Category Archives: Architecture

Tastee Diner: Mayor’s Press Release

Keychain, 1980s. Lost Laurel collection

Late Friday afternoon, the City of Laurel issued the following press release:

“Today Laurel Mayor Craig A. Moe and members of his Senior Management Staff met with Ms. Francesca DeMauro-Palminteri owner of Pure Hana Synergy Medical Dispensary and the developer of the property at 118 Washington Blvd, Laurel, Maryland, and her development consultants and Mr. Douglas Hayes, Chair, City of Laurel Historical District Commission.

All agreed that the site of the current Tastee Diner is a notable landmark and a building that is very worthy of preservation for historical reasons. It has never been the desire of the City or the developer to demolish or remove the Tastee Diner from its location.

Ms. DeMauro-Palminteri has agreed with the Mayor’s proposal to keep the Tastee Diner in its location and reuse the building for her business, to allow the diner to be visible and not encapsulated by a structure around it and to provide for signage providing historical information about the Diner. It was also agreed that the developer would include in the development plans the placement of silhouettes in some of the windows of the Diner to further enhance the historic aesthetics of the building façade.

The Mayor has also asked the developer to allow the City of Laurel to have the right of first refusal for any future sale of the Diner.

Attendees saw new proposals for the renovation of the property and the thoughtful reuse of the Tastee Diner façade and building and agreed it met their goals and that of the community members who spoke at the Mayor and City Council meeting on Monday, November 26, 2018.

Mayor Moe stated “It is good to have the developer listen to the City and the residents of the community, and take action, the right action, that will preserve the Tastee Diner, while adding a nice reuse of the building.”

Chairman Douglas Hayes stated his satisfaction that this is a “good reuse of the building, and the new drawings of the Tastee Diner are outstanding, keeping the Tastee Diner building at its present location while adding a new business to the Route 1 corridor.”

Ms. DeMauro-Palminteri stated that she was “thankful to the community for their input and the assistance she has received from the City of Laurel.” Ms. DeMauro-Palminteri also stated she would be happy to work with the members of the Laurel Historical Society to donate some of the Tastee Diner furniture from inside the diner and signage.

The City of Laurel Planning Commission will hear the special exception application on the property at 118 Washington Blvd. on December 11, 2018 at 7:00 pm, the public is invited.”

Released on November 30, 2018 – 4:10pm  |  cityoflaurel.org

When announced on their Facebook page under the subjective headline of “Good news for the future preservation of the Tastee Diner,” the press release was met with a hearty serving of derision, support… and confusion:

I was confused as well. Not by what is now being proposed, but by how we got here.

Suddenly, the City is claiming that the diner “is a notable landmark and a building that is very worthy of preservation for historical reasons.” Most of them did not feel that way up until yesterday.

The agreement that Mayor Craig Moe reached with Pure Hana Synergy is better than the alternative—that being the total encapsulation and hiding of the diner that was in their original plans. But it is in no way what I’ve been suggesting, and what over 1,900 people to date have signed the petition for.

The petition calls for the City to explore ways to have the best of both worlds—to allow Pure Hana Synergy to still build their dispensary on the site, but to procure the historic portion of the diner, ultimately finding a developer who could revitalize it on Main Street where it could continue as a functioning, authentic diner. That has been my goal from the start.

I posed that idea to Mayor Moe in an email on November 1st—exactly one month ago today, and weeks before starting the petition. He never replied.

Despite a very select few at City Hall—chiefly Councilman Carl DeWalt—I can assure you that the City was not interested in preserving anything about the Tastee Diner. Which makes their press release ironic at best.

When all of the facts come out, I think we’ll discover that Pure Hana Synergy was lead to believe that not only did the City have zero interest in preserving the diner, they were anxious to be rid of it—quickly and quietly. I think we’ll also discover that the reason they’re insisting on repurposing the diner (rather than the logical building of a new structure from scratch on the larger lot) is to take advantage of grandfathered utilities clauses that wouldn’t otherwise be available to them.

That being said, I’m disappointed that the mayor decided to have a closed-door meeting, attended only by him and his “senior management staff”—which, curiously, did not include the City Council—and certainly not anyone from the Laurel Historical Society, who’d also lobbied for the removal and preservation of the diner car. This group alone created the unilateral agreement outlined in their press release.

The agreement suggests that the exterior façade of the diner will now become an integral part of Pure Hana Synergy’s new building. But that’s all that will remain of it—the interior will be completely gutted, and the diner—one of only two remaining Comac models in existence—will be effectively destroyed.

