Greater Greater Washington

Glenmont Arcade shows Montgomery's commercial history

With its distinctive sign, the Glenmont Arcade was a local landmark and an emblem of Montgomery County's suburbanization after World War II. But as the county prepares to redevelop Glenmont, will it still have a place in the community?


The Glenmont Arcade. Photo by the author.

Located in the Glenmont Shopping Center at Georgia Avenue and Randolph Road, the Glenmont Arcade is like a little mall-within-a-strip mall. The arcade was built in 1952 by the Glenmont Land and Development Company, which built many of the surrounding residential neighborhoods. It was the first part of the Glenmont Shopping Center, which was completed in little pieces over the following decade.

The arcade consists of a short, enclosed hallway lined with shops that ends at the entrance of a bowling alley, a beloved local institution that closed in 2002. Unlike a mall or other arcades where the shops are placed in a straight line, each of the shopfronts are angled towards the parking lot, so you can see what's inside without actually having to go inside. According to this 2001 study of the site's history, the arcade originally contained 11 "one-person businesses" in small shops.

Glenmont Arcade, 2001
The Glenmont Arcade in 2001. Photo from Anne Bruder, Maryland State Highway Administration.

Though I've lived in Montgomery County most of my life, I'd never actually been to the Glenmont Arcade before last weekend, when I talked to Scott Whipple, a historic preservation planner at the county's Planning Department, at their open house. He's particularly interested in commercial areas from the mid-20th century, like the Flower Shopping Center in Long Branch, which is currently being studied for preservation.

"It's not often that we get to do something like that," he said. There aren't many remaining examples of architecture from the 1950's and 60's; many buildings have either been torn down, remodeled beyond recognition, or under constant threat from the wrecking ball. One of them is the Glenmont Arcade, which could be demolished under a new plan the county's working on.

Unassuming as it may seem, the Glenmont Arcade comes from a long line of shopping arcades, which first originated in Paris over two hundred years ago before coming to the United States at the turn of the 20th century. They first appeared here in 1925, when the Chevy Chase Arcade was built on Connecticut Avenue in the District. Arcades also served as the inspiration for modern shopping malls like Wheaton Plaza, which was built 7 years after the Glenmont Arcade, and other strip malls around the country.

'Checks Cashed'
Inside the Glenmont Arcade today. Photo by the author.

Stepping inside the arcade feels kind of like a time capsule. There are linoleum floors, bright-white and shiny, though they replaced the original terrazzo floors. Fluorescent lights reminiscent of a high-school cafeteria hum quietly. There's an old address sign (for "12345 Georgia Avenue"), which appears to have been hand-painted and a barber pole rotating slowly outside the barbershop that's been there since the arcade opened.

Nonetheless, the space has seen better days. The bowling alley was eventually replaced by a church, which papered over their entrance; all of the shops on the left-hand side were combined into one restaurant, which also papered over their windows. And the two storefronts at the very back, which were probably the most sought-after spaces when next to a busy movie theatre, are now both empty. There are no people in the arcade, save for four teenagers hanging out and smoking, and the occasional customer walking from a check-cashing place out to the parking lot.

Outside, I try to take a photo lining up the Glenmont Arcade sign with the water tower a few blocks away, when I'm approached by a guy wearing oval-rimmed glasses and three coats. He asked what I was doing. "I like the sign," I replied.

"Yeah, it's a nice sign," he said. "It's a shame what happened to the Arcade," he adds, voice trailing off as he shuffles away.

Glenmont Arcade Head-On
Men hang out in front of the Glenmont Arcade, which has seen better days.

The Planning Department is currently working on the Glenmont Sector Plan, which will chart a course for turning Glenmont's business district around. However, the Planning Board chose not to study the Glenmont Arcade for its historical merit. Since the Glenmont Shopping Center was built in several pieces, it's broken up into 15 different lots and has 13 different owners. That will make both redeveloping the shopping center hard, but preserving any part of it even harder.

The arcade itself has just one owner, Greenhill Capital, a Bethesda-based company that owns a third of downtown Wheaton. There are no current plans for redeveloping the Glenmont Shopping Center, though Greenhill may be sympathetic to calls for preserving all or part of the arcade. Company head Lenny Greenberg, who I interviewed earlier this year, has stressed the importance of preserving Wheaton's local culture. When he redeveloped the Anchor Inn, a once-popular restaurant there, he chose to save the 1950's-era sign.

Whipple told me that there's "nothing like" the Glenmont Arcade in Montgomery County, and he's right. As he wrote in a recent blog post, it's better to "reuse buildings than to throw them in the trash." Do we have to throw the Glenmont Arcade in the trash to improve this community? We won't know unless we give this building a fair shake and consider it for historic preservation.

