Category Archives: Architecture

The Year of Tastee-Freez

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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

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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.

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(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!)

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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)

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Program from 1939. (Lost Laurel collection)

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Program from 1941. (Lost Laurel collection)

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

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

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

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

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And a poster:

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

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

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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.

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(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:

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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:

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

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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)

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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.

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(Photo: NPS)

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(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.

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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.

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

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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.

 

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Margaret Edmonston Yearbook, 1977

If you went to Laurel High School in the mid-1980s or beyond, you undoubtedly remember the building known simply as “The Annex”.

The Annex was, in fact, the former Margaret A. Edmonston Elementary—connected to Laurel High with a non-insulated blue corrugated steel walkway that was both sweltering in the summer and freezing in winter. Annexed in 1983, it served LHS for the next 25 years.

The old building is now gone, replaced in 2010 by a $28-million state of the art facility containing an 800-seat auditorium, a black-box theater, rehearsal rooms for band, a chorus room, a dance room, as well as several classrooms and offices. It’s also a dramatic architectural upgrade that the school sorely needed.

But before all of that, it was indeed an elementary school—one in which thousands of young Laurelites began their academic careers. Dave Baker, who now lives in Tennessee, was one of them. And he was kind enough to scan and send me this wonderful set of images from something I never realized even existed: a Margaret Edmonston yearbook from 1977.

As Dave says:

“Sadly, most little yearbooks like this were discarded by most of the kids that bought them. My 80-year-old mother had the foresight to keep this in her cedar chest.”

There are likely several Lost Laurel readers who will find themselves, their friends, family members, and favorite teachers within these pages. (Click on each image to view at full size). The book also includes at least one youngster you might’ve seen on TV in more recent years—actor Mike Shaffrey was in Mrs. Edwards’ 6th grade class.

Edmonston Page 1Edmonston Page 2Edmonston Page 3Edmonston Page 4Edmonston Page 5Edmonston Page 6 Edmonston Page 7Edmonston Page 8Edmonston Page 9 Edmonston Page 10Edmonston Page 11Edmonston Page 12 Edmonston Page 13Edmonston Page 14Edmonston Page 15

Scans courtesy of Dave Baker

 

 

 

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Stanley Memorial Library: What’s In a Name?

UPDATE: 3/8/14

Shortly after stories were published about opposition to the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System’s plan to drop the “Stanley Memorial” name from the new library, Laurel resident Maureen Johnson wrote a letter to the editor of the Laurel Leader, in favor of changing the name. She brought to light an important historical detail that had been readily available in Charles H. Stanley’s online biography, but until now, hadn’t so much as raised an eyebrow: he fought for the Confederacy.

She raised the point that it’s not necessarily the fact that a library is named after a Confederate veteran that troubles her; it’s the location of the library that is going to undoubtedly rub many residents the wrong way—Laurel’s historically African-American neighborhood, The Grove. Moreover, the new building will occupy an even larger portion of Emancipation Park than the current building does.

Maureen gave an interview with NBC4’s Tracee Wilkins last night that explained her position well:

NBC4 News screenshot

Click image for link to video and story on NBCWashington.com

It’s crucial that I include this update, because much has changed over the last few days—and it’s in the interest of fairness that I add Maureen’s voice to the story.

When I wrote the original post below—and subsequently launched a petition urging the Library Board to keep the Stanley name, it was solely in response to the news that the PGCMLS was planning to drop the name “in order to make the library easier to find”—which I think we can all agree was a universally absurd reason.

As far as I was concerned at the time, the only issue at hand was the library’s potential breach of contract with the Stanley family—the descendants of Charles Stanley, who generously donated the land for which a library in his honor was constructed.

For whatever reason, it seems that the idea of actually researching the complete life history of Mr. Stanley himself has just never manifested until now. And in the heat of the moment, reading what little information was posted about him, the innocuous mention that he served as a private in the Confederate army admittedly didn’t have anywhere near the emotional effect on me as it did Ms. Johnson; and that resulted in some spirited back-and-forth on Facebook earlier this week.

