Category Archives: Architecture

Save the Tastee Diner

rich-diner-raphael-talisman-gazette

Photo: © Raphael Talisman, Maryland Gazette

It goes without saying that the Tastee Diner is one of my favorite places.

It’s one of the last vestiges of the real Laurel—an authentic, original 1951 diner built by the legendary Comac company and delivered to the site that same year, when the Second Street bypass was opened, splitting Route 1 north and south.

The diner replaced a previous iteration, which had occupied the site since 1934. That one was shipped off to Baltimore, where it became the State Diner (now long gone.)

BAH-789-BS_F

The State Diner as it appeared in 1981. In its previous life, it had been the Laurel Diner, from 1934–1951. (Photo: © Baltimore Sun)

1950s-postcard

Laurel Diner, 1950s postcard. (Lost Laurel collection)

I won’t attempt to get into the full history of the Laurel Tastee Diner in this post. (To get an idea of that, you can watch a brief teaser for the video I’m still producing below.) But, suffice it to say, it’s a true piece of Laurel’s history.

Remarkably, the building—now 67 years old—still looks and functions very much as it did in its heyday. It’s a veritable time capsule. That’s one reason I enjoy spending so much time there, comparing notes and research with the Laurel History Boys.

That, and the staff are practically like family. When my father was undergoing cancer treatment at Johns Hopkins, my parents would drive from their home in Salisbury to meet me at the diner. (They were afraid of driving into Baltimore themselves.) The waitresses would keep an eye on my truck in the parking lot while I chauffeured my parents.

And when my dad passed away in April, the staff even signed a sympathy card for me.

So, you can imagine my disappointment when I learned that the diner property is being sold—and the buyer has extensive plans to render it completely unrecognizable… and turn it into a medical marijuana dispensary.

diner-plans

Architectural rendering of Pure Hana Synergy’s plans to convert the diner site.

Let me re-frame for a moment and make something clear–Gene Wilkes and his family have done an amazing job keeping not just one, but a trio of classic diners going for decades. He’s certainly earned the right to sell the business.

Likewise, Pure Hana Synergy, the company purchasing the diner site, has every right to open their new venture—which will not only offer a valuable service, allowing patients access to legal medical cannabis, they’ll undoubtedly clean up a site that has long needed improvement.

That brings me to another important point—the optics of the Tastee Diner having been seen as a “less than savory” spot for some time now.

Depending whom you ask, perception of the diner varies greatly. Some are purists who genuinely appreciate the authenticity. Then there are those who view the place as “dirty”, or a hotbed criminal activity.

The reality is that the diner gets a bad rap for two other establishments it shares ownership with: the TD Lounge and the adjacent motel. Problems that have required police response have typically involved the bar and the motel—not the diner itself. But because of its central location, the diner is often seen as the hub of this negative activity.

When Pure Hana Synergy purchases the property, they plan to modify the diner and the TD Lounge building that adjoins it, wrapping it in a modern façade and gutting the interior. The motel will be demolished, as will the large white house on the lot facing Second Street.

But the diner itself shouldn’t deserve this fate.

The diner doesn’t yet have the prestigious “historic designation” that some buildings receive, protecting them from development. It has been considered for it—but that was over 20 years ago, when diners such as it were ubiquitous throughout the east coast and beyond. The Maryland Historical Trust conducted a survey in May, 1998, and deemed the Tastee Diner as being “ineligible” for various reasons. (See the excerpt below for their crietria):

Screen Shot 2018-11-12 at 11.18.18 PM

But how about now—when Laurel’s Tastee Diner is one of only two surviving, fully-intact Comac-built diners known in the entire country? (The only other being Jack’s Diner in Albany, NY.) Countless others have been demolished, or modified beyond recognition—just as the Tastee Diner is now facing.

Historian Spencer Stewart, who created the wonderful Diner Hunter website, shared this important insight:

In Maryland, once home to dozens of factory built diners, and a hotbed of trolley conversions back in the day, there are only four (or so) old diners still open. Of those, the Tastee in Laurel is arguably the most in-tact and has the longest history on the site, going back in various buildings almost 90 years. The gutting of the Laurel Tastee and its conversion to a dispensary would be an enormous loss of a rare survivor of something that was once ubiquitous in mid-atlantic culture and is now severely endangered.

I’ve proposed that the City of Laurel work with the owners of Pure Hana Synergy to preserve the diner car itself—which isn’t a linchpin of their architectural plan, anyway. The diner portion can be relocated. (Remember, it arrived here from New Jersey by truck in 1951—it can certainly be moved again.)

In fact, this is something that owner Gene Wilkes is all-too familiar with. In June, 2000, he collaborated with Montgomery County to relocate the historic diner car when Discovery Communications decided to build their headquarters on the diner’s original site. (Ironically, Discovery has since moved on—while the Tastee Diner remains successful in its new location.)

To that note, the City of Laurel has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—to either seize for themselves, or to work with a developer such as C Street Flats (who already plans to expand to Main Street). Imagine relocating the diner, perhaps to the empty lot at 312 Main Street, which was the site of the old Laurel Theatre/Petrucci’s Dinner Theatre. The city wasn’t keen on salvaging any parts of that old building—but the lot has sat vacant now for two years. Laurel’s Community Redevelopment Authority has been soliciting proposals for the property ever since. From their RFP:

The CRA purchased the property in 2014 in order to develop the property and is seeking ideas, a vision, and a methodology from experienced developers to transform this key site into a use that will complement the adjacent residential neighborhood and enhance Main Street while adding to the success of Main Street commercial core. The development of the Site will set the direction for new redevelopment along the City’s Main Street.

Imagine for a moment the Laurel/Tastee Diner in that spot—accessible from anywhere along Main Street by foot. There’d still be space for parking, and delivery access from Fetty Alley. Imagine the diner on its own—free from the stigma of the troublesome bar and motel, and under new management that will restore and maintain the historic building. Maybe it doesn’t have to be open 24 hours anymore, either.