Check out this slideshow of the Glenmont Arcade then and now.

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Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 

Comments

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There's a little arcade in Bethesda, at 7710 Wisconsin Ave. You can walk through to a little parking lot that cars enter from Woodmont Avenue. If you look at the Wisconsin Ave entrance on Google Streetview, you will see signs for Comfort Shoes and KG Hair Studio, which both are entered through the arcade if you are coming from Wisconsin.

by Ben Ross on Oct 12, 2012 2:45 pm • linkreport

I immediately thought of the one in Bethesda. Sadly, its days are numbered - there is going to be a Westin Hotel built there soon.

http://www.gazette.net/article/20111214/NEWS/712149459&template=gazette

I don't know the future of the Glenmont Arcade, but I hope they at least save that sign. A great example of Googie style.

by Frank IBC on Oct 12, 2012 6:34 pm • linkreport

I haven't been to that arcade before, but I've been to another one at St. Elmo Avenue and Old Georgetown Road (I think). You have to go through a parking garage to get inside, and then there's a little carpeted hallway with some shops. Definitely a time warp! I'll have to see the other one before it's gone.

by dan reed! on Oct 12, 2012 6:40 pm • linkreport

While reading this piece, I, too, was thinking of the small arcade at 7710 Wisconsin Ave. in Bethesda. If I'm not mistaken, an ice cream parlor is located there—Giffords?—or at least one used to be.

As for the Glenmont Arcade, it's a tough call. Times have changed. Wheaton has changed. The one-person business shop is almost no longer. What makes this structure valuable in terms of possible preservation is its design and layout—the small angled retails spaces, etc.—yet it is just those facets that are pushing the building toward obsolescence. Should we be preserving structures as relics, particularly if there is no feasible case for adaptive reuse?

by Sage on Oct 12, 2012 6:42 pm • linkreport

The "Glenmont Arcade" sign makes me think of this logo:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hItX0ArND9k

by Frank IBC on Oct 12, 2012 7:31 pm • linkreport

Yes, there was a Giffords at that arcade for ages. It closed about 10 or 15 years ago and was later replaced by the store next to the Bethesda Row theaters. The latter store closed in 2010.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gifford%27s_Ice_Cream_%26_Candy_Co.

by Frank IBC on Oct 12, 2012 7:56 pm • linkreport

The Glenmont arcade is definitely a relic. The entrance to Tuffy Lehman's duckpin lanes was at the end of the arcade. However, while i like the idea of preserving the sign, let's not let nostalgia lead to any attempt to block redevelopment of this site (not that anyone has suggested that....yet). The Glenmont shopping center is an incredible land resource in this highly developed county, and almost adjacent to Metro. Investment in the center would be good for the neighborhood and the county.

by LisaR on Oct 13, 2012 5:37 am • linkreport

At what point is "historical preservation" simply saving old junk? It turns urbanists into public hoarders. When it comes to the extremes of saving old, impractical mostly vacant shopping centers that have been underutilized for decades simply out of "preservation" it hampers redeveloping neighborhoods from fully reaching their potential and benefitting the larger community.

by Mike O on Oct 13, 2012 8:25 am • linkreport

Interesting post Dan. Historic preservation shouldn't be about relic collecting and antiquarianism. I wonder if there would be the same level of attachment and aesthetic appeal if the sign hadn't survived all of the changes to the property. The sign and arcade raise valid questions about balancing the need to preserve elements of the recent past with the community's needs to redevelop obsolete properties.

The sign, arcade, and shopping center represent the zenith of car culture in Washington's suburbs: the Postwar boom. If historic preservation is about context as well as artifact, you need to ask yourself what should be preserved here. Like the Flower shopping center, the focal point of this site at the time it was developed wasn't the architecture or signage: it was the abundant, accessible, and free parking. Should the vast sea of asphalt be preserved along with the sign and arcade to keep with preservation's goals of considering the entire scene, the tout ensemble? Or do we need to admit that preservation has not really evolved from the 20th century model of preserving the pretty and appealing? If you call for preserving the sign and arcade here, you cannot divorce the elements from the entire scene that includes lots of unsustainable parking lot area.

I'm not suggesting that the property doesn't warrant scrutiny and recognition that it is historic. I think it does require study and I think it meets all of the applicable criteria -- legal and academic -- for being called "historic." But is it historic enough to preserve the entire scene or should the artifacts be recovered, excavated (to draw on an archaeology metaphor), and the property owner allowed to move on with whatever development is necessary to allow the community to grow and prosper?

by David Rotenstein on Oct 13, 2012 10:03 am • linkreport

The arcade is a dump and needs to be bulldozed with everything else. I participated in the County zoning meetings where 100 residents sat together with the County to come up with ideas for redevelopment that serve the residents better.