I’m happy to report that I had the chance to meet Maureen in person yesterday, and found her to be a wonderful, engaging lady who’s clearly passionate about her hometown. She’s also acutely aware of the sensitivity of this entire situation, and acknowledges that it’s complicated on so many levels.

We discussed my concern that Stanley’s legacy of extensive service to Laurel shouldn’t be tarnished outright without significantly more research. There are snippets emerging of other potentially important and redeeming deeds that Stanley may have done in his lifetime that specifically benefited the African-American community, too—if verifiable, those types of things would certainly have to be taken into consideration, as well. By the same token, should more troubling details surface about his Civil War experience, it needs to come to light for history’s sake, and particularly for the sake of the surrounding community in which his namesake library has stood for nearly half a century.

The PGCMLS has a difficult task ahead, and I hope they’ll reach out to the Stanley family—or vice versa—and work together to reach a solution that’s in Laurel’s best interest.

We’ve hardly heard the last of this story. In the meantime, the Laurel Leader‘s Luke Lavoie has written the first extensive piece on it, which you can read here. There are plenty of good points within.

And if all that isn’t enough library action for you, don’t forget that today, March 8th, is actually the last day that the old building will be open to the public. Stop by and soak it all in, one last time.

 

***

The original post appears below.

***

(Laurel Historical Society collection)

(Laurel Historical Society collection)

The final week of Laurel’s Stanley Memorial Library is nearly upon us, as the building that opened in 1967 is scheduled to close on March 10th. After next Saturday, March 8th, patrons will have to wait until March 31st for the opening of a temporary facility behind the Municipal Center—as the old building will be demolished and construction set to begin on the town’s brand new facility.

The new library will be on the same site, situated at the corner of 7th & Talbott. So while Laurel isn’t technically losing its library, it will be losing the recognizable building that so many have utilized in its nearly 47 years. And that’s the toughest part for me, personally—having worked there as a clerical aide from 1987–97, I’m just not looking forward to seeing the place I knew so well torn down. I was part of the staff who, way back in 1993, physically moved every book, shelf, and table around during the expansion.

(Richard Friend/Lost Laurel collection)

(Richard Friend/Lost Laurel collection)

Make no mistake, getting a new library is a very big deal. And it’s good for Laurel. The branch desperately needed the expansion 21 years ago, and has since outgrown that, as well. And this year is shaping up to be one of a renaissance for the town, what with the opening of the new Town Centre at Laurel this Fall, and the library construction.

But one of the issues recently being brought to light is the name of the library itself—something that has been a bit blurred over the decades, and something which the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System has done little to clarify.

Most of us—myself included, as well as the very librarians and staff who’ve worked there for years—have always referred to the building as “the Laurel Library”. It’s how they answer the phones there, and it’s simply an accepted informal name. In fact, most people don’t even use “Laurel” when referring to it; because if you’re in Laurel and you’re going to “the library”, there’s only one you’re going to.

But at the same time, most of us who use these abbreviated names are still conscious of the fact that the building does have a proper name gracing its exterior—the Stanley Memorial Library. And now, for whatever reason, the Prince George’s County Board of Library Trustees is planning to formally drop Stanley’s name from the new building entirely. And they’re doing so under the auspices of “helping the public find the library”—as if A) people in Laurel have forgotten that there’s been a library at this location for nearly half a century, and B) you couldn’t Google directions in a matter of seconds—in this Internet age that has, in effect, almost made libraries obsolete.

(Wikipedia)

Charles H. Stanley (1842–1913) was the second mayor of Laurel, as well as the founder and president of Citizens National Bank on Main Street. A quick perusal of his biography at the Maryland State Archives will show that he was much more—not only in the Laurel community, but to Prince George’s County and the state of Maryland itself.

(Maryland State Archives)

(Maryland State Archives)

(Maryland State Archives)

(Maryland State Archives)

He lived and died in Laurel, and is buried at Ivy Hill Cemetery—where he could soon be spinning in his grave, should his name be unceremoniously dropped from the library that was always intended to bear his name.