If you’ve ever been to the fully-restored 29 Diner in Fairfax, VA, you’ll get a sense of what a landmark diner can be, and there’s absolutely no reason to think that a renewed dedication to Laurel’s Tastee Diner would be any less successful.

I’m certainly not the only one who believes that this should happen. I started a petition on Change.org that gained over 600 signatures in the first day alone. Please click here to add your name to the list, to let all interested parties know that this diner should not be lost.

Laurel’s elected officials should realize that if properly managed, the diner could become an incredible heritage tourism attraction for Laurel, transforming Main Street and giving both it and this historic diner a new lease on life.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Re-Starting Gate

By now, most locals know that The Starting Gate liquor store closed its doors at the end of July. The building, which has occupied the northwest corner of Rt. 198 and Whiskey Bottom Road since 1960, is slated to be demolished—soon to be replaced by a sparkling new Royal Farms store and gas station.

IMG_2897IMG_2888

The Starting Gate has been a polarizing spot for decades—particularly in the immediate neighborhood, where many residents of the relatively new Russett and Laurel Highlands communities associated the vagrancy, drugs, and prostitution problems that long plagued Whiskey Bottom Road with their proximity to The Starting Gate.

The building itself had become an eyesore over the years; its one-time iconic neon sign actually collapsed over a decade ago, and was never replaced.

starting-gate-2

Photo: © krapow/Flickr

To be sure, not everyone had a problem with The Starting Gate. Aside from countless regular customers over the years, there’s at least one person out there who has 50,000 reasons to be fond of it:

IMG_2793

When I learned that it was closing, I’d planned on writing a brief history of the business for Lost Laurel. And I’ll still do that when time permits—taking a look back at the early days of the business, when it was quite the hot spot in town:

starting-gate-4starting-gate-3

And other times, when it got a bit too hot:

starting-gate-5

Three alarm fire, 1963. Laurel News Leader photo.

But I discovered that The Starting Gate story isn’t actually finished yet… It’s also a story that seems to be quite misunderstood.

In fact, the business is planning to reopen in a new location nearby—3485 Laurel Fort Meade Road, which was the former McDonald’s across the street from the Maryland City Volunteer Fire Department.

However, as one might expect, the business is facing a number of obstacles, and has had a difficult time negotiating a new lease. Helen Jung, whose family has owned the liquor store for 27 years, was planning to reopen in October. But their liquor board hearing has been postponed to November 13th—if approved for a new license, they now plan to open in late January/early February 2019.

I met Helen and found her to be a kind, smart, and engaging business owner eager to clear up a lot of major misconceptions about The Starting Gate. This was particularly interesting to me in light of a thread I recently saw on another Laurel-themed Facebook page, in which someone from the Russett community had started a petition to block them from reopening, citing some “600 police calls per month,” (which I found rather suspicious, if not physically impossible, but I digress).

Let me backtrack for a moment, and just preface this with my own recollection of living in close proximity to The Starting Gate—before Russett was even built.

In the summer of 1987, my parents bought their first home—a townhouse in the then-new Laurel Highlands development on Laurel View Court, just off Whiskey Bottom Road and practically in The Starting Gate’s back yard. I was 14 years old, and well aware of the types of problems—both real and perceived—that The Starting Gate tended to draw. And I can remember a feeling of apprehension living so close by, as I’m sure many living in the community in more recent years have experienced as well.

What I didn’t know then—and what most folks probably don’t realize today, is that The Starting Gate isn’t just one entity. Sure, you may know that the building was segmented into three parts: the package liquor store on the corner, the bar in the center, and the restaurant on the opposite end; but since 1991, when Helen Jung’s family took over the liquor store, they have been completely unrelated to the bar. (The restaurant, too, having been closed for decades). In fact, she revealed that she wouldn’t even begin to know how to reach the owners of the bar—which closed in May.

Another important detail is that neither the liquor store nor the bar actually owned the property on which the building sat. It’s owned by an entity called SG Property, LLC—which is based all the way down in Vero Beach, Fl.

So, that brings me to the issue of community residents attempting to block the liquor store from reopening across the street. Although I’m no longer a Laurel resident myself—nor do I have any kind of stake in The Starting Gate’s business whatsoever—I feel it’s only fair to provide some facts that seem to be getting overlooked.

The “600 police calls”

True, The Starting Gate has indeed been the source of this hefty number of Anne Arundel County Police calls—but this figure is not a monthly total. In fact, it spans back to 2014, and represents calls from both the liquor store and the bar (again, two completely unrelated businesses, with the misfortune of a shared location).

More critically, half of these calls were actually for traffic violations—not the drunken shenanigans you might’ve expected.

Before the bar closed in May, both it and the liquor store were making daily calls to police for protection. Since the bar closed, the liquor store’s number of calls significantly reduced—once a week, if at all. Customers noted that there was less panhandling around the building, and expressed feeling safer visiting the store after the bar had closed.

Neglectful upkeep

Neither the liquor store nor the bar owned the property. Nearly a decade ago, the landlord approached the tenants with the idea of redeveloping the property—possibly adding a gas station and building a separate structure for the liquor store. Unfortunately for them, the liquor store obviously wasn’t included in the deal with Royal Farms. But because redevelopment has always been the long term goal, evidently, the landlord did not help with any upkeep for most of the 27 years that Helen’s family has been tenants.

It’s also important to note that immediately behind the former Starting Gate building is a section of Old Line Road and a patch of woodland that has been a haven to vagrants, trash piles, and God only knows what else for decades. In recent years, the road was fenced off in an effort to deter both vehicular and foot traffic behind the building. Both that road and the woods behind The Starting Gate are actually Anne Arundel County property.

When a Russett community liason approached Helen in 2016 about the trash piles and vagrancy problem, she tried in vain to get the county to acknowledge its responsibility. Neither the county nor her landlord responded, so Helen’s family actually spent their own money trying to clean up the tax payers’ property—something they continued to do until they closed the liquor store on July 31st.

A fresh start

The main reason Helen’s family has had a difficult time negotiating a new lease for their new location is that they wanted to find the right partnership with the right landlord—one who would no longer neglect their property or their responsibilities.