Not one wanted the shopping center to remain as is. Almost everyone wanted to see it flattened and a totally new configuration created with a more "town center" development, with better retail, traffic flow, lighting, housing (condos/apts) and walking paths.

The only ones who are dragging their feet are the 13 land owners and Greenhill is the biggest jerk of the bunch. He doesn't want to redevelop the area because he owns half of Wheaton and he's invested in Wheaton and wants the business to stay there, not move up Georgia Ave.

Thankfully, the County is moving ahead with the landowners of the surrounding apartments, who are owned by single entities and who are interested in selling their property for redevelopment.

The Glenmont Shopping Center will remain the eyesore that it is, but other development will proceed and Greenhill can take a hike.

by Bryan E on Oct 13, 2012 10:52 am • linkreport

@Bryan

As I wrote, the arcade is the only example of its kind in Montgomery County - the ones in Bethesda are similar, but different - and people do seem to appreciate the sign. That said, I don't see why it's impossible to keep the arcade and build around it.

David raises an interesting point: how far do you go to preserve the context of something deemed historic? I wouldn't save the parking lot, and I wouldn't keep the rest of the shopping center, which doesn't appear to have the same historical significance. But the Arcade is unique and a local landmark, not unlike the Flower Theatre in Long Branch, and just because it's a little rundown doesn't mean it can't be salvaged.

We can scrape everything in Glenmont and build a town center like Bethesda Row on top, but then you might as well just go to Bethesda Row. We can have new development AND attempt to acknowledge what already exists as well.

by dan reed! on Oct 13, 2012 7:12 pm • linkreport

I'm all for historic preservation, but this seems like a stretch. This site is a strip mall and an incredibly cheap one at that. No one visiting the preserved "Arcade" of Glenmont will feel transported back to another era becasue unfortunatley that era is still with us. Look up and down Rockville Pike or any of the older arterials going out of DC and you will find post war strip malls of every stripe. Yes, this one has a halllway with inward facing stores, but I'm not sure every retail aramgement has to be preserved, especially given it's location on two major roads and a metro station nearby.

"There aren't many remaining examples of architecture from the 1950's and 60's" I find this statement incredible. The huge postwar boom that transformed our area from a sleepy southern town has left ample evidence for historians and antiquarians to pour over. The current mid century modern revival has done something a lot more important than shed light on this ubiquitous peroid of car oriented disposable architecture, it's shown that forward looking modernist architects aren't above reviving historical styles. Nothing wrong with that if you're not in the habit of criticising every other revival style as nothing more than disneyland nostangia.

There's a lot of cool looking "googie" or "doowop" or "mid-century" architecture around to preserve and inspire young architects, but this building has nothing of note beyond a retro looking sign. Save the sign, revive the style, but don't save what is essentially a dime a dozen strip mall when such a promising TOD could be developed.

by Thayer-D on Oct 13, 2012 9:00 pm • linkreport

@ Dan Reed

As a resident of Glenmont, I would be VERY HAPPY if the Glenmont Shopping Center was another version of Bethesda Row and I don't think you'd find one resident who wouldn't be as well.

More importantly, WHO is claiming the arcade as a local landmark? I'm sorry, but Thayer-D is correct that a small hallway with outward facing store fronts and a neat sign is NOT historic or worthy of that designation. If you want to preserve the sign, fine. Remove it and then demo the building, but it absolutely nothing to claim as historic.

by Bryan E on Oct 14, 2012 12:17 pm • linkreport

Dan, although I think historic preservation is valuable, and I don't consider myself an expert on the worthiness of this particular venue, my gut response is that the small good of preserving this marginally worthwhile space would be greatly outweighed by any delay in positive development or reduction in utility of the new development that might occur through trying to keep the arcade. Maybe this is colored by the fact that, personally, I don't find it aesthetically pleasing or of great use.

Regardless, I really hope they can build some sort of town-center-like place at this site. A much bigger issue to me than the arcade is: if this place even does get redeveloped, will it be done in an even somewhat urban form? I applaud the county planners for their vision but there are little/no government dollars to help it along at this point, so we might just get what we get... or get nothing.

by Tim H on Oct 14, 2012 12:38 pm • linkreport

Why settle for "either/or" - why not have both? Save the arcade and accommodate additional development/density on the site! And please save the former bowling alley too - Tuffy Leemans - GW Colonials Football great, NY Giants Star and NFL Hall of Famer!

by GWalum on Oct 14, 2012 10:52 pm • linkreport

Arcades need pedestrian traffic to work and this one would need a complete reconception and re-renting of the immediate complex to really have preservation value. It actually would make a nice srts-type space with the right traffic driving anchor.