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According to Sylvia Bolivar, president of the Prince George’s County Board of Library Trustees:

“The Board believes that naming a branch library according to its location helps the public to find libraries close to their neighborhoods, whereas a building named after a person, tends to render a library harder to find.”

She wrote this in a January 22nd response to Laurel Mayor Craig Moe, who had respectfully contested the change. PGCMLS director Kathleen Teaze supported her position in the name of “…(keeping) consistency among the system”—the system, of course, being a simple naming convention based on the branch location.

The Laurel Historical Society also supports keeping the name intact, and Executive Director Lindsey Baker not only submitted an editorial letter in this week’s Laurel Leader, but wisely pointed out this important tidbit:

In the 1963 deed transferring the land where the library currently sits, it specifically states that the Board of County Commissioners for Prince George’s County will erect “a Public Library Building to be known as ‘The Stanley Memorial Library’ ” on the land deeded from the Stanley family.

That fact alone should be legally ironclad, for as long as any library sits on the parcel of land at the corner of 7th and Talbott. And the Board of Library Trustees’ plan to “commemorate Stanley with a photo and memorial in the library lobby” is an embarrassingly poor compromise, when the man’s name was always intended to be much more prominently associated.

I know what some of you are probably thinking. “Who cares, right? It’s just a library.” I’m sure the Stanley family cares, having deeded the land for the library in the first place. Clearly Mayor Moe and the Laurel Historical Society care. I care, and you should care. Most of all, the Prince George’s County Board of Library Trustees had better start caring.

What I find most ironic in this is the complete lack of recognition of their own name, the Prince George’s County MEMORIAL Library System. Maybe they should consider changing that, if they’re no longer concerned with memorializing those who made the branches possible.

In fairness, I understand to some degree what they’re trying to do. Naming the libraries by location makes perfect sense; and again, people are inherently going to revert to calling them that anyway. It happens with many building dedications, including schools and government facilities. How many DC tourists do you think ask for directions to the “J. Edgar Hoover Building”? They don’t. They say, “Where’s the FBI building?” And that’s fine, because Mr. Hoover’s name is still on it, regardless.

If PGCMLS wishes to refer to the new building as the “Laurel Library”, I see no reason why they shouldn’t. The public can refer to it that way, as well. But the new building should nonetheless still prominently bear the name “Stanley Memorial Library”, as its original land deed intended. That part is non-negotiable. And ultimately, it would be no different than it’s always been.

(Laurel Leader, May 14, 1981)

(Laurel Leader, May 14, 1981)

(Photo: PGCMLS)

(Photo: PGCMLS)

***

I’d like to get back to the Board of Library Trustees’ idea of commemorating Mr. Stanley with a photo and memorial in the lobby for a moment, though. Because while it isn’t appropriate for Mr. Stanley himself in this circumstance, I certainly don’t mean to belittle a lobby tribute—to the right person. In fact, it might be unconventional, but there’s someone in particular I’d really like to see receive that honor.

A lot of wonderful people have worked at the Laurel branch since 1967, and sadly, some of them are no longer with us. One such person I’ll forever associate with the library is a gentleman named Tom Acra.

Tom Acra, January 1993. (Photo: Richard Friend)

Tom Acra, January 1993. (Photo: Richard Friend)

Tom Acra and librarian Brenda Hill, January 1993. (Photo: Richard Friend)

Tom and librarian Brenda Hill, January 1993. (Photo: Richard Friend)

Tom was the quintessential jack of all trades. Admittedly, I don’t recall what his official job title was—whether it was “maintenance supervisor” or “building superintendent” or something along those lines; one thing was clear—Tom took care of the Laurel Library like it was his home, and the employees and patrons like they were his family. He was the first person to open the building each morning and the last to lock up and leave; and from his modest workshop in the basement, he had the tools and skills necessary to handle any task at hand. A pipe burst? Tom could fix it. He was always there for any such maintenance emergency, but more routinely, he handled custodial duties: buffing the tiles, vacuuming the carpets, washing the windows, dusting and wiping down the shelves, and more. In the winter, there were no snow plow teams to clear the parking lot—there was only Tom, with a single shovel, a bucket of ice melt, and that familiar, friendly voice of his, cautioning everyone who approached to be careful not to slip. “Aww yeeeaah… watch your step, there…”