Starting Gate Liquors wants a fresh start. They want—and deserve—the opportunity to separate themselves from the stigma of the Starting Gate Bar & Lounge, and the neglected old property at the corner of Whiskey Bottom Road.

The new location at 3485 Laurel Fort Mead Road is a standalone structure and will house the liquor store only. There will be no bar. (The former bar owners have retired and will not be reopening again elsewhere).

Directly behind the new location is the Tall Oaks apartment complex—and their well-maintained fence sits in the clearing between the sites. This is a far cry from the county-neglected street and woods behind the old Starting Gate building.

Relevancy

Is Starting Gate Liquors still relevant? Yes.

After Total Wine opened their venerable doors less than a mile away some 20 years ago, Starting Gate Liquors didn’t wither away—it continued to thrive. Helen’s family hired a marketing firm to track their Google searches, and before closing, their monthly search hits were in the 4,000 range. Since closing, that number has nearly doubled. Customers do seem to want the business to reopen.

Helen notes that for the past 27 years, her family has seen many positive developments in the Maryland City community. She feels that their customers have matured with them, and looks forward to serving them again with a much better foundation. Crime in the area has seen a steady decline, and that trend will undoubtedly continue now that the bar is gone.

Frankly, the biggest problem in that neighborhood is the string of 1-star (and that’s probably a generous rating) motels in the short stretch of Route 198 east of Whiskey Bottom Road. Statistically, that’s where the bulk of the serious criminal activity has always been.

I would urge those who live in the immediate neighborhood (and beyond) to consider all of these factors before condemning a historic family business that has lasted longer than most—and in spite of some significant challenges that most of us had probably never been aware of. Helen tells me that since that one complaint in 2016 about the trash piles behind the old Starting Gate building, the community had not approached her with any other issues—but she has always remained open to any suggestions or concerns they may have.

I would also encourage you to support their reopening at the hearing for their new license:

Tuesday, November 13, 2018
6:00 PM

Doubletree Annapolis
210 Holiday Court
Annapolis, MD

 

 

 

 

Tagged , , ,

A Childhood Apartment… 30 Years Later

I finally had the chance to tour my childhood apartment at Steward Manor this weekend—the first time I’ve stepped foot inside since my parents and I moved in the summer of 1987. It’s amazing how every inch of space still holds so many vivid memories.

Even before starting Lost Laurel, it was Steward Manor’s history that first fascinated me. I’d begun researching it in earnest in 2010, visiting the rental office to copy vintage photos; and tracking down original plat survey drawings from 1959 at Ben Dyer Associates—the civil engineering company that’s still in business today.

I’d gotten a message from my friend, Joe Leizear, a longtime Steward Manor resident who became a maintenance man there himself. Joe shares a fascination for this kind of stuff, and knew I’d love to tour my old apartment when the opportunity arose. Sure enough, shortly after the most recent tenants moved out, Joe invited me to see it.

The tour wouldn’t have been complete without my oldest friends, Rodney and Ronald Pressley—twin brothers I’ve known since the first grade, and grew up with at the apartment complex.

It’s a surreal experience, walking through such a familiar place again after all these years… and it’s amazing how vivid the memories remain. Even with the many upgrades and changes—and even vacant—it still feels like it did in the 1980s. It felt like home.

Laurel Theatre / Petrucci’s: Demolition Pending

My next episode of Lost Laurel will focus on the long history of the derelict building at 312 Main Street, which originally housed the Laurel Theatre, and was the longtime home to Petrucci’s Dinner Theatre before a string of increasingly unsuccessful comedy clubs led to its demise. Here’s a preview:

Unfortunately, the City’s efforts to find a developer willing and able to salvage the critically-deteriorated building weren’t successful, and having recently had the opportunity to tour it myself, I completely see why.

A big thanks to SORTO Contracting, LLC (particularly Francisco Sorto, David Muir, Blaine Sutton, Harry Garlitz and Patrick Fink) for extending the invitation to see and document the building’s final days, and for sharing some truly fantastic finds that I’ll be including in the full episode. In addition to the building’s history, you’ll see for yourself just how far gone the structure actually was. (Yes, those were angry pigeons living inside… and I’m deathly afraid of birds.)

laurel-theatre-preview-pic1laurel-theatre-preview-pic2laurel-theatre-preview-pic3laurel-theatre-preview-pic4

The SORTO team was also kind enough to carefully remove and save the “Theatre” lettering from the façade for me—these are individually-cut wooden letters that are the only remaining vestiges of the Petrucci’s era (they originally spelled out the full name, “Petrucci’s Dinner Theatre” and matched the adjacent Pal Jack’s Pizza font.laurel-theatre-preview-pic5laurel-theatre-preview-pic6laurel-theatre-preview-pic7

The letters are badly deteriorated, and frankly, I’m amazed that they came down intact. I’ve got my work cut out for me, but I’m going to restore them.laurel-theatre-preview-pic8laurel-theatre-preview-pic9laurel-theatre-preview-pic10

Blaine Sutton and Patrick Fink of SORTO have also been sharing some of the unexpected treasures that only tend to resurface when walls start coming down. And in a movie theater that dates to 1929, that means some very old candy boxes and soda bottles, for starters! Here’s just a glimpse of what they’ve found:

laurel-theatre-preview-pic11

Photo courtesy of Blaine Sutton

laurel-theatre-preview-pic12

Photo courtesy of Patrick Fink

 

Patrick tells me that the pristine Pepsi bottle pre-dates 1951, at which point Pepsi stopped using the double-dot in their logo. It had been stuck in the plaster mortar in the ceiling below the balcony for at least 65 years.

I’ll have plenty more photos to share in the next blog update when the full video is ready. Those who don’t get Laurel TV will still be able to see the episode right here.

Tagged , , , , ,

Racing… to close Laurel Railroad Station?

There’s a rather unlikely story in the local news this week—a head-scratcher, really. It concerns two of Laurel’s historic landmarks, and how they’re supposedly at odds all of a sudden. I’m speaking of Laurel Park Racecourse and the Laurel Railroad Station.

