This being the first year that Santa Claus (or anyone else, for that matter) won’t be at Laurel Centre Mall, let’s take a look back at his very first visit in 1979.
This being the first year that Santa Claus (or anyone else, for that matter) won’t be at Laurel Centre Mall, let’s take a look back at his very first visit in 1979.
If you’re like me, you’ve often wondered what it would be like to fly over Laurel Shopping Center… in July 1971. Thanks to John Floyd II, who shared this fantastic print of a Kodachrome 64 slide from the collection of Laurel Rescue Squad, now we know!
Some eight years before Laurel Centre Mall would be built, the Hecht Co. building dominates the ample parking lot.
Directly behind Hecht’s, along Marshall Avenue, is an odd sight for those familiar with the area today—single family houses—the few remaining dwellings before the Arbitron Building would arrive in January 1979.
Further down Marshall Avenue, we see the 150-car parking deck for the new Georgetown Alley shops—15 stores which opened in April of that year. Marshall Avenue passed directly below the parking deck, in what was easily the darkest, creepiest corner of the shopping center.
In the foreground of the picture, along Route 1, we see the familiar blue gabled roof of the original International House of Pancakes. To its right, just across Marshall Avenue, we see just a sliver of the parking lot of Laurel’s original McDonald’s drive-thru—the building which would soon become the Big T/Tastee Freez.
And speaking of colorful roofs, note the tiny yellow speck just below the Giant Food neon sign near the shopping center’s entrance. Yep, it’s the Fotomat, where countless photos were processed over the years—although probably not very many from this perspective.
Technically, I haven’t lived in Laurel for about 15 years. But being just around the Beltway in Northern Virginia, I do enjoy coming back for frequent visits; and for photographs and research for Lost Laurel. Maintaining that close proximity to my old hometown is particularly important to me when things happen—like when buildings are torn down, or when malls are closing their doors.
While I enjoy a west coast vacation as much as the next guy, I was sad to learn that the old Laurel Shopping Center Cinema sign was quickly (and apparently without much advanced notice) dismantled last week while I was in Los Angeles. Had I known, I would’ve hopped onto said Beltway in a heartbeat to get as many photos of the process as possible. Fortunately, there were some like-minded readers who happened to be nearby, who did just that—a big thanks to those who posted them and tipped me off to the impending changes!
There were also a few surprises to be found as the old sign was pulled apart… but more on that in a moment. First, let’s take a look at a few photos I’ve found of the sign from the past decade or so—a decade which saw a rapid deterioration of one of the most prominent signs along the Route 1 corridor.
The above photo brings back vivid memories of dusk at Laurel Shopping Center, despite the unusual selection of films. These are the same neon hues that I recall when The Breakfast Club was highlighting the marquee in 1985. But by March 2010—and after at least one period of closure—the Cinema had reopened with an apparent emphasis on Bollywood films.
Admittedly, I haven’t seen a film in that theater since 1995’s Braveheart, when the sign was already showing its age badly. Over the next few years, the neon lights that comprised the word “CINEMA” gradually blew out and/or broke, and weren’t replaced. Equally visually-crippling, sometime after Laurel Centre officially rebranded itself as “Laurel Mall” in April 1998, the sign lost its oval Laurel Centre logo which co-branded it with Laurel Shopping Center. The result was a blank white, functionless oval that projected off the sign like a tumor.
And when the Cinema finally closed again, the sign sat unused at all, simply gathering rust. I’d actually been wondering if there were going to be any plans to tear it down… before it eventually fell down on its own.
Fast-forward to just a couple of weeks ago, when a whimsical message appeared on the old marquee:
Sure enough, within days—and despite the vicious DC heatwave I managed to avoid while in LA—friends were posting photos on Facebook of the sign coming down. And it was in this first one, by Joe Leizear, that something caught my eye:
Do you see it, too? Red lettering.
The word “LAUREL”in large, red block letters—not something that I had ever seen on the Cinema sign. In fact, it had been hidden beneath the Cinema marquee all along. I realized that the Cinema sign had merely covered the original Laurel Shopping Center sign, which I never had the chance to see before in person. In fact, it was only while recently digging through old directories that I came across a logo representation of it—this one from 1976:
Subsequent photos, such as the one below, showed the additional elements of the original sign, including the end of the arrow—which had been obscured all this time by the clumsy “Laurel Shopping Center” top band and aforementioned oval protrusion which covered/replaced the arrowhead:
Facebook user Spleenless Jen shared some fantastic images of what was left of the original panels before they were dismantled, shedding even more light on the faded red typography that had been hidden for over three decades:
That brings us to the new sign.