Tom was one of the first friends I made when I started working at the library, and no matter how busy he was, he always had time to chat about the Redskins, an upcoming election, the weather, or a particular history book that had caught his eye over in section 973. (Yes, after all these years, I still can’t shake the Dewey Decimal System…)

Tom had started working at the library straight out of high school himself, and simply kept at it year after year—learning the nuances of the building and caring for it like no one else. He’d been part of the first massive rearrangement of books in 1977, and spearheaded the laborious task again in 1993 when the library expanded.

(Laurel Leader, August 4, 1977)

(Laurel Leader, August 4, 1977)

As the years went on and the PGCMLS budget tightened, Tom was utilized even more. I can recall clerical aide hiring freezes that lasted for a year or longer; during which time Tom would help our depleted team by reshelving books and stamping date due cards. More often than not, we never even had to go out to unload the book drop, because Tom had beaten us to it.

Before long, he’d even been recruited to man the circulation desk, and seemed to relish the time spent helping patrons check out their books and other materials. His was a familiar face at checkout time on Sundays, especially—when most staff members opted for Sundays off. (Yes, the library was actually open on Sundays back then—during the school year, at least.)

And it was with the patrons that Tom really connected, ironically. He wasn’t a librarian, or someone you’d expect to be a “people person”, but that’s precisely what he was. In fact, he was a natural at it—and he connected with people of all ages. Kids from the neighboring Grove would occasionally come into the library for a drink from the water fountain and a brief respite from the outside heat, and their voices would inevitably get louder—a bit too loud for a library. Whereas most adults would blow a gasket, Tom had a gentle way of approaching the kids; for one thing, he knew them all by name, and they knew him. And in a matter of seconds, he’d have them quietly perusing a book or magazine, and then happily on their way.

Yes, Tom Acra was much more to the Stanley Memorial Library than just a maintenance man. Taking care of the building and its denizens was more than just a job to him.

Tom passed away unexpectedly in February 2003 at the age of 50. And when his beloved old library is torn down in the next few weeks, I’m kind of grateful he won’t have to be here to witness it.

tom-acra-grave

But in closing, I would like to offer these simple suggestions to the Prince George’s County Board of Library Trustees:

  • Continue to honor the legacy of Charles H. Stanley by placing the rightful name, “Stanley Memorial Library” on the new building. If you wish to refer to it within the system as the “Laurel Library”, by all means do so—just as you always have. But please don’t try to remove or relegate his name and think people won’t notice… or mind.
  • If you’re considering honoring someone from the community with a small memorial plaque in the lobby, honor someone who truly did give their all to the library. Tom Acra wasn’t a wealthy benefactor or politician, and you won’t readily find his name in books or newspapers; but he certainly invested a lifetime of care and stewardship into our library, and I have no doubt he’d do the same for the new building.
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Farewell, Bay ‘n Surf

While the former Bay ‘n Surf restaurant had sat vacant and crumbling since 2007, the shock of seeing it actually torn down today will undoubtedly leave a bitter taste in the mouths of many who remember it in its heyday—a time when it was the undisputed heavyweight champ of Maryland cream of crab soup.

bay n surf demolition 1-sharon nuzback

Photo: Sharon Nuzback

Videos courtesy of Chris Blucher

 

bay n surf demolition 2-dave deblasis

Photo: Dave DeBlasis

Photo: Sharon Nuzback

Photo: Sharon Nuzback

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Photo: Sharon Nuzback

Photo: John Mewshaw

Photo: John Mewshaw

Originally opened in 1965, the restaurant closed after a refrigerator compressor fire in the early morning hours of Valentines Day, 2007. Speculation about reopening—even at another location—floated around for years, but never materialized.