I’ll get right into it: Laurel Park, which after decades of hard times is finally seeking to turn the corner with an ambitious plan to build “a transit-oriented development with retail and residential space near the racetrack,” has requested the state Department of Transportation open a commuter train stop in Laurel closer to the track.

Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Wikipedia

Because that would just be too easy, state Department of Transportation officials have said that it is unlikely the state will consider a “dual stop” at both the Laurel MARC station and the racetrack. A train platform is already at the racetrack, mind you, but is listed as a flag stop (where trains will only stop when there’s a specific request) on the MARC Camden line schedule.

So, here comes the head-scratcher: the idea being proposed is that the DoT would close the Laurel Station—which is on the National Register of Historic Places—in favor of building a new stop at the racetrack, a mere 2,500 feet away. Where, again, there is already a train platform in place. I’m not sure there’s a more polite way to put this, so I’ll just ask: Are you f***ing kidding me?

Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Wikipedia

Don’t get me wrong—I’m a huge supporter of both places. More than anything, I’d love to see a resurgence of horse racing in Laurel, and have Laurel Park once again become the premier venue that it can be. But certainly not at the expense of endangering what might be the town’s most recognizable landmark—a landmark that, frankly, has been more functional than the track itself in recent years.

Granted, I can’t see anyone in their right mind coming out and proposing that the old train station be demolished—to my knowledge, nothing like that has been discussed. But what would happen if/when the historic station ceases to be an active stop on the MARC line? We already know how vulnerable the city’s old buildings tend to be, especially when they’re vacant.

Lest anyone forget, Laurel came dangerously close to losing the station to fire in January 1992. John Mewshaw recently shared these photos with me—sobering reminders, all:

Photo: John Mewshaw, 1992

Photo: John Mewshaw, 1992

Photo: John Mewshaw, 1992

Photo: John Mewshaw, 1992

Photo: John Mewshaw, 1992

Photo: John Mewshaw, 1992

With the expectation that cooler, more rational heads will ultimately prevail in this, let’s look at some more reasonable options.

First, there’s the basic issue of supply and demand. If enough people genuinely start taking the train to the races again, as they did back in the early-to-mid-20th century, there’s no reason why the Department of Transportation shouldn’t reinstate Laurel Park as an active stop on the MARC line. But even then, closing the town’s historic station wouldn’t make sense, logistically, especially as it relates to everyday commuters with no interest in visiting the race track.

The current station sits in the heart of Laurel at the base of Main Street and provides easy access. From a marketing standpoint, its historic qualities also benefit the commuter rail industry—the classic, Queen Anne styling of the station literally makes you want to take the train… in a way that a new, more modern facility probably wouldn’t.

And marketing is something that Laurel Park obviously needs to do a better job of, too, if it hopes to reinvigorate the track to the point of needing an exclusive train stop to accommodate the masses. For the record, I’m not a fan of their newest logo:

laurel-park-logo

As a graphic designer myself, I have serious doubts that it was created by a professional. It’s poorly executed for a number of reasons, but I digress. Their logo problems aren’t the main concern here.

But what they should be focusing on—instead of this new train station folly—are unique ways to maximize their exposure (regardless of that hideous logo). And ironically, the old train station is a perfect opportunity for them. I’m just going to offer this up, so Laurel Park Powers That Be, do with it as you please:

Imagine seeing a row of shuttle buses lined up as you get off the train… buses that are whimsically adorned with thoroughbred horse artwork (or, to go even further, imagine the entire bus being decorated to look like a race horse itself…) A row of buses, each designed as an individual race horse, complete with saddle cloth number…

LAUREL-PARK-SHUTTLE-IDEA-SMALL

Much like the old train station invites you to ride the rails, wouldn’t that pique your interest in going to the race track? And imagine the exposure the buses themselves would get just being spotted going back and forth on Route 1—especially when two or three at a time are “racing” there. (Not to encourage gambling, but you could even place bets on which “horse bus” arrives first…)

Keep in mind, I did this in about half an hour. Imagine what could be done with proper time and exploration. (And I’d be more than happy to design it for you, Laurel Park. I assure you, it’d be cheaper than a new train station, too.)

And from a practical standpoint, (e.g. the number of people actually going to the race track from the train station) wouldn’t shuttle buses also just make more sense? At least until Laurel Park starts generating the types of crowds that might require more drastic measures?

For the record, I do hope those crowds eventually return, but only after the race track (and the city) has solid plans in place to accommodate them. First, they need a plan to actually draw them. To paraphrase the Field of Dreams mantra, “Build it, and they will come.”

Source:
http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/howard/laurel/ph-ll-marc-station-moves-20150616-story.html
Tagged , , , , ,

Little Tavern Etching

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of meeting up for breakfast at Laurel’s legendary Tastee Diner with Michael Stewart. Michael is an award-winning photographer and artist, and also happens to be the father of one of my favorite bloggers—Diner Hunter, Spencer Stewart.

Spencer had alerted me to some wonderful new etchings his dad had recently produced, capturing Laurel’s Little Tavern in its heyday. (Spencer has done by far the most meticulous research on Little Tavern I’ve ever seen—be sure to check out his extensive site!)

Michael has been getting back to his illustrative roots with a printmaking class at Montpelier, and he really caught the essence of the memorable little white building with the green roof.

little-tavern-laurel-etching-michael-stewart

1997. (Laurel Historical Society archives)

1997. (Laurel Historical Society archives)

Of course, the building is still there at 115 Washington Boulevard—just across the street from the Tastee Diner. In fact, since it reopened as Laurel Tavern Donuts in 2008, it’s the only known establishment that still makes the famous Little Tavern Sliders from the original recipe, which was handed down by a former manager at the restaurant. Laurel’s Little Tavern first opened in 1939, and was among the very last to close its doors.

rich-at-little-tavern-michael-stewart-photo

(Photo: © Michael G. Stewart)

After a great meal and wonderfully nostalgic conversation, (both of which are always enhanced by the Tastee Diner’s one-of-a-kind ambiance) I had my original etching framed before I even made it back home!

