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Wheaton's Youth Center represented the future in 1963. Could it do that again in 2014?

50 years ago, the Wheaton Youth Center brought local teens together around rock-and-roll and symbolized the idealism of the young, fast-growing suburb. As pressure grows to replace it with a new recreation center, can this building adapt to become a part of Wheaton's future?


All photos by the author.

To some, the 1960s-era building at Georgia and Arcola avenues is a local landmark with a storied musical history, but to others, it's an eyesore and an exercise in nostalgia. They can't even agree on what to call it: preservation supporters use its original name, the Youth Center, while opponents call it the Rec Center.

Whatever the name, county officials have been planning to demolish it and the adjacent library and put them in one new, $36 million building on the site of the library. The Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning Board both recommended the building become a historic landmark, but it doesn't seem to have many friends on the County Council, which will make the final decision.

"Where rock-and-roll was invented"

When the Wheaton Youth Center opened in 1963, it won awards for its Japanese-style architecture. But it was better known for hosting famous musical acts, like Iggy Pop, Rod Stewart, and Led Zeppelin, who may have played their first US show there in 1969.


Eileen McGuckian of Montgomery Preservation, Inc. and the guys who hung out at the Youth Center as teens.

Local musicians played the youth center's stage as well, including a 13-year-old Tori Amos, then living in Rockville, who gave her first public performance there at a talent show in 1977. In December, the kids who once hung out at the Wheaton Youth Center came back to celebrate the building's 50th birthday with cake and a screening of filmmaker Jeff Krulik's documentary "Led Zeppelin Played Here."

Krulik, who lives in Silver Spring, says the building helped nurture a music scene in Wheaton. "Places like this are where the rock-and-roll concert industry was virtually invented," he says. "The building speaks to me. The walls talk."

"This was the cool place to be," says Olney resident Rick, who grew up in Wheaton and hung out at the Youth Center every weekend. "It kept us off the streets, gave us focus...all the things that young people should learn." Rick only recently learned about the building's architectural history, but says "that alone" makes it worth saving.

Is preservation a "fanciful plan"?

To current users, however, the recreation center is too small and falling apart. December's party happened in a crowded hallway between the gym with the leaky roof and the computer lab with four machines.

The county didn't have to consider preserving the building because it wasn't on its survey of historic buildings, a prerequisite for historic designation. The last survey was done in 1976 and doesn't include any buildings from the 20th century, because nobody thought they were historic yet. Planner are working on a new survey to identify which buildings deserve further study, says historic preservation planner Clare Lise Kelly.

Naturally, residents anxious for a new recreation center fear that designation will add unnecessary delay and cost. Outside the party, opponents planted little yellow signs reading "NO DELAY" all around the building. Last fall, the Planning Board recommended keeping the old recreation center since the new one would be built next to it anyway, which wasn't received well.


How the new recreation center and library (right) could fit in with the old one. Image from Montgomery County Planning Department.

"If the Planning Board wanted to add another element to their fanciful plan, they might as well have added a zoo for unicorns," wrote Olney resident and library board member Art Brodsky in a letter to the Gazette.

Both sides disagree how much it would cost to rehabilitate the building, which has never been renovated. Architects Grimm + Parker, which is designing the new facility, estimates it could cost nearly $7.8 million to bring the building up to code and move in the Gilchrist Center for Cultural Diversity, currently housed in the library. Advocacy group Montgomery Preservation, Inc. hired a structural engineer to assess the building, who says it would cost just $1.3 million for more basic improvements.

Community leaders say neither price is worth it. Before a public hearing last night, Councilmember Nancy Navarro, who represents Wheaton, sent an email blast to her constituents asking them to testify against preservation. "We can - and should - find ways to honor the history of this facility in the new design, but not through historic designation," she wrote.

Could the Youth Center represent the future again?

The Wheaton Youth Center is young enough that people don't consider it truly historic, but old enough to be unfashionable and in disrepair. But for a community that grew up in the 1950s and 60s, buildings like the Youth Center are as much a part of Wheaton's heritage and Montgomery County's heritage as Victorian rowhouses are in DC, setting it apart as a product of its time.

Eileen McGuckian, president of Montgomery Preservation, Inc., was a student at Blair High School in Silver Spring when the youth center opened. "It's the period of hopes and dreams, of things happening...it was exciting," she said.


Inside the gym of the Wheaton Youth Center where bands used to play.

But Wheaton has changed a lot over the past 50 years, from a largely homogeneous, middle-class place to one that's much more socioeconomically and racially diverse. At the party, Rick said that many of his friends growing up have moved out to Olney or Damascus, taking their memories with them.

And it was hard not to notice the contrast between the older white guys standing on the stage, reminiscing about their days playing in rock-and-roll bands decades ago, and the young, mostly black and Hispanic kids playing pickup basketball on the floor. For kids growing up in Wheaton today, this building belongs to a past they can't relate to and people who don't live there anymore.

Preservationists have to prove that a building that reflected Wheaton's future in 1963 can still be a beacon today. One option is leasing it to a nonprofit group who would fix the building themselves, like the the Writer's Center, housed in the Bethesda Youth Center.

Kelly sent me a list of 13 organizations willing to take over the building, including arts groups, theatre companies, and the Ethiopian Cultural Center, which serves the region's quarter-million Ethiopian immigrants. These groups represent where Wheaton is today, and they might help this building become a valued part of the community again.