The initial word on the street is that the site will soon be home to a new mini strip center, but there’s been no confirmation on potential tenants. (Sadly, I’m guessing none will offer cream of crab soup, though).

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Laurel’s Safeway(s)

While I was growing up at Steward Manor during the late 1970s and early 80s, grocery shopping was never really a problem. In just a matter of minutes, if my mom and I were so inclined, we could walk to and from Safeway—which, at the time, was just around the corner from us on Bowie Road. In fact, during the one year that we lived at 2 Woodland Court, it was literally just across the railroad tracks. For more extensive shopping, of course, my dad would drive us there (or more likely, to one of the bigger and/or cheaper stores in the area: Giant, Pantry Pride, or Basics). But on any given day, my mom might have decided to bake a cake or something; and needing only a few select items, she and I would take a quick walk over to Safeway.

Until this past weekend, I hadn’t been able to find a single photo of the Safeway that I so vividly remember from childhood—before it relocated to a new and larger space at Laurel Lakes in 1985 (where it remains today).

For me, the old Safeway was the real Safeway; and when it left, it was like losing an old friend. To this day, I occasionally have dreams in which I’m back in that store—perusing the Cragmont soda aisle and noting the vintage cash registers at the checkout counter, amongst orderly stacks of weekly magazines featuring the likes of Diff’rent Strokes and President Reagan on their covers.

So in the course of my research, when I turned the page in the April 21, 1966 issue of the Laurel News Leader and came to this photo—I smiled at an old friend.

There it was, just as I remembered it. But even newer, because it had just opened. From this angle, (taken from the adjacent shopping center, which had also just opened) you can even see that awesome roller track/conveyor belt thing, which transported your groceries from the checkout counter, outside, around a hairpin curve, and to your awaiting vehicle beneath that covered driveway. (This, of course, was the only downside to walking over to Safeway with my mom—I didn’t get to use that thing nearly as often as I would have liked, but I digress).

Admittedly, I suspected that I might actually find a photo of the store; in an earlier newspaper, I had come across this bold announcement, which included a stock illustration of a similar Safeway store (but without the aforementioned awesome roller track/conveyor belt thing).

Laurel Leader, January 27, 1966.

So, a question I’d often wondered about was finally answered. The Safeway on Bowie Road first opened its doors in January 1966. The adjacent shopping center, which included Market Tire, Arundel Furniture, and Chicken Roost, among others—also another story for another time—opened in April.

But the photo also raised an interesting question, because conspicuously absent in all this was my other beloved store—Dart Drug. I had always assumed that Dart Drug was the original tenant beside Safeway; that they had been built together. Evidently, that wasn’t the case at all.

As I continued through the 1966 newspapers, I spotted the following ad in an August issue—which references the mysterious “Super S” store noted in the photo caption above.

Safeway Super S? I’d never heard of or seen such a thing, but there it was, in the proverbial black and white.

It also immediately struck me as rather ironic that Safeway had actually occupied this entire, massive structure—yet would ultimately move to Laurel Lakes nearly 20 years later in need of more space. What happened there? What exactly was Super S, and how (and when) did it eventually become the Dart Drug that we all knew and loved?

The Super S story turns out to be a super-short one, actually. By April 1967—a mere eight months after its grand opening, ribbon-cutting ceremony with then-Mayor Merrill Harrison, the store was closed.

Laurel Leader, April 20, 1967

Super S, according to the fantastic vintage retail blog, Pleasant Family Shopping, was an early (and ultimately unsuccessful) attempt by the supermarket to parlay its brand into an ancillary store; one which offered the types of non-food items you wouldn’t find in the Safeway proper: small appliances, sporting goods, toys, outdoor accessories, and more. Basically, like what Dart Drug would become. In retrospect, it’s a bold idea that, frankly, seems ahead of its time. Who knows.. with a little tweaking of the Super S business model here and there, Safeway could’ve very easily hit the jackpot. (Not that they haven’t been successful enough on their own, but again I digress).