IMG_2838

If you’d like one of your own, contact Michael at michephoto@msn.com or through Facebook.

Here are a few more photos from Michael’s archive, that he shot of the Little Tavern and Tastee Diner between 1987 and 2008:

Inside the Little Tavern in 2005. (Photo © Michael G. Stewart)

Inside the Little Tavern in 2005. (Photo © Michael G. Stewart)

Little Tavern 2007 photo Michael G. Stewart

(Photo © Michael G. Stewart)

2008, after closing. (Photo © Michael G. Stewart)

2008, after closing. (Photo © Michael G. Stewart)

An aerial view above Washington Boulevard. (Photo © Michael G. Stewart)

An aerial view above Washington Boulevard. (Photo © Michael G. Stewart)

1987. (Photo © Michael G. Stewart)

1987. (Photo © Michael G. Stewart)

The Tastee Diner's Washington Boulevard sign in 1987. (Photo © Michael G. Stewart)

The Tastee Diner’s Washington Boulevard sign in 1987. (Photo © Michael G. Stewart)

Oh, and I almost forgot—you can’t go to the Tastee Diner without enjoying copious amounts of good, strong coffee and a slice of pie, even it’s for breakfast.

rich-at-tastee-diner-michael-stewart-photo

(Photo: © Michael G. Stewart)

Tagged , , ,

The End of the Library

By now, many of you already know that the Stanley Memorial Library has always been a very special place for me.

IMG_7438

It was the first library I can remember ever going into as a child, and I still vividly recall my amazement at learning that there was no limit to how many books I could check out at any given time—and that it was all completely free. What madness! “How do they stay in business?!” I asked my mom.

Fast-forward a few years; and as a not-quite-fifteen-year-old kid in 1987, I got my work permit and was given my very first part-time job: manning the desk at the “Computer Connection“—the library’s small public computer lab. I scheduled reservations for people I can still picture to this day, including Mr. Anderson, the budding fiction writer who plugged away at the Apple IIe at least twice a month. Other, more utilitarian types booked time on the IBM PC; and surprisingly, hardly anyone ever used the Macintosh. Librarian Carl Keehn, who’d hired me, was the first to encourage me to take advantage of any downtime by learning all I could—particularly on that Macintosh. (As a graphic designer today, that’s my primary tool).

img350

img351

As I recently learned from Carl, I almost didn’t get that job. Not because I wasn’t qualified, but because I was still underage. The law didn’t allow me to work past 8:30, and the job required me to stay until 8:45. The library actually ended up applying for a waiver, and the rest was history.

The Computer Connection gig only lasted a couple of years, though, as the first of many county cutbacks began to loom. Nonetheless, while the computers were going bye-bye for the 1990s, I was glad to learn that my job wasn’t. In fact, it was really just beginning. I was reassigned as a clerical aide, or page—where I got to re-shelve books and locate back issue periodicals for patrons.

Well, I’m not going to bore you with my whole employment story again. Suffice it to say that I grew up in that library. Not only was it my first job, I ended up working there all throughout high school and college. I can’t begin to count how many good memories that place holds for me. Even the very first date I ever went on—the library is where I met and nervously asked out that first girl I really liked, right there in the parking lot.

Even after starting my first full-time graphic design job in 1997, I clung to the library; I continued to work part-time on the weekends, not because I needed to, but because I guess I really just didn’t want to let it go.

And that feeling that crept back again, nearly 20 years later—with the announcement of a new Laurel Library branch now due to be built on the site by 2017. Yes, even in spite of the 1993 expansion which nearly tripled the size of the original building, the old library had far outgrown the space. But to imagine those old walls, the sight of which conjure so many fond memories, being torn down—it was a tough pill to swallow.

The demolition was originally scheduled for last fall, I believe; but for one reason or another, there were delays. The library’s last day of operation in this building had been March 8, 2014. Shortly thereafter, a temporary (and much smaller) facility was established behind City Hall at 8101 Sandy Spring Road. But the old building sat empty and untouched for over a year, until finally, the familiar signs of pending destruction began to emerge: construction crew trailers were installed in the parking lot, and a chain link fence went up around the perimeter. Each weekend, I’d make the drive from Centreville, VA to Laurel, hoping to catch the first moments of it on film, but dreading it at the same time. Worse, I feared that one day soon, I’d approach that familiar corner of Seventh Street and Talbott Avenue, and the old library would be nothing more than a pile of rubble.

Finally, I got word that NARDI Construction, Inc. was ready to start. On May 6th, 2015, I drove to the site and met foreman Chuck McNulty, who regrettably told me that the excavators they were expecting that morning hadn’t showed up after all—it looked like they wouldn’t start tearing the building down in earnest until the next day. But it was hardly a wasted trip, as Chuck asked if I’d be interested in taking a few mementos his team had salvaged. Little did I imagine these would include the original, complete set of blueprints from 1965—blueprints I remember hanging in the basement office of the late Tom Acra, the library’s beloved maintenance man.

IMG_2469 IMG_2472

Chuck told me they should be good to go the following day, so on May 7th, I made the trip back. The smaller Bobcats were hard at work inside, doing some final interior gutting before they’d start knocking down the walls. While I was taking photos on the corner, Chuck appeared in what had previously been one of the windows—it was now more like an open bay door. I’ll never forget what he asked next:

“Wanna come in and see the inside one last time?”

He told me it was okay to film and photograph anything I wanted (with the exception of the workers themselves, some of whom may not want their pictures taken). I grabbed both my video camera and the still camera, stepped over the caution-taped hard hat area, and into the vacant shell of the Stanley Memorial Library one last time.

IMG_7537 IMG_7538 IMG_7539 IMG_7556 IMG_7559 IMG_7563 IMG_7574 IMG_7576 IMG_7582 IMG_7589 IMG_7594 IMG_7598 IMG_7599 IMG_7602 IMG_7613 IMG_7616 IMG_7619 IMG_7621 IMG_7622 IMG_7628 IMG_7632 IMG_7635 IMG_7644 IMG_7649 IMG_7650 IMG_7654 IMG_7655 IMG_7659 IMG_7660 IMG_7662 IMG_7836 IMG_7846

It didn’t occur to me until I’d gone home and started sorting through my photos that the demolition came on the anniversary of the library’s official dedication. While the building had opened in 1965, the dedication didn’t actually happen until May 7, 1967.