I’ve seen a few photos floating around, including an early artist’s rendering (the signature type of which has been modified in the final product, apparently).
What to make of this more modernized and functional signage, which includes a digital screen and a colorful, decorative motif? Is it an improvement? Over a rusted, misused sign that was likely beyond repair—yes, absolutely. As a promising retail beacon that will draw shoppers for decades to come? Frankly, I’m not that optimistic.
For starters, nothing about the new sign is unique or differentiates it from countless other shopping centers. It’s not necessarily the sign’s fault, mind you—it takes more than just a sign to successfully brand a franchise. Unless someone is planning to update the entire shopping center and integrate the new motif—or at least the colors, to some degree—they’re stuck with a new sign that simply doesn’t fit the shopping center it’s intended to represent.
Worse, from a functionality standpoint, I would be deeply concerned about the feasibility of maintaining that video screen. Not to be a downer, but how long before a vandal (pedestrian or motorist) decides to shatter or otherwise deface it? Let’s be honest—Laurel has always had its share of ne’er-do-wells; and such fancy new devices—literally within arm’s reach—might as well include a sign with a bright red target that says “please vandalize me”. And historically, the shopping center and mall both have not exactly been great about maintaining features that require, well, maintenance. Remember the unique revolving carousel platform in the mall’s center court that eventually stopped revolving? And the very sign that we’re now discussing? My point exactly. If and when these types of things break repeatedly, shopping center management is likely to simply stop fixing it. And when it’s literally the face of the shopping center, such as this sign will be—the first thing visitors see upon approaching—that’s not good.
Granted, I’ve never bought a giant neon sign for a shopping center before, nor have I designed one (yet). But as a designer, my priority would always be to ensure that whatever sign I implemented was relevant and suited its environment. I wouldn’t include decorative elements that weren’t reflective of the larger shopping center itself. If the surrounding area was prone to or accessible to vandals, I wouldn’t position expensive components like digital screens close to street/sidewalk level. Moreover, I’d want to know all I could about the shopping center and its origins, and design a complete brand that highlighted its best features and spoke to its historical significance—and have the sign be the linchpin of that brand. Consider a book cover design; it needs to properly represent the story within—and it needs to attract readers. A shopping center sign isn’t much different in that regard.
Laurel Shopping Center opened in 1956, and arguably saw its best days in the 1960s. (I wasn’t born yet, so I can’t attest to that). But by most accounts, the shopping center was profitable and ever-expanding—a growth that continued well into the 70s with the addition of Georgetown Alley. There have been some aesthetic modifications over the years, for better or worse: awnings and storefronts have evolved, most notably. But the core design has remained the same. It’s still fundamentally a 1960s open-air shopping center; something that could’ve been embraced in the design of the new sign rather than mocked. “The 60s called and they want this sign back”. Really? I think the 60s called and expressed their hope that somebody would’ve had the foresight to restore the shopping center’s original sign, rather than replace it with a generic model that most likely won’t survive a third of the time that its predecessor did.
Even that fleeting glimpse of the old sign’s red lettering and bold arrow reveals a timeless typography that could’ve been resurrected and repurposed into a more suitable, modern sign; a melding of past and present that suggests a long-standing shopping center that the community is proud of. The new sign just doesn’t accomplish that.
Our friend John Floyd II supplied the following photos today, showing the base portion of the new sign already in place. Because the top piece had not yet been attached, he was able to point out something interesting: once again, part of the original sign is still being used—those two vertical I-beams. That original sign simply won’t die, it seems. He also astutely noted the issue with the decorative motif—even more bluntly than I had.
“That funky orange-and-brown block design on the sign’s plinth looks like the 1960s got traded in favour of the 1970s! Very disco and Brady Bunch-esque!”
Coincidentally, the Laurel Centre/Mall notoriously replaced all of its original brown floor tile and wooden accents in 1991—less than 12 years after the mall opened—because management felt that it was “too 1970s”. Ironic that a 1970s pattern would now emerge on the brand new sign for Laurel Shopping Center.
