’s intended to represent.

Worse, from a functionality standpoint, I would be deeply concerned about the feasibility of maintaining that video screen. Not to be a downer, but how long before a vandal (pedestrian or motorist) decides to shatter or otherwise deface it? Let’s be honest—Laurel has always had its share of ne’er-do-wells; and such fancy new devices—literally within arm’s reach—might as well include a sign with a bright red target that says “please vandalize me”. And historically, the shopping center and mall both have not exactly been great about maintaining features that require, well, maintenance. Remember the unique revolving carousel platform in the mall’s center court that eventually stopped revolving? And the very sign that we’re now discussing? My point exactly. If and when these types of things break repeatedly, shopping center management is likely to simply stop fixing it. And when it’s literally the face of the shopping center, such as this sign will be—the first thing visitors see upon approaching—that’s not good.

Granted, I’ve never bought a giant neon sign for a shopping center before, nor have I designed one (yet). But as a designer, my priority would always be to ensure that whatever sign I implemented was relevant and suited its environment. I wouldn’t include decorative elements that weren’t reflective of the larger shopping center itself. If the surrounding area was prone to or accessible to vandals, I wouldn’t position expensive components like digital screens close to street/sidewalk level. Moreover, I’d want to know all I could about the shopping center and its origins, and design a complete brand that highlighted its best features and spoke to its historical significance—and have the sign be the linchpin of that brand. Consider a book cover design; it needs to properly represent the story within—and it needs to attract readers. A shopping center sign isn’t much different in that regard.

Laurel Shopping Center opened in 1956, and arguably saw its best days in the 1960s. (I wasn’t born yet, so I can’t attest to that). But by most accounts, the shopping center was profitable and ever-expanding—a growth that continued well into the 70s with the addition of Georgetown Alley. There have been some aesthetic modifications over the years, for better or worse: awnings and storefronts have evolved, most notably. But the core design has remained the same. It’s still fundamentally a 1960s open-air shopping center; something that could’ve been embraced in the design of the new sign rather than mocked. “The 60s called and they want this sign back”. Really? I think the 60s called and expressed their hope that somebody would’ve had the foresight to restore the shopping center’s original sign, rather than replace it with a generic model that most likely won’t survive a third of the time that its predecessor did.

Even that fleeting glimpse of the old sign’s red lettering and bold arrow reveals a timeless typography that could’ve been resurrected and repurposed into a more suitable, modern sign; a melding of past and present that suggests a long-standing shopping center that the community is proud of. The new sign just doesn’t accomplish that.

Our friend John Floyd II supplied the following photos today, showing the base portion of the new sign already in place. Because the top piece had not yet been attached, he was able to point out something interesting: once again, part of the original sign is still being used—those two vertical I-beams. That original sign simply won’t die, it seems. He also astutely noted the issue with the decorative motif—even more bluntly than I had.

“That funky orange-and-brown block design on the sign’s plinth looks like the 1960s got traded in favour of the 1970s! Very disco and Brady Bunch-esque!”

Photo: John Floyd II

Photo: John Floyd II

Photo: John Floyd II

Photo: John Floyd II

Coincidentally, the Laurel Centre/Mall notoriously replaced all of its original brown floor tile and wooden accents in 1991—less than 12 years after the mall opened—because management felt that it was “too 1970s”. Ironic that a 1970s pattern would now emerge on the brand new sign for Laurel Shopping Center.

Vintage 1970s drapes. Photo: monkeysox (Flickr)

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11 thoughts on “Laurel Shopping Center/Cinema Sign Replaced

  1. John Floyd II says:

    Wouldn’t it have been super had Federal Realty built an exact replica of the 1956 sign? In addition to Rich’s observation on the vandalism and lack-of-proper-maintenance potential of the digital display board, the same holds true for the individual business name sections. A look at similar sign concepts at the one-time Tower Plaza (where Hooters is) and Gorman Plaza (originally Central Plaza) shows that not only do some spaces end up remaining blank for long periods of time, but in the case of Gorman Plaza, the sign reads like an advert circa 1975 with businesses that have been gone for decades. Indeed, the building’s front marquee still advertises Ming Garden, one of Laurel’s first Chinese restaurants, even tho’ they’ve been gone since at least the late 1980s!

    Luckily, Laurel Shopping Center is thriving quite nicely despite hard times, the dead back-alley, and still-empty Ruby Tuesday restaurant. On most days, the centre’s vast car park resembles the Saturday before Christmas, full of autos. The hustle and bustle of shoppers along the promenade walkways is always a welcome sight. New shops replace most closed ones quickly and some have become very fine additions to the local shopping scene such as Harbor Freight Tools and Books-a-Million. I’m still not convinced that two fitness centres are needed in such close proximity and it’s likely that the one “around back” on Marshall Avenue will go under eventually. When I passed by L.A. Fitness en route to photograph the new sign construction, a steady stream of patrons were coming and going from that new “super gym”.