IMG_5308 IMG_8023 IMG_8024

Forty-eight years ago to the day, future U.S. Congresswoman Gladys Noon Spellman, Laurel Mayor Merrill Harrison, and other local officials had assembled behind the original circulation desk and delivered the dedication.

PTDC0093 - Version 2 original-entrancecirculation-desk-area original-entrance-circulation-desk-area-spellman

And now, there I was at the same spot, moments before the building would finally meet its end. For 50 years, this library had stood here; countless patrons milling about its shelves for bestsellers and all sorts of media… (I’ve even heard stories of an actual art collection being loaned out in the ’70s—you could borrow a new painting for your living room wall every couple of weeks!) And of course, my thoughts went to the many people who worked here, both before and after my time as a staff member. That’s when it dawned on me that of all those people, I suddenly found myself being the last one who’d ever walk through it again.

It was about a half hour later that the first of the walls started coming down—the vestibule roof that had originally covered the Seventh Street entrance, the original circulation workroom, and most recently, the quiet study room—crashed to the ground in a cloud of beige dust. After that settled, I got to witness the center wall that was the heart of the 1965 building fall:

IMG_7699IMG_7713

IMG_7714

IMG_7717

Chuck said that they wouldn’t likely get to the other major sections that day, but I’d seen enough. I’m not sure I wanted to see the expansion side come down—the section that was brand new in 1993, which seems like just the blink of an eye ago.

The construction crew took a brief break over the weekend (the Main Street Festival proved a welcome distraction to any other nostalgic library types like me) and was back at it on Monday, May 11th. By the end of this week, if not sooner, the rest of the library will be leveled.

You can peruse my full set of photos on Flickr, which includes several days leading up to and during the demolition. I’ll be adding to it in the weeks to come.

Many thanks again to Chuck McNulty and NARDI Construction for going above and beyond in providing me access to document the building’s demise, and for saving some one-of-a-kind historical mementos. The cornerstone and dedication plate will be preserved in the Laurel Museum.

IMG_2467 IMG_2465

He also set aside several bricks for me, and even helped load them into my truck—bricks that I’ll be distributing to former library colleagues as one last little piece of this place we loved.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

The Year of Tastee-Freez

tastee-freez-1999

The Nickell family celebrating 25 years of Tastee-Freez ownership in 1999. (Laurel Leader photo by Jason Lee, 8/5/99)

It was 1974 when James Nickell took over the Tastee-Freez from its original owners, Mr. & Mrs. James DeLorenzo—who’d opened the franchise in what had previously been Laurel’s first McDonald’s.

So, it’s fitting that the first and only Tastee-Freez/Big T calendar I’ve come across would be from that very year. Here it is, scanned in its entirety.

tastee-freez-calendar-front       tastee-freez-calendar-jan tastee-freez-calendar-feb-martastee-freez-calendar-apr-maytastee-freez-calendar-jun-julytastee-freez-calendar-aug-septastee-freez-calendar-oct-novtastee-freez-calendar-dec-couponstastee-freez-calendar-back

Tagged , ,

Endangered Main Street: Laurel Theatre / Petrucci’s

The old red building at 312 Main Street has sat empty and derelict for a few years now, and according to the City of Laurel—its new owners—it’s too far gone to be salvaged.

IMG_6512

IMG_6519

(Photos: Richard Friend)

(Photos: Richard Friend)

After no other buyers came forward, The city bought the building for $250,000 and plans to demolish it and resell the property. According to multiple sources, the interior has a festering mold problem that’s at least as problematic as its many structural issues, and would require in excess of $2 million to save it. And given its recent history, there’s little hope of resurrecting it. The multiple comedy clubs that inhabited it since the Petrucci family sold its popular Dinner Theatre in 1992 never lived up to expectations, despite drawing some high-profile names in the early years—including Dave Chappelle and Richard Jeni.

Before I get into that, though, let’s take a look at the deeper history of this Main Street landmark.

Laurel Theatre, 1938

A postcard image from 1938. (Laurel Historical Society archives)

To date, these are the earliest photos I’ve come across. The Leader article mentioned that it had been built in 1935, but the 1934 film named on the marquee (You Belong to Me) disproves that:

(Laurel Historical Society archives)

(Laurel Historical Society archives)

In fact, according to the Laurel, Maryland Centennial Souvenir Historical Booklet, the Laurel Theatre opened on October 16, 1929 under Sidney B. Lust, and was built by C. Ernest Nichols. The first film shown was Noah’s Ark. It briefly closed in 1948 to undergo a renovation, at which point it reopened with The Mating of Millie. (Box Office magazine, September 4, 1948).

This 1962 Laurel Leader photo literally shows ’em lined up around the block. (Notice, too, that there was a High’s Dairy where Pal Jack’s Pizza would soon be!)

IMG_1108

I’ve collected a few later (but still pretty darn early) programs from the theater, as has the Laurel Historical Society and collectors Peter and Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes. Here are a few:

1934 lobby card. (Peter and Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes collection)

1934 lobby card. (Peter and Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes collection)

IMG_6532

Program from 1939. (Lost Laurel collection)

IMG_6533

IMG_6536

Program from 1941. (Lost Laurel collection)

IMG_6537

1942 program. (Peter and Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes collection)

1942 program. (Peter and Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes collection)

IMG_9394

Programs from 1959–61. (Laurel Historical Society archives)

Here, too, is an assortment of Laurel Leader newspaper ads through the years:

IMG_6550

IMG_6544

IMG_6554

And a poster:

Poster for The Omega Man, 1971. (Lost Laurel collection)

Poster for The Omega Man, 1971. (Lost Laurel collection)

IMG_9367

The theater was Laurel’s first and only movie house until the summer of 1966, when both Wineland’s Laurel Drive-In and Laurel Cinema opened at Laurel Shopping Center. The newer venues (and a minor fire in 1975) took their toll; and in 1976, the iconic Main Street theater called it quits.

