Tag Archives: Laurel History Boys

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.

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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):

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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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Maryland City

My next Laurel History Boys presentation will be on October 13th at the Maryland City Library, where Kevin Leonard and I will be discussing Maryland City. While Kevin covers the history of the residential community, my portion of the talk will focus on the area’s retail history.

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While I’ve found quite a few vintage photos and ads from various businesses, I have to admit—pinpointing exactly where some of them were in the two ever-changing Maryland City shopping centers is proving to be a chore.

Following are two site maps for the shopping centers. I’ve removed the current tenant list and simply numbered the units, and I’m hoping some of you can help fill in a few blanks—literally.

Please take a look and let me know in the comments if you can identify the locations of any particular businesses from either Brockbridge Shopping Center (198 & Old Line Avenue) or Maryland City Plaza (198 & Red Clay Road). Whether you recall them from the 1960s or the 1990s, let’s try to compile a list of historical tenants.

Starting with Brockbridge Shopping Center, I know that the large anchor stores were originally Drug Fair (#1) and A & P (#2). The A & P later became E.J. Roberts—a clothing store. In the strip mall section, I remember going to Tracy Crabtree’s barbershop in the early 90s, but I can’t recall exactly which of the storefronts was his.

 

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Likewise, Maryland City Plaza was originally home to the likes of Sears Surplus, Dart Drug, and Acme. The library branch was also located here before Russett was built.

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Part of the challenge in identifying shopping center locations (aside from fading memory) is that contemporary advertisements and phone directory listings rarely included a specific address—only that the business was located in said shopping center. Like this one, from 1968:

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Another obstacle is that the shopping centers themselves have changed over the years. Not only cosmetically, but large units have been split up, new sections added, etc. It can be surprisingly disorienting to visit an old shopping center again if you haven’t seen it in 20 years or so!

Despite having technically lived in Maryland City for a few years, (my parents bought a townhouse on Whiskey Bottom Road just behind the Starting Gate in 1987) I didn’t spend a lot of time at those shopping centers. Going back even further, my first youth football team was also in Maryland City. I still have my Mustangs jersey.

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I’d wear it to my presentation in October, but, um, it probably hasn’t fit me since I was about 12 years old. 🙂

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For Windy… and her family

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Over on the Laurel History Boys’ site, I’ve written about the recent, tragic death of Windy Floyd—a waitress and friend at the Tastee Diner, who was the unlikely victim of a murder-suicide on August 12th.

The boys and I started a GoFundMe page to help raise funds for Windy’s children and grandchildren, who are faced with the monumental task of picking up the pieces in the weeks to come.

The Diner has been raising money for the cause by going the more traditional route—the reliable old collection jar. And today, they gave us the proceeds they’ve collected to date: $516 cash, donated in bills of all denominations from customers and employees alike!

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It’s been deposited into the GoFundMe campaign, bringing the total raised (as of this writing) to $1,761 in just 11 days. That’s pretty amazing; but we’re hoping this is only the beginning. All proceeds will go to Windy’s oldest daughter, Lacey Petersen, to use and distribute as she sees fit.

The local community is proving to be both generous and creative in its support. Next Sunday morning, September 11th, Laurel resident (and Diner regular) Mary Piergalline will be setting up a small table outside the Diner to sell handmade jewelry—the likes of which Windy herself would’ve loved. Proceeds from the sale will go to this benefit.

You can help Windy’s family cope a little bit better by pitching in, even if it’s just a small amount. It all adds up, and you can even donate anonymously if you’d like. You can also help tremendously simply by sharing the link and spreading the word.

https://www.gofundme.com/windyfloydmemorial

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Meet the Mayors!

Not that long ago, Kevin Leonard, Pete Lewnes and I were having lunch at the Tastee Diner, discussing potential people to interview for our new Laurel History Boys project. Half-jokingly, I said, “How cool would it be to get all of the living ex-mayors of Laurel together, and film them reminiscing?”

Lo and behold, in what will be our very first public program, we’re getting ready to do just that.

I’m thrilled that each of the living former Mayors of Laurel—along with current Mayor Craig A. Moe—will be participating in a fun, informal roundtable discussion, reminiscing on their time in office.

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Dani Duniho, who was Laurel’s first and only female mayor (from 1986-1990) was planning to join us via Skype from her home in Tuscon, Arizona. Unfortunately, she has some family commitments this weekend and won’t be able to join us live. However, Kevin spent a good deal of time with her on the phone, and she provided a wealth of anecdotes that he’ll be sharing. So she will still very much be part of the discussion.

Joining Mayor Moe at the table will be former mayors Robert DiPietro (1978-86), Joe Robison (1990-94), and Mike Leszcz (2001-02)—the latter being the only mayor in Laurel’s history to hold the office after the death of a sitting mayor, when he completed the second term of the late Frank Casula.

We’ve got some interesting questions for these guys, but the real fun will be seeing where the conversation goes when we turn them loose! Time permitting, the mayors will also be taking some questions from the audience.

This free event will be open to the public, and takes place tomorrow evening:

Saturday, December 12
5PM
Laurel Police Department Partnership Activity Center
811 Fifth Street

We’ll also be filming the discussion and posting it on laurelhistory.com, as well as sharing it with Laurel TV.

I designed a program brochure for the event, and Bob Mignon of Minuteman Press on Main Street graciously donated the printing. If you’re attending in person, you’ll get one!

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Also, a big thanks to Jeff Dudley—who wrote a wonderful piece on the Laurel History Boys in his Old Town Laurel column in this week’s Laurel Leader!

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Pete will have a table set up displaying some of the vintage political pieces from his extensive collection, and we’ll also have some t-shirts, vintage posters, and Lost Laurel books for sale. (Perfect stocking stuffers!)

Come join us tomorrow night, and meet the Mayors of Laurel!

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