I wasn’t born until December 1972, and my family didn’t move to Laurel until 1976. But it wasn’t long afterward that I began to hear about some famous politician having been shot in the parking lot of Laurel Shopping Center on May 15, 1972.
Even as a small child, something about that fascinated me—and it has ever since. Our home town was on the map, so to speak, because of this moment of infamy. Alabama Governor George C. Wallace—a controversial presidential candidate who would actually win the democratic primary in Maryland that year—had just stepped down from the podium, removed his jacket, and begun glad-handing some of the approximately 1,000 who’d assembled to hear and/or jeer his campaign speech. Within seconds, he’d be gunned down by the proverbial lone nut—a 21-year-old would-be assassin from Milwaukee, Wisconsin named Arthur Bremer.
Wallace would survive the shooting, (in spite of a total of five wounds, including shots to the chest and abdomen) but would be confined to a wheelchair and in constant pain for the remaining 26 years of his life. He died in 1998, having spent years renouncing his segregationist past, apologizing, and attempting to rectify a general perception of him as an unvarnished racist—a view he claimed brought him more pain than the assassination attempt itself.
Arthur Bremer would spend the next 35 years in a Hagerstown, MD prison before being released (18 years early) in 2007. Now living in Cumberland, he’ll remain on supervised release until 2025. Bremer’s diary, published after his arrest, revealed that the assassination attempt was motivated by a desire for fame, rather than politics, and that President Nixon had also been an earlier target. Bremer’s actions inspired the screenplay for the 1976 movie Taxi Driver, which in turn provoked the 1981 assassination attempt on the life of President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley, Jr..
Of course, this isn’t a political blog, so I won’t ramble on about Wallace and Bremer’s respective biographies—there’s plenty of information on them out there if you’re interested. Although as a boxing fan, I will say that I was surprised to learn that George Wallace had been a two-time State Golden Gloves champ. But I digress.
Suffice it to say, I learned at an early age that what had happened at Laurel Shopping Center that afternoon 40 years ago today was a pretty big deal. And it wasn’t just a big deal in Laurel—it had national ramifications. From that point on, it seemed that any and all references to Laurel, Maryland—be it printed in encyclopedias, or in conversation with folks from out of town—inevitably mentioned the Wallace shooting.
He was even on a collector’s card!
In fact, to this day, an online image search of our fair town will inevitably yield photos of George Wallace (although, more recently, Laurel has also been dubiously tied to the 9/11 hijackers—several of whom stayed here in the days leading up to that tragic day).
But on this 40th anniversary, let’s look at the Wallace shooting in the context of Lost Laurel, rather than simply recapping the event and its principal players.
One of the first questions I had as a kid was, simply, where exactly did the shooting occur? Most of the photos I’ve seen (as well as footage of the shooting itself) are so tightly cropped and non-specific, it’s difficult to discern where in the Laurel Shopping Center this actually happened.
My parents, in fact, had long believed that it took place in the Montrose Ave. crosswalk beside Giant Food—probably because the stage Wallace spoke upon resembles the nativity scene that was in that location throughout the 80s. Plus, it seems like a logical place to hold the assembly. However, that was not the case.
The stage was actually set closer to the center of the parking lot, just behind what was at that time the Equitable Trust Bank, (currently Bank of America). It was in this area of the parking lot—between the south side of the bank and Woolworth’s—that Governor Wallace was shot.
The photos below, courtesy of John Floyd II, show the back (south side) of the bank—where the shooting took place. John, 14 years old at the time, was there that day with his mother, and estimates the actual spot of the shooting to be approximately where the white car is parked in this photo.
You’ve probably noticed the name “State Bank” on the photo above. That’s what it was before it became Equitable Trust. (Hmm… banks constantly changing names—some things weren’t so different 40 years ago after all, were they?) Below is a Laurel News Leader cover photo from October 1962, which announced a $60,000 construction and improvement program to the State Bank’s Laurel Shopping Center branch, including an enlargement of the lobby and two new executive offices, a fall-out shelter in the basement, complete new heating and air-conditioning plants, as well as decorating and landscaping.
A 35mm color slide from an undated winter during the bank’s Equitable Trust era gives us a peek at the front of the building; although it’s somewhat difficult to focus on anything other than the massive, lumpy, telephone-wielding snowman perched atop the bank. During this phase, the bank had been painted white. We can also see the addition of a clock in the lower portion of the large, vertical sign—the lettering of which was also obviously changed. (I’m assuming it simply said “BANK”).