It’s not yet clear if the old Super S building hosted any interim tenants, (my guess is no) but in February 1969, Dart Drug officially took up residence. It would remain there until the company went bankrupt nearly 20 years later.

Laurel Leader, February 6, 1969.

 

Here’s another view of the Safeway Shopping Center (as it came to be known) from across Route 1, in what was at that time the Food Fair parking lot. Food Fair, of course, would eventually become Frank’s Hardware, which in turn would eventually become Frank’s Nursery and Crafts—but that’s yet another story or two, as well.


Coincidentally, just a few miles west along Route 198, another Safeway opened in mid-February 1966. With a Peoples Drug at the opposite end of the Burtonsville Shopping Center, I guess the builders wisely saw no need for a Super S.

Last, but not least, I’d heard many a story about Laurel’s original Safeway—a location just off Main Street that, like its successor, was eventually deemed too small. That store was located on C Street, in the little building that would actually become City Hall and the Laurel Police Headquarters in 1972. Apparently, it continued to briefly do business even after the larger, new store opened on Bowie Road. In fact, according to this amusing snippet from September 1969, customers were still showing up even after it had closed.

Laurel Leader, September 25, 1969.

I can relate. They, too, must’ve felt like they’d lost an old friend.

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Anticipating Laurel Malls, Past and Present

Photo: Brian Krista

By now, you’ve probably heard that there was a ceremonial groundbreaking for the long-awaited, still-cryptic Town Centre at Laurel project Tuesday morning. It took place along the southeast corner of the Laurel Mall site, near one of the many parking decks that had long sat closed—even before the mall itself closed.

Besides the ceremonial shoveling of dirt, (by a number of “official” folks who, quite probably, have never actually used a shovel—but I digress…) the large, orange and blue “Laurel Mall” sign at the corner of Route 1 and Cherry Lane—erected sometime after 1991, when Laurel Centre changed its name and continued its downward spiral—was also ceremonially lowered to the pavement; as if to emphasize that, this time, it’s really going to happen. After years of talk, rumors, deals, and nixed plans by a seemingly endless list of owners, developer Greenberg Gibbons seems finally poised to reinvent the space in a positive way.

The only–er, main problem seems to be the continued lack of high-end prospective tenants—something the developers have been maddeningly coy about since the project was first announced in March 2011. As of this writing, only Burlington Coat Factory, (the lone-surviving tenant of Laurel Mall) Harris Teeter, and Regal Cinemas are the proposed anchor stores. Proposed—meaning that even they’re not finalized yet.

A public announcement last week about the “invitation-only” groundbreaking event also didn’t exactly ingratiate the developers with, well, those of us who weren’t invited. In their defense, however, until those decrepit parking decks are actually brought down, I’m sure the prospect of having even one person get injured on the property is enough to give their legal department a nervous breakdown. I was told that as the project progresses, there will indeed be public events.

While I do believe that Town Centre at Laurel has the potential to be a very well-designed and positive change for the community, the contrast between the anticipation of this major development and its predecessors is enormous. Granted, the developers of Laurel Shopping Center and Laurel Centre Mall didn’t have the years of mismanagement and failed promises to deal with. But the communication they shared with the public from the very beginning played a key role in generating the interest and excitement that’s still palpable in the old newspapers that covered their grand openings. Not to mention, nearly all of the stores were leased before construction even began.

As we look back at its predecessors, let’s hope that the grand opening of Town Centre at Laurel—whenever it may be, and with whomever actually occupies it—turns out to be even half as exciting.

1979

1956

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Goodbye, Laurel Mall

Laurel Centre Mall, October 11, 1979 ~ May 1, 2012.

Photos: John Floyd II

Thanks to long-time Laurel resident John Floyd II for trekking over and confirming this week’s final closure. To my knowledge, there weren’t any press releases or announcements; just a handful of bright green flyers taped to the doors announced the final closure of the long-suffering Laurel Mall.

Much more to come on the mall’s closing soon, as well as some early articles and photos trumpeting its grand opening back in 1979—when it got substantially more respect than a few bright green flyers.