Yes, it’s a small victory that our historic diner will in some way be adaptively preserved, but let’s be honest—what a complete waste of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity this was for the City of Laurel, and Main Street in particular. The integrated look that Pure Hana Synergy is now promising to create using the façade of the diner could have been achieved by a new developer on Main Street—where we would have still had a fully-functioning diner.

The fact that the City was so unwilling to explore any of the many available resources to achieve this reflects poorly on its leaders. And the lack of transparency as it pertains to the CRA (the Donna Crary-led Community Redevelopment Authority that has purchased properties on Main Street which could have easily housed the relocated diner) is even more troublesome. Not once was the CRA part of the discussion, nor would the City respond to multiple requests to explain their absence.

This particular statement in the press release—“It has never been the desire of the City or the developer to demolish or remove the Tastee Diner from its location”—reminded me of a similarly laughable story I heard a few years ago. Without naming names, suffice it to say that a popular longtime Laurel businessman (who, like many in Laurel politics, has little affinity for historic preservation) once relayed the following:

“Someone once claimed to have found some Native American artifacts on my property, and approached me about preserving the land to ensure that they wouldn’t be disturbed. I promised him that I’d come up with a solution that would preserve the artifacts exactly where they were, and that no one would be able to touch them. He was satisfied with that, so I paved over it and made it a parking lot.”

Keeping the Tastee Diner in its original location, even with this amended plan that promises to no longer encapsulate it, hardly saves it. It will, however, be a constant reminder of what might have been.


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Tastee Diner: City Council Meeting Recap

NBC4’s Jackie Benson knew she was in Laurel Monday night, even if one of her video producers apparently didn’t.

Laurel/Lanham… what’s the difference, right? Well, Laurel is the one with the rare Tastee Diner that may soon be disappearing.

Benson was in town covering the Mayor and City Council Meeting. Or, just the City Council Meeting, as it were—attendees were informed that Mayor Craig Moe was actually still in Florida for the holiday.

The reason for the local news coverage was the general public hearing, in which representatives from the Laurel Historical Society and the City of Laurel’s own Historic District Commission Chairman spoke eloquently in favor of saving the diner.

After Jhanna Levin, Douglas Hayes, and Karen Lubieniecki spoke to rousing applause, City Council President Mike Leszcz offered only a terse reply:

That was it—no further elaboration. And whether Mr. Leszcz intended it or not, the impression it gave was that the Mayor and City Council don’t have a say in whether the sale of the diner is approved or not. That decision now falls on the Planning Commission and the Board of Appeals.

That being duly noted, the purpose of calling attention to the Mayor and City Council in the first place was never to block to the sale of the property at all. It was simply to urge them to do their due diligence in exploring options that might allow them to successfully take ownership of the historic 1951 Comac-built diner car, and relocate it to benefit Main Street—without adversely affecting Pure Hana Synergy’s plans to build their dispensary at the diner’s former location.

If you watch that NBC4 segment (again, ignoring the fact that it says “Lanham” throughout the piece) Mr. Leszcz makes a statement to Jackie Benson:

Mr. Leszcz, whom I know not only has a deep appreciation for Laurel’s history, but for the Tastee Diner itself—at the City Council meeting, he spoke at length of his fondness for it and his memory of the Tuozzo family, who co-owned the diner along with the Sussinis before Gene Wilkes took over in 1976. But you don’t have to read between the lines here to see that he hasn’t exactly been looking for a creative solution to save it.

Why would he say that the City doesn’t have the money, when he literally just admitted that he doesn’t know how much it would actually cost to move the diner?

That’s exactly why we approached the Mayor and City Council with this petition in the first place—to seek those answers. To seek out partners like Preservation Maryland and Maryland Milestones Heritage Area who are literally asking to help with this endeavor. Partners who have the knowledge and means to assist with grants and other incentives that the City Council seems to know very little about, frankly.

And make no mistake, that’s their duty. Elected officials are supposed to have the City’s best interest in mind, and constantly seek creative ways to benefit Laurel for the long term. Not to simply facilitate a sale in the interest of “cleaning up” a blighted block.

And honestly, my perception thus far has been that some at City Hall—certainly not everyone, by any means—have viewed this idea of saving the diner as an act of sheer folly; that it’s somehow an inconvenience to them to even have to entertain such an impossible notion of moving that diner.

If that’s indeed the case, I think that’s incredibly shortsighted and irresponsible to not even consider what might be achieved on Main Street by preserving and revitalizing such a rare piece of history—a piece of history that is otherwise going to be lost so unnecessarily in the building of this dispensary.