    Some observations about Laurel Shopping Center. The original strip along the southern edge, from Peoples Drug (now CVS) to Magic Wash opened in 1956, followed by the western side from White Coffee Pot, past S.S. Kresge and Giant Food to Albee Shoes at Montrose Avenue in 1957. Hecht Company’s free-standing store came along circa 1964 or so and a large, open field remained between it and Big Top Cleaners. That shop, once adorned with a circus wagon sign on its roof, was named for said field which is where travelling tent circuses would set up in Laurel during the 1950s and ’60s. In 1966, Laurel Shopping Center was completed to its current U-shape and Georgetown Alley came along a few years later.

    During the 1960s, I can remember massive spring and autumn sidewalk sales with everything from helicopter rides and hot-air balloon ascensions to the “Jolly Trolley”, a red-and-white-striped boardwalk tram-like conveyance pulled by Laurel VFD’s wee brush-fire Jeep with its high-pitched siren screaming. There were Christmas parades and special events such as the personal appearance of local children’s telly personality “Ranger Hal”. During Fire Prevention Week each October, Laurel VFD set up a display of fire engines and Laurel Rescue Squad offered kiddie rides on their WWII-vintage amphibious DUKW rescue truck. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Laurel Shopping Center also rented or leased a magnificent replica of a 1910s-vintage open-bench streetcar with actual trolley poles on its roof and a driver who operated it whilst standing on the end platform just as a motorman would’ve done. That rubber-tyred gem looked far more authentic than today’s fake tourist “trolley” busses do. Certain special public events brought live music, from Dixieland jazz and German brass bands to school glee clubs and Laurel’s own melodica-playing “leprechaun” Sammy Ross from Jack Delaney’s Irish Pizza Pub. Christmastime was always busy and traffic policemen’s whistles could be heard at Route 1 and Domer Avenue and at Montrose Avenue and Fourth Street from morning until the stores’ closing time. The shopping centre’s community spirit and “good neighbour” policy made those some truly fine days for Laurelites looking for a few decent bargains with a bit of entertainment on the side!

    For many of us locals, Federal Realty made a big mistake in closing Montrose Avenue as a through street and that error still causes much congestion today where traffic must turn left or right. Another mistake was removing the overhead canopy that protected pedestrians from rain at Montrose and Fairlawn Avenues. Surely it could’ve been modernised again as it had been several times previously. That canopy was also a fine place for the display of Christmas decorations, Boy Scouts banners, and U.S. Bicentennial flags too! Going along with what Rich mentions about LSC’s image issue is the lack of continuity between architectural styles all the way ’round the centre. At no time since the early 1970s has the entire canopy and building facade been rebuilt to be completely uniform. Personally, I always liked the rounded “copper top” look that still appears above CVS and Harbor Freight Tools, but other sections are merely a 1980s-built facade repainted in a poor match. L.A. Fitness Center’s design also broke up the copper top section on the centre’s northern side.

    Well anyway, that’s enough prattling on from this cranky old Englishman who first dropped anchor in our fair city as a young lad over 46 years ago. Unlike poor Laurel Mall, our Laurel Shopping Center has managed to survive and thrive for the past 56 years and that’s a very grand thing indeed!

  2. Emma Maring says:

    Ooh…..I hate the pattern. Does not represent Laurel well, But then neither does how Laurel has changed. I miss the home town feeling.

  3. Norm J says:

    The new sign is interesting in appearence, to say the least. Like it or not, electronic message boards and the incorporation of tennent lists are here to stay. It just continues the never-ending bombardment of advertising in our faces. My only concern with the new design is that even the “retro” look may be out in a few years. I considered this when recently renovating a bath in my home, being careful not to choose the current trends in ceramic tile and the like, as this would be more difficult to update in the near future. the “skirt” (the base of the sign” appears to be a large digital print wrap, which can be replaced in the future. My problem is that exposed digital prints tend to fade, thanks to today’s more environmentally-safe inks we use. I say “we” because I have been designing and building these signs in the Baltimore area now for almost (gulp) 30 years. I also maintain one of the largest collections of commercial neon signs in the country, including Cook’s Laurel Hardware, and the beloved Laurel little tavern signs. I do approve the new Laurel sign. I am over two decades of plain vanilla-stucco monoliths topped with white foam embellishments with a hundred tennent names all in one color! -Norm

  4. Joe C. says:

    Here’s the finished product. It’s a decent sign, but not for this shopping center/area.