The file photo below shows the aftermath of the shooting—just after Wallace had been whisked away by ambulance. (John Floyd noted that prior to the assassination attempt, the entire parking lot between the bank and Woolworth’s was packed with spectators). In the photo, we also have a distant glimpse of some of the other businesses that were there at the time—most notably, Hecht’s in the top left corner behind the bank; the original International House of Pancakes, with its gabled roof; the Laurel Car Wash (originally owned by former Laurel Mayor Harry Hardingham, and still in business today!); a BP gas station; and a Fotomat booth.
To that point, let’s look at what else comprised Laurel Shopping Center at that time. The following directory came out a few years later, but many of the businesses listed had been open at the time of the shooting.
Another view of the shopping center from this era comes from an apparent protest of, well, pants. This demonstration, apparently calling for the boycott of Farah Pants at Hecht’s, occurred in December 1973.
It’s also worth noting that one of the more dramatic photos that came across the AP Wire—showing a motionless Wallace lying in the back of a station wagon while awaiting an ambulance—was taken by a Laurel photographer, J.A. Bowman.
Recently, I found a photo that appeared in the October 16, 1977 issue of the Washington Post, recalling the shooting five years later. The article featured Mabel and Ross Speigle, between whom the would-be assassin literally reached while firing. Ross was the gentleman in the ball cap, whose tattooed arm you can see grabbing Bremer’s arm. The couple recalled their incredible experience, and were photographed in the spot where it all happened.
Back in January, I’d noticed a discussion thread on another Laurel-themed Facebook page. Susan Poe commented on a video link of the shooting: “The man wrestling the shooter to the ground was my neighbor, when I lived on 4th Street—Ross Speigle, and his wife Mabel was beside him… for anyone who remembers. I remember that day very well.” I posted the photo for Sue, who’d never seen it. She quickly replied, “OMG! Tears in my eyes… I haven’t seen their faces in over 20 years. Thank you so much. Wow. You have no idea. They were like family to me.”
She went on to tell me that Mabel (or “Mabe”, as she was known) had passed away from cancer, and Ross followed her a few years later. It was clear that this had been a very special couple, even without their unexpected involvement in the Wallace incident. Ross had acted out of instinct in grabbing Bremer’s arm—an action that could very well have been the reason why no one was killed that day. But the Speigles’ courage didn’t end there; Mabel proved to be a dynamic witness who helped seal Arthur Bremer’s fate:
Given this significant anniversary, I thought it only fitting that Mabel and Ross accompany me (in a manner of speaking) back to the site one more time.
There’s at least one other camera angle showing the Wallace shooting—this one with a brief glimpse of the Equitable Trust Bank itself, giving the surroundings more context. In this particular upload (set to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama) the footage doesn’t begin in earnest until the 1:34 mark. However, it’s in color; and it has sound. You can easily get a sense of the chaos in the immediate aftermath on that incredible day.
And lastly, there was a film made about the life of George Wallace. It’s titled, (you guessed it) George Wallace. Gary Sinise starred in the title role, alongside Angelina Jolie as his then-wife, Cornelia. The filmmakers did a decent job recreating the “Laurel Shopping Center” stage from which Wallace spoke before the shooting, but anyone who’s familiar with Laurel will immediately notice the surroundings and realize that the scene wasn’t shot (no pun intended) at Laurel Shopping Center. Interestingly enough, Gary Sinise won an Emmy for the performance—on the very night that the real George Wallace passed away.
The local weather forecasters had been predicting some snow for the DC metropolitan area this Presidents Day weekend, but alas, there was little if any precipitation. Instead, it’s bright and dry; and the air is clean, crisp, and refreshing—not unlike a Dart Drug ginger ale.
I’m not sure if it’s exactly “caramel colored” outside as well, but I digress.
You can’t have a vintage toy Dart Drug truck without also having a vintage toy Drug FAIR truck, I always say. Laurel Plaza and Montpelier Shopping Center, represent.
Photos of Laurel’s Drug Fair stores—or any in the DC metropolitan area, for that matter—have been very tough to come by. In fact, most of the Internet only seems to recall a chain of the same name based in Somerset, NJ.