Mr. Leszcz’s comment about the City not having the money for something like this kind of stands at odds with another point he brought up at the meeting—about Laurel’s Community Redevelopment Authority, and their recent purchase of the Gude Mansion at Laurel Lakes, which I assume the City plans to extensively renovate with the idea of renting the facility out for weddings and such. That can’t be cheap. But then, good investments usually aren’t. Regardless, it prompted me to take a look at the public land records for these recent purchases, including the old Laurel Theatre at 312 Main Street, and the Laurel Town Lodge boarding house at 41 B Street.

I’m sure these were wise investments–I don’t doubt that for a moment. They’re investments that will eventually benefit the city in various ways. But they raise two very big questions: are they any wiser than investing in relocating the diner to Main Street, where a new owner could be incentivized to renovate it into something truly special? And should the City really be so quick to dismiss a creative idea with the notion that they “don’t have the money”?

That being said, the next step is the December 11th Planning Commission Meeting, followed by the December 20th Board of Appeals meeting.


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Tastee Diner Update: Please Attend 11/26 City Council Meeting

Up until about a week ago, there was no outward indication that the Tastee Diner was in the process of being sold. There had been no talk of closing, no sign announcing a public hearing, no “word on the street” from regulars or staff about impending changes. It was still business as usual. But seeing surveyors on the property recently was an obvious clue—one that foreshadowed the extensive plans we’re now aware of.

One minute, life at the diner was essentially the same as it has been for the past 67 years. But seeing the drastic plans that Pure Hana Synergy has for wrapping the iconic structure changed all that in an instant. It became immediately clear that a part of Laurel that most of us have known all our lives will soon be changing. 

Change is, of course, inevitable. And it can actually be a good thing. Aside from missing the regularity of the Tastee Diner—knowing that it’s always open for us where it has been for all these years—there’s nothing wrong with longtime owner Gene Wilkes wanting to sell the property to a new industry that promises to beautify that entire section of Route 1. If it were to result in the diner being moved to a new location on Main Street and operated under new management—a new owner with the incentives and resources that today’s Main Street promises—this could be a very good change, indeed.

But it has to start with a dialogue between the City, the owner, and the buyer. And it has to begin quickly. There are undoubtedly some who would prefer to see the diner simply disappear. They may not understand or appreciate the history or rarity of it, but that certainly doesn’t mean that they’re right in allowing it to be unnecessarily destroyed—especially when there’s such a tremendous opportunity at stake for the City to capitalize on relocating it to Main Street.

Within a week, this petition to save the diner has topped 1,600 signatures. To give you some perspective, that’s a significantly larger number than any winning Laurel politician typically receives in votes.

It’s a growing number of people who, upon learning that a place that remains relevant to them is suddenly endangered, want to do something to preserve it. And I mean the word “preserve” in the literal sense—most people, including many within the City of Laurel government, simply were not aware of the historic nature of our diner. Once ubiquitous, this 1951 Comac model is now one of only two that survive intact. 

Pure Hana Synergy may very well be willing to relinquish the historic silver portion of the diner car without adversely affecting the plans for their new building. But the City of Laurel needs to work with them to help facilitate this. Preservation Maryland has already reached out to express their willingness to help in this process—now is the time to begin discussing what can be done in earnest to save and revitalize our diner in a new location. 

But real questions still need to be asked—and answered—before this sale should be finalized. Namely, if Pure Hana were to insist on proceeding as planned with wrapping the full diner building, why? Are there some grandfathered clauses that would somehow allow them more benefits or loopholes if they were to keep the building, despite modifying it beyond recognition?

It seems odd that they would propose demolishing both the motel and large house on the property, yet build around the small diner rather than simply raze it as well. Again, I’m not opposed to the sale, but I cannot believe that they would need the actual diner car to proceed with their plans. And the City of Laurel would be wasting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to relocate a unique and historic business to Main Street, should they allow this to go forward unchallenged.

Please go to the next City Council meeting on Monday, November 26th at 7PM, and let them know that you signed the petition—along with over 1,600 other people who want to see our historic diner preserved and moved to Main Street.

Laurel Municipal Center
8103 Sandy Spring Rd
Laurel, MD 20707
Mayor and City Council Meeting
Monday, November 26, 2018
7:00pm to 9:00pm

In addition to attending the City Council meeting, two other KEY MEETINGS are the DECEMBER 11th Planning Commission Meeting and the DECEMBER 20th Board of Appeals meeting.

If you can’t attend in person, please email the Clerk to the City Council (clerk@laurel.md.us) and the buyer, Pure Hana Synergy (info@purehanasynergy.com) and express your wish to save our diner.

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Save the Tastee Diner

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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.)

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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:

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

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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

 

 

 

 

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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.)

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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:

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Photo courtesy of Blaine Sutton

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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.

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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:

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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…

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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
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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.

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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.

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(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!

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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.

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(Photo: © Michael G. Stewart)

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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