PTDC0034

IMG_6549

(Photo: Robert Marton)

(Photo: Robert Marton)

(Photo: Ralph Bull)

(Photo: Ralph Bull)

(Photo: Ralph Bull)

(Photo: Ralph Bull)

(Photo: Ralph Bull)

(Photo: Ralph Bull)

“Closed Forever” was a bold statement, and one that fortunately ended up not being entirely accurate.

That same year, Carlo Petrucci—who’d already bought the adjacent Pal Jack’s Pizza at 310 Main Street back in 1970—purchased the building. The sale was noted in the April 26, 1976 issue of Box Office magazine:

boxoffice-mag-apr26-1976

The Petrucci family made a valiant attempt to keep the theater going, and did reopen it with the blockbuster Jaws. They announced it with this personalized ad in the Laurel Leader:

IMG_1799 - Version 2

But the family had more ambitious plans for the building, and in the spring of 1977 came the arrival of Petrucci’s restaurant.

IMG_1468 IMG_1469 IMG_1470IMG_1472

In less than a year, Petrucci’s was already experimenting with the idea of a full-fledged dinner theater—a concept never before tried in the area. And by the early 1980s, Petrucci’s Dinner Theatre was one of the indisputable highlights of Main Street.

(Laurel Leader ad)

(Laurel Leader ad)

Laurel Leader ad, July 27, 1978. (Lost Laurel colletion)

Laurel Leader ad, July 27, 1978. (Lost Laurel colletion)

1984 program. (Peter and Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes collection)

1984 program. (Peter and Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes collection)

Circa 1989. (Laurel Historical Society archives)

Circa 1989. (Laurel Historical Society archives)

But even for the successful Petrucci family, the good times only lasted for about 15 years. Shortly after closing, this quote appeared in the July 25, 1992 Washington Post:

“We realized that to stay open through the summer would have been an exercise in futility,” explains David Petrucci, the sole member of this family-owned operation who has not yet given up on the business.

Thus began the series of hybrid comedy clubs, including Art’s, the Comedy Connection, the Laurel Cinema Cafe, and most recently, The Jokes on Us (aptly named, perhaps).

A 1996 Comedy Connection window display. (Lost Laurel collection)

A 1996 Comedy Connection window display. (Lost Laurel collection)

IMG_6564

Comedy Connection payment folder, c.1990s. (Lost Laurel collection)

There’s a stunning series of photos on Flickr that show the interior of the building in 2011. While the photographer has given it a different name, this is definitely the interior of 312 Main Street. (It may have been an urban exploration shoot—at any rate, the shots are eerily fantastic).

(Photos: Flickr user tmdtheue)

(Photos: Flickr user tmdtheue)

So that brings us to today, where the old building stands—but likely for not much longer.

There’s already been some discussion on the Lost Laurel Facebook page, as well as other local social media sites about the future of the old theater. Complicating the matter is the fact that it sits right in the heart of the city’s own designated “Arts District”—which took another blow in 2012 with the closing of the Laurel Art Center (another building that remains vacant as of this writing).

Many have called upon the Laurel Historical Society to intervene and protect the building, and discussions are underway about possible options other than the inevitable empty lot if it is indeed demolished.

I’ve mentioned that it’s not at all uncommon in cases like this to salvage the façade of the building—just the recognizable front of it—restore it and incorporate that into a brand new, mixed-use building that pays homage to the past. But truth be told, the façade of the old Laurel Theatre was never particularly remarkable, unfortunately, despite its great sentimental value. This would also place significant limits on whatever is constructed behind it.

I have a better idea, albeit probably a farfetched one. Imagine for a moment that it was possible to completely rebuild the Laurel Theatre, just as it was when it first opened in 1929. Now, imagine if it was possible for the city to do it without incurring any cost to itself. (I told you it was farfetched, but bear with me…)

I see this as a chance for the city of Laurel to up their game and create something truly special; and if done properly, I think there’s actually a very good chance that people would help. Lots of people—and not just from Laurel.

They could create an online fundraiser via Kickstarter and/or Indiegogo, where they present the opportunity to not only save the town’s original theater, but to create a genuine, functional showpiece in the heart of the Arts District: a completely rebuilt Laurel Theatre in the 1929 style, but with modern amenities—which could also serve as a type of cultural center for any number of events. Frankly, I can’t think of a more effective way to revitalize Main Street as a whole.

Since it wouldn’t be a privately owned venture, something like this could also likely qualify for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, or similar organizations.

Clearly, the city doesn’t have $2 million to spend on remodeling the theater—even if they wanted to. The $250,000 purchase was an investment toward something—anything–other than the decaying structure that’s been sitting dormant all this time. But if they at least explored the possibility that a national/international fundraiser (plus grants) could actually yield a significant amount of money to do something really special, that’s worth talking about.

Just for comparison’s sake, let’s look at a more famous (or should I say, infamous) theater: Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC.

When you visit Ford’s Theatre today, you probably assume it’s maintained its original appearance all these years, right? Not at all. With the exception of its outside walls, the entire theater is a complete reconstruction.

After the 1865 assassination of President Lincoln, the building understandably closed as a functioning theater. The government purchased it from John T. Ford, and promptly converted it into a three-story office building for the War Department, primarily. In 1893, the unthinkable happened: another tragedy. Load-bearing beams in the basement gave way under the excess weight, causing sections of all three floors above to completely collapse. In what must have been a horrific moment, 22 government employees were killed and at least another 65 were seriously injured.

fords-1893-collapse-2

(Photo: NPS)

fords-1893-collapse-1

(Photo: NPS)

The building languished until the 1930s, when it was briefly used as a warehouse for the Department of the Interior before being turned over to the National Park Service as “The Lincoln Museum”—where only the first floor was open to the public. Then, in the 1950s, Congress approved a bill that would fund a complete restoration of Ford’s Theatre to its 1865 appearance. And in 1968, the famous theater opened once again as a historic landmark. These dramatic photos (found on the blog, BoothieBarn) show just how gutted it actually was.