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Laurel Art Center: The Final Weekend

This weekend, the Laurel Art Center reopened its doors (shuttered since February, when the Emery family announced their intent to close the iconic 35-year-old business) for a massive liquidation sale.

I visited with the intent of picking up copies of the few remaining Marian Quinn pen & ink reproductions of vintage Laurel landmarks that I hadn’t already purchased this past year—including one of the Laurel Art Center itself. (I’d superstitiously delayed buying it for fear that it too would become part of Lost Laurel.)

I anticipated quite a turnout after the sale was publicized in the Laurel Leader, and was right. By 10:30 Saturday morning, the line of paying customers was already to the back of the store. Needless to say, it was probably the longest line they’ve seen since the store’s inception. If only they could’ve had such lines all the time, but I digress.

And the wait to pay at the register was upwards of 45 minutes, but worth every second—not just for the incredible 75% discount, but for the time it provided to reflect on just how many visits I’d made to this wonderful store over the years. Even the carpet—that old, patchwork of mixed fabrics—caught my eye and brought back memories.

While standing in line, it was fitting that I noticed a few remaining watercolor sets—much like the little sets my parents first bought for me back in the late 1970s and early 80s, which undoubtedly fueled my early artistic ambitions. Of course, it would eventually be this very store that provided everything I’d need for drawing and painting, including the tons of supplies I required during my time at the Corcoran College of Art + Design.

The Laurel Art Center has honestly been a key part of my life for as long as I can remember. From my early childhood love of drawing and painting, to my college and professional career as a graphic designer, and even today as a casual historian of all things Laurel. So while I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stop by on Saturday to make sure I bought every last thing I could (and I did score some fantastic pieces, including some Marian Quinn originals for less than I’d paid for some prints), I knew I wouldn’t be able to properly photograph the store one last time with just my iPhone—not to mention with the crowds of other enthusiastic shoppers milling about. A return trip was in order today with a real camera, for one final walk through in an effort to document the countless details of the old store; to try to convey the experience of browsing through this 10,000 square foot eclectic treasure trove.

Both the inventory and the crowds were sparser, but the unmistakeable ambiance was still there.

(You can also view the complete photo set here on Flickr.)

While photographing each aisle, a vaguely familiar looking gentleman approached—also with a camera. “Looks like we had the same idea today,” he said. And within seconds, I realized that this must be John Floyd, II—the long-time Laurel resident who’s provided not just me, but the Laurel Leader and many others over the years with so many great photos and insight to the town’s history! “John?” I asked. “Rich?” He replied. We’ve been corresponding via email for the past year, but hadn’t had the chance to meet in person until today. Leave it to the Laurel Art Center to create one more memorable moment for me—on its final day, no less.

Such a treat finally meeting John Floyd II, who just happened to be here at the same time!

Main Street certainly won’t be the same without the store, nor will its legions of fans ever forget what it has meant to them over all these years. As one of the youngest members of the Emery family helped bag up my final purchases, (including a Marian Quinn original pen & ink of Petrucci’s and Pal Jack’s Pizza that I got for $18.75—I can’t believe no one else spotted that on the wall before I did) I took one last look at the thank you note on the counter.

No, thank you, Laurel Art Center. For everything.

***

Postscript: One additional print I made sure to buy today was that of The Gallery—the other Emery family-owned art and framing business just one block up on Main Street. Yesterday, I stopped by and spoke with Cathy Emery, who has been pulling double duty handling the fallout from the Art Center’s closing. Since February, The Gallery has been fulfilling orders that were placed through the Art Center. I remarked, half-jokingly, that I hope they aren’t planning on leaving anytime soon. You can imagine my surprise to learn that they were actually planning to do just that—even before the Art Center pulled the plug. Yikes.

While I’d love to hope that The Gallery will persevere and continue the Emery family’s wonderful artistic legacy in Laurel, it sounds as though their time may also be short. Be sure to visit their shop at 344 Main Street for all of your framing needs, and for both originals and reprints of Cathy’s amazing work documenting Laurel’s places past.

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