  5. MT says:

    I remember seeing James Cameron’s Titanic at that movie theatre when it came out. Does anyone remember eating at the Horn & Horn Smorgasbord? My parentes used to take us there, and the place was always packed.

  6. I do recall eating at Horn & Horn, but it was on the downhill slide from its original incarnation as a Marriott Hot Shoppes cafeteria. In the late ’60s, there was always a queue to get into the place!

  7. Amanda says:

    Having grown up on the Adelphi/Beltsville line and having spent my growing-up years mainly in Laurel, I always remembered the iconic Laurel Cinema sign, and I saw plenty of movies in that theater! I had no idea that the sign had finally been torn down and replaced, and when I saw the pictures of the new sign, my first thought was “GACK!” Yes, “Gack!” That new sign is nowhere near as stylish or clever as the old one (sorry, that’s just my opinion!), and to my eyes the color combination is simply a barrage of clashing tones. Plus the overall design with the list of businesses just seems too…generic, is the best word I can think of. Everywhere you go now, you see that kind of signage (albeit in different color combinations), and there’s nothing that really makes the place unique that way. Nothing really “pops.” Either that or I’m having yet another “Holy crap, my home stomping grounds isn’t home anymore!” moment.

    Probably the latter. I have so many memories of this shopping center when I was growing up. Does anyone else remember Wild & Woolly, the yarn shop that used to be there? Or Woolworths, complete with the lunch counter? My parents and I ALWAYS entered Laurel Mall from the skyway next to Woolworths until that disappeared. There was also a hobby shop that had model trains, along with a bunch of other supplies for just about everyone, and Sherwin-Williams too (I don’t know why that one sticks out in my mind-probably because we used that entrance to get to the shopping center). Let’s not forget the IHOP with the steep roof, back when the sign actually spelled out “International House Of Pancakes!” And don’t anyone tell my husband that there’s a Harbor Freight there now-I’ll NEVER get him to come home!

    And one particular memory of McDonald’s there sticks out in my mind from the last day of junior year at High Point. My friends and I (who called ourselves the Belphi-Park Posse because we all hailed from various points in those communities) were given the choice of being stuck in the auditorium watching some lame movie or going home since it was the last day and a half day at that. We all said, “Okay, bye!” hopped into “The Beast” (the nickname we gave to my old “hoopty” station wagon), and barreled down Route 1 to eat breakfast and hang at the McD’s until the mall opened.

    Okay, enough babbling from a fortysomething post-mall rat who still misses the good old days. Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

  8. Daniel K says:

    Some potentially interesting news (for better or worse) regarding the Laurel Shopping Center:

    From the article: Officials from Federal Realty Investment Trust, which owns the Laurel Shopping Center, have proposed tearing down 52,000 square feet of unoccupied retail space and building 180 multifamily rental units in its place. They’re also considering developing an additional 50,000 square feet toward the front of the complex based on market demand. The proposal to remove the island in the middle of the center, which was presented with the plans for the apartment complex and includes the installation of a traffic signal at Fourth Street and Montrose Avenue, would only happen if the developer received tax increment financing from the city.

    So I’m not sure exactly which part of the shopping center would be changed if this follows through (I haven’t visited that center in years), and while part of the shopping center would remain, it would certainly change it significantly.

    Given that this isn’t nearby good transit options, it’s an issue of induced traffic versus an opportunity to remake significant underutilized space. The hope would be that people in the apartment could at least walk to the adjacent Town Center that opened last year as well as the Shopping Center. But it doesn’t address well how residents in the apartment could get to work. Given that only a small fraction would likely be affordable, it’s unlikely many residents would be able to work in the adjacent shopping centers.

    Of course, this is still in the early planning stages, so I imagine it’ll take a couple years minimum to go through the approval process before a shovel hits the ground.

    • Richard Friend says:

      Thanks, Daniel. From what I’m hearing, the idea would be to essentially eliminate the old movie theater and everything in the section that was originally “Georgetown Alley” — all of which is currently vacant.

      Personally, I’d like to see them revisit the Georgetown Alley concept, which I think was ahead of its time. Now that the REAL Georgetown (Wisconsin & M Street, NW) is almost completely gentrified, maybe a niche area of local boutique shops mimicking the G’town of old would actually work…

      • John Floyd II says:

        I’m in favour of just about anything that will bring life back to that long-moribund block, but only if the current ground-level pedestrian access to Laurel Shopping Center is maintained through the area (ie: the “Cinema corner”) as it has been since the 1960s.

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