20130825-193935 20130825-194034 20130825-194712

Granted, I’m not suggesting that the old Laurel Theatre is on par with a national treasure; but I wanted to show that it’s entirely possible to gut the interior of a historic building—or level it completely, if need be—and rebuild it to its original specifications. That’s something that should indeed be considered by the city of Laurel before deciding to sell the property—particularly if they can receive funds to do so.

On the much smaller end of the spectrum, take a look at some of the “save our theater” campaigns that actually are on Kickstarter at the moment. I recently pitched in for one near me in Fairfax, VA. The University Mall Theatres is in dire need of new seats, and has raised over $111,000 in a matter of days with their grassroots campaign. That’s a private business, too—the city of Laurel stands to qualify for considerably more if it goes the non-profit route. And as far as non-profit models go, there’s none better than Silver Spring’s AFI Silver Theatre.

The Silver Theatre in 1938 and 2003 (http://silverspringhistory.homestead.com/theatre.html)

The Silver Theatre in 1938 and 2003 (http://silverspringhistory.homestead.com/theatre.html)

It, too, was dangerously close to meeting the wrecking ball when both citizens and politicians stepped in and capitalized on the opportunity to create something remarkable. The non-profit theater and cultural center now hosts films, film festivals, musical events, and much more. It’s also available for private rentals, further increasing its revenue.

The dedication plaque that hangs in the lobby of the AFI Silver says it all—and could easily be applied to Laurel if you think about the similarities:

THROUGH THE TIRELESS EFFORTS OF
THE SILVER SPRING COMMUNITY, INCLUDING
ITS ELECTED OFFICIALS AND APPOINTED LEADERS,
THE PAST HAS BEEN PRESERVED FOR THE BENEFIT
OF THE FUTURE. AS A CORNERSTONE OF
A REVITALIZED DOWNTOWN, THE AFI SILVER
IS A CENTER OF CULTURAL AND EDUCATIONAL
EXPLORATION, UNITING THOSE WHO VISIT
THROUGH THE POWER OF THE MOVING IMAGE
 
APRIL 4, 2003
 
DOUGLAS M. DUNCAN
MONTGOMERY COUNTY EXECUTIVE
 
JEAN PICKER FIRSTENBERG
DIRECTOR AND CEO, AFI

***

So, the city of Laurel now owns the building at 312 Main Street, and has a very big decision to make in the coming weeks. Much like the doomed Laurel Centre Mall, anything they do with it will likely be an improvement over the past decade. But I hope the city planners will at least take a very careful look at this opportunity before selling the property outright. The elusive key to revitalizing Main Street and creating a legitimate Arts District centerpiece may actually be sitting in their hands as we speak.

IMG_9415

Matchbook, c.1950s. (Lost Laurel collection)

Tagged , , , , , ,

Driving Through Laurel, 1973

Finding photos of vintage Laurel is tough enough, so you can imagine how special it is to find actual film footage. This wonderful clip was shared by Gary M. Smith, and it provides us with an all-too-brief glimpse of a decent portion of Laurel—captured on 8mm film from the passenger seat of a car driven by Milton J. Smith, Sr. in 1973.

It’s a classic 3-minute reel with some interruptions and jumpiness, but there are plenty of unmistakable landmarks throughout the drive. Now that I have the privilege of being your tour guide, here are a few sites to watch for:

  • We start out in North Laurel at the Beech Crest Estates Mobile Home park—the sign for which can be seen at 0:07. Several of the trailers and residents can be seen over the next 30 seconds.
  • At the 0:35 mark, we’re driving driving southbound on Washington Boulevard (Rt. 1), and we pass the California Inn, just north of Whiskey Bottom Rd.
  • Continuing southbound on Rt. 1, we see Sam & Elsie’s Bar at the 0:46 mark.
  • A billboard advertising the nearby Valencia Apartments appears at 0:53.
  • At 0:57, we cross the oft-flooded bridge over the Patuxent and see the Homoco gas station—the remnants of which were only recently torn down on the Fred Frederick automotive property.
  • At 1:02 (just after a bus—probably a Trailways—unfortunately blocks our view of Main Street) we pass White’s Texaco Station, and get just the faintest glimpse of the Little Tavern beside it.
  • The film skips forward a bit at 1:08, where we find ourselves at the intersection of Rt. 1 and Montgomery Street, and Floyd Lilly’s Laurel Amoco Super Service Station, which won a Chamber of Commerce award “for excellence in design, planning, and beautification”. (Imagine a gas station doing that…)
  • I’m not entirely sure, but at 1:16, we seem to be heading west on Talbott Avenue/Rt. 198 beside Donaldson Funeral Home.

  • At 1:47, we’re now on Main Street—heading west beside the infamous Laurel Hotel, with its distinctive stone facade and wooden porch.
  • Bob’s Cab appears just before we see the wooden front of Gayer’s Saddlery at 1:55.
  • The drive continues up to the end of Main Street, where we turn left onto 7th Street at (fittingly) the 2:16 mark. Here we pass St. Mary of the Mills church and cemetery.
  • At 2:37, there’s a brief glimpse of what is likely Laurel Municipal Swimming Pool, before the geography skips over to northbound Rt. 1 at the 2:38 mark—where we can clearly see the old 7-Eleven and Village Inn Pizza Parlor along Bowie Road.
  • Continuing northbound along Rt. 1, we pass the Exxon and Plain ‘n Fancy Donuts before getting a nice view of Safeway and Dart Drug, which sat just beside the railroad tracks and my old neighborhood of Steward Manor.

And that’s about where our drive through 1973 comes to an end, sadly. But any chance to step back in time—especially in a moving vehicle like this—is pretty amazing. I’ve found myself comparing the footage with Google Street Views of the same stretches of road today, just to see how much has changed… and how much has surprisingly stayed the same.

Many thanks again to Gary for sharing this footage! It’s also a reminder to everyone to check their own old home movies and family photo albums, as you never know what might turn up.

 

Tagged , , , , , ,