But Laurel’s Drug Fair was much more likely part of an earlier, Arlington, VA-based chain. A different company altogether. According to the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, “Milton Elsberg opened a pharmacy in Arlington with Robert Gerber in 1938. By the late 1970s, Drug Fair had expanded into a regional chain of 176 stores. Many suburban stores stayed open all night—a marketing first.”
They also produced some pretty cool toys, which were built to last. At least I know that the “friction-powered” truck I found is definitely from our Drug Fair chain, if not from one of the actual Laurel stores. An unexpected surprise, it came with its original package, which included the Alexandria, VA distribution info.
I’ve come across a number of other interesting Drug Fair items on eBay, which (thankfully) I have no use for; but I’ve included them here for posterity nonetheless. As these feature an even older logo, I’m not completely sure that they’re from the Alexandria, VA chain or not; but considering the pharmacy dates back to 1938 (versus the New Jersey chain’s inception in 1954), my guess is that these are part of the same:
And speaking of logos, here are the two officially trademarked versions that I’ve been able to confirm. The first is from 1972, and the other—more recognizable to those from my generation—was filed in 1978.
I can still picture the checkout clerks sporting that second logo as a sewn patch on their smocks in the early 1980s. As I recall, Drug Fair was always a wonderful place to score the coolest school supplies. Many of my all-time favorite Trapper Keepers and NFL pencil sets were bought at the Montpelier Shopping Center Drug Fair. Fortunately, if you’re interested, such things can also still be found on eBay. Although, be sure to brace yourself for the price. This ain’t exactly Drug Fair…
Long before the current (as of this writing) Laurel Station Bar & Grill on Baltimore Ave., there was one of these—a Ponderosa Steakhouse.
It’s been any number of different establishments since its heyday in the 1970s—most notably, (and similarly) perhaps, a Sizzler—but I’ve literally lost count. For me, the building has always been (and always will be) Ponderosa.
Ironically, I may have only eaten there one time before it closed in the early 80s, but I walked past it almost daily en route to the mall.
One year later, in 1977, the Laurel Shopping Center’s phone directory added another four listings (bringing the total to 88, while still touting “90 stores to serve you!”) And evidently, still no one noticed that misspelling of Montgomery Ward at the top. Hmm…
The most notable addition has to be that of Hair House, with their catchy phone number: 498-HAIR. It’s part of Bart’s Barber Shop, and is still in business today—with the same number.
If you lived in Laurel in 1976, chances are, you probably had to call one of the stores at Laurel Shopping Center at some point. Maybe to check what times Rocky was playing at the Cinema; or perhaps to see if Suburban Music had that new Bee Gees record in stock yet. And to do that, you probably referred to your standard Laurel yellow pages, or the annual Laurel Community Guide distributed by the Laurel Area Chamber of Commerce. Within either of those publications, you would have found this handy phone directory—which included an alphabetical listing of all “90 stores to serve you!” in the Laurel Shopping Center. (You probably never noticed that there were only 84 listed, but I digress).
You probably did notice, however, that the busy typesetter misspelled Montgomery Ward in the masthead banner. And you may also have wondered what the difference was between “Dentist Office” and “Dentist’s Office”, but again I digress.
Glancing at this list over 35 years later, you’re probably most surprised now at how archaic these once-common phone numbers suddenly look… without an area code.
At the time, everything in Maryland was area code 301—and more importantly, you never had to dial it for local calls. Seeing a phone number in print without an area code today looks almost as antiquated as those old telephone exchange names from the 1940s.
This was the heart of Laurel retail at the time, and it would be another three years before Laurel Centre Mall even came along. There are some unforgettable names on this list, and some that have have probably faded from memory over the years. And incredibly, there are a few that are actually still in business there to this day. How many do you recognize?
This photograph of the 300 block of Main Street near Avondale captures more than just a few long-lost details. It was taken during Laurel’s 1970 Centennial Celebration.
Now-gone businesses in the scene include Light’s Shoes and Apparel, the Laurel News Leader newspaper office, and Snyder’s Cleaners.
But the street itself would undergo quite a transformation in the years to follow. Streetside details such as parking meter posts, wooden utility and streetlamp poles—with their bottom ends painted in pastel colors for “beautification”— granite kerbstones, concrete “parking strips”, and large, tall trees have not been seen since Main Street was rebuilt in 1980-1981. Yet, surprisingly, the overall aesthetic of Main Street remains as familiar today as it did on this clear day 41 years ago.