In any case, it might be too late for the Wheaton Youth Center. But I hope we'll give Montgomery County's other notable modern buildings a second chance. If you think this building deserves historic designation, you can email the County Council at mailto:county.council@montgomerycountymd.gov.

A planner and architect by training, Dan Reed also 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. 

Comments

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Well, that last sentence tells how you feel, Dan. But you got it right when you described the building as an eyesore. If someone's made a doc about the amazing place it was in decades long gone, then preserve that film instead.

The existing building, if it isn't an eyesore, then it's completely unknown to locals who weren't here for concerts only, as you note, aging white guys remember.

Wheaton needs a rec center that functions for the community. This place does not. And it hasn't in years. If this structure is worthy of preservation, then why don't we all petition for preservation status for the buildings at the Gaithersburg garbage transfer station? They're in about the same condition (and on hot August days, smell about the same).

Many think that redevelopment of the Wheaton Triangle is imperative to the area's future, but if we want to talk about the actual communities in and around Wheaton, it's a modern multi-use complex that will far more to strengthen local community ties. And, at the end of the day, isn't it local needs that should be considered? Why outweigh today's and tomorrow's community growth with nostalgia from, primarily, folks who no longer live in the Wheaton area? I and my family moved here 5 years ago, and we plan on being here for the long term. Why over rule our needs with those of distant memories?

I have yet to see a reasonable or rational argument in favor of preservation. So, some musicians played there. That's great, but we don't preserve every building bands got their start in, do we?

Look, I'm not anti-preservation. For Pete's Sake, I got my degree in archaeology; I get history and architecture... but, this place? It isn't worth it.

by Sean Corbett on Feb 26, 2014 8:43 pm • linkreport

Apologies for any grammatical errors. Writing lengthy comments on a phone can take a toll.

by Sean Corbett on Feb 26, 2014 8:45 pm • linkreport

The building is an eyesore. It needs to be gone. People of Wheaton need as much green space as possible to hold all Rec. Center activities on the grounds of the new facility. Designating this eyesore as historic will eliminate many programs from being held at the new facility. If you were present at teh meeting yesteday, you would have heard what Wheaton wants. Wheaton wants the open space. Wheaton does not want this UGLY indistinct building.

by Wheaton Resident on Feb 26, 2014 9:54 pm • linkreport

I think it's unfortunate that the argument over preserving this building has become conflated with the argument over building a new recreation center and library, which as far as I'm aware nobody actually disagrees with. I haven't heard anybody say that a new recreation center and library shouldn't be built.

Given, preserving the old rec center will cost money. But it's something we should've been considering from the start. People should be upset, not at preservationists, but for county officials who refused to look at this in the first place and are now have to make up for it.

We shouldn't let the past control our future, though I think we are missing a valuable opportunity to use Wheaton's past to its advantage in the future. But it seems like people have made up their mind. Like I said, I hope the community and elected officials are willing to give other modern buildings in Montgomery County a second look.

by dan reed! on Feb 26, 2014 10:29 pm • linkreport

If Park and Planning think this building is a gem, where have they been for the past twenty or thirty years to do the basic repairs? Keeping this building will prevent the new facility from serving its full potential since there will not be sufficient space outdoors to hold any of the outdoors programs.

by Wheaton Resident on Feb 26, 2014 11:26 pm • linkreport

Dan,

Many of your articles are balanced, but your bias shines through on this one.

Think about where the funds could be used rather than to save a building that most of the locals don't want saved. It could be used for schools, for fire, for police, for streetscape improvements in other parts of Wheaton/MoCo.

Moreover, the building itself is a reminder of how the County ignored Wheaton and the community for decades. It may have stood as a cutting edge building in the 60s, but years of disrepair and decay are what most people remember, and fixing it isn't going to change their opinion. Given the recent history with government projects in Wheaton, the community simply does not trust promises that a renovation and integration with the new facility will go smoothly.

If you attended the council's hearing on Tuesday, you would have seen that the vast majority of people testifying felt similar to me. In the vast majority of historic preservation cases, the impetus and weight behind historic preservation comes from the local community. It does not come with an appointed arm of our government shoving it down the community's throat. Our elected council hopefully knows better.

by Jordan Davis on Feb 27, 2014 9:51 am • linkreport

Montgomery County Department of Recreation owns this building, not Park and Planning.

As a Wheaton resident, I think Montgomery County should preserve and renovate the Wheaton Youth Center like the National Park Service did with the Spanish Ballroom in Glen Echo. Maybe the message here is that Montgomery County shouldn't be building the new community center on Arcola Avenue but in downtown Wheaton, which with Silver Spring and Bethesda is supposed to be one of the three designated special urban districts in the County. Greater Greater Washington had a great post on this http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/2092/the-wheaton-library-should-be-in-downtown-wheaton/

Renovating and restoring the Wheaton Youth Center and moving the community center to the urban district would be a way to preserve Montgomery County's suburban past and highlight its urban future.

by Mike Smith on Feb 27, 2014 10:29 am • linkreport

I made a comment, but I guess they only want comments they agree with, as mine wasn't posted. I doubt this one will be posted either. I haven't heard one shred of testimony about how a vacant lot, or "green space" as they are calling it, is more useful than a basketball gym. My son played basketball, and attended dances there 20 years ago. I would not let my child play in a patch of grass so close to traffic on Ga. Ave. ever. Thank you,from a concerned resident of Wheaton. Tim Scott

by Timothy Scott on Feb 27, 2014 1:28 pm • linkreport

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