Glenmont is not usunual--many early suburban shopping areas were developed piecemeal like this, much like an old fashioned downtown, although Glenmont's shopping center is less organized than these places usually are. The lack of common ownnership makes redevelopment difficult. The owners tend to be small holders nervous about stasis and change. Unlike a lot of these suburban downtowns, Glenmont doesn't have much coherence and sacrificing something clever like the arcade might help in getting a more integrated place.

As for mid-century retail architecture. The interesting stuff has been disappearing for years. Arlington's redevlopment has erased or covered up a lot of it. Rockville Pike (upthread) was a rellative late comer and most of the earlier complexes like Congressional have lost what little character they once had and Mid-Pike soon will be a mixed use complex. There isn't much surviving Googie here (scattered and often in poor repair) and the late art moderne is probably what's most visible and worth saving. The DC area's post-WWII archectural stock is pretty awful--the highlights include mediocre buildings by name brand architects like the Washington Plaza hotel, the much maligned MLK library, and celebrity architect kitsch like the Kennedy Center; most of the rest is excessively bland, which is why places like the Flower Theater are worth saving.

by Rich on Oct 14, 2012 11:03 pm • linkreport

I second Rich's comments which I tend to agree with anyway. Googie tends to be the best of 1950's and 1960's modernism, becasue at least they where trying to have fun. MLK boxes have always reminded me of the grid paper architects drew on, forgetting that their designs where supposed to be measured by the grid, not actually become the design. The late Art-Modern is definatley worth saving like the Flower Theater, but that period was the last incarnation of design, before it became completely abstracted in to bland boxes. My guess is this negation of the pedestrian was another nail in the coffin of cities at the time.

by Thayer-D on Oct 15, 2012 9:14 am • linkreport

The little arcade inside the Woodmoor Shopping Center has a bit of that time-capsule feeling too.

I know an older fellow who lived around Glenmont and he told me about the early 1980s neighborhood meetings about plans for the area around the Metro station there (which, you might recall, didn't actually open until 1998). He said everyone there at the time was imagining some dystopian caricature of the NYC subway at the time, that the whole neighborhood would become infested with rats and covered in graffiti and so on. Fun times.

by iana on Oct 15, 2012 9:51 am • linkreport

Iana - you see some of the same thinking in many comments opposing the Purple Line. That people from DC (tnen) or PG County (now) are supposedly going to ride the train to come and rob your house.

by Frank IBC on Oct 15, 2012 11:23 am • linkreport

Sage - Jetties restaurant on Fairmont Avenue at Veterans Park sells "Giffords Ice Cream". I guess they bought the recipe and the trademark.

by Frank IBC on Oct 15, 2012 8:16 pm • linkreport

@Frank IBC

The Gifford's company still survives as a wholesale operation, just the retail stores were closed.

by MLD on Oct 16, 2012 8:39 am • linkreport

@iana

Well it's hard to say they were wrong about the blighted future of the area - whether or not that's the metro's fault...

by Wheaton on Oct 16, 2012 9:10 am • linkreport

I suppose in the 1950's the thought was that the turn of the century antiquated victorian era architecture had to go. Make room for progress! Keep the arcade. Build around it. Every era should have architecture preserved for historical sake.

by RonK on Feb 1, 2013 12:25 am • linkreport

Twinbrook was another one. May be even earlier than Glenmont.
I remember the farms at the metro station and across the street in the 50s

by ann walter on Sep 7, 2013 1:51 am • linkreport

I grew up in this area and moved away. I haven't been there in years. When I was a kid we used go bowling at the alley all the time and hang out. Brings back a lot of old memories. I recall a place to eat, a pet store and a barber shop in the hallway walking to the steps of the bowling alley. Thanks for the pictures.

by Hal on Oct 28, 2013 8:39 pm • linkreport

I remember this arcade quite well. Specifically I remember the actual arcade that was inside the arcade. In the back on the right side was a dark dingy arcade that exemplified the stereotypical 80's arcade. Black lights, smoke, unsavory charectors, planet and star floors.
I was probably 8 to 10 years old at the time.
I remember spending evenings in there while the old man held court over tall boys at the Souper Bowl. The Souper Bowl was a bar that was in the front on the left side. He would give me a roll of quarters and I would not bother him for 2 or 3 hours.
This was likely 1982 or 1983. For the rest if my life I thought the "arcade" sign was for the arcade inside.
I left Mo Co in 2000 and from what it looks like that area has.....changed. Maybe it's time has passed.

by Kevin Swanson on Feb 26, 2014 8:05 pm • linkreport

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