Montgomery County historic preservation planners have begun exploring, analyzing and recording local mid-century modern buildings and communities, part of an effort we call Montgomery Modern. Learn more about mid-century resources and our MontgomeryModern initiative.
Robots in Silver Spring
Who knew? Silver Spring was home to a pioneering robot.Â The TransfeRobot was an early standardized, off-the-shelf programmable robot, developed in 1958 and offered for sale in 1959.Â U. S. Industries started making the robots at 949 Bonifant Ave (more on that later).Â The firm quickly outgrew that building and moved out to the new Montgomery Industrial Park.
The sleek, modern building at 12345 Columbia Pike was designed in 1960 (architect unknown) and opened for production in 1961.Â It was originally called the USI Automation Center, and was operated by the Robodyne Division of USI. This is the front faĂ§ade of the headhouse that faces Columbia Pike.
The TransfeRobot 200 could perform adaptable, repetitive tasks that made it ideal for assembly lines. This 50-lb robot sold for $2,500.Â By 1959, USI had contracts with General Electric, General Motors and Centralab.
In 1962, the company sold 100,000 of the TransfeRobot 200.Â U. S. Industries by then had 15 divisions and subsidiaries, and made a $3 million profit.
The USI Robodyne Automation Center, 12345 Columbia Pike, has louvered panels that bring light and air into graveled recessed spaces flanking the front vestibule. The building has a high level of architectural integrity.
The doors on the main entrance retain stylish modern handles.
The front foyer is lit by a glass wall looking out to an interior courtyard.
Windows are highlighted by prefabricated Tecfab type panels. The education wing of the recently designated Georgia Avenue Baptist Church has similar panels that date from 1962. The panels were developed by architect Charles Goodman.
Attached to the headhouse is the factory building that extends along Industrial Drive. The red spandrel panels here echo those found in the interior courtyard..
The Automation Center opened in 1961 at the newly established Industrial Park on Columbia Pike. The original modern sign is a testament to the mid-century origins of this complex.
Today, the National Trust for Historic Preservation released their annual list of the 11 most endangered places in the U.S. While none of them are in Montgomery County, the list includes two mid-century modern buildings–the Worldport Terminal at JFK Airport and the Houston Astrodome–a recogonition that recent history is also historic.
In fact, The National Register of Historic Places, which sets out criteria for historic designation, generally recognizes that 50 years is a reasonable remove from which to conisder history. The register is alos looking forÂ buildings associate with events or aÂ noted person, those that can share information or reflect the work of a master, and those that exhibit unique construction or artistry.
That age deadline and those criteria have been applied in our own County, for example at the Carderock Springs community, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Place in 2009, “as a prime example of situated modernism where houses completment and blend in with the landscape.” You can see more of the County’s mid-century architecture at Montgomery Modern.
Montgomery County in the mid-century era experienced great change. Montgomery was the fourth fastest growing county in the nation. The population grew from less than 90,000 in 1946 to nearly 580,000 by 1974. Change also came in the pace of life, as cars and new highways enabled ever increasing speeds, but also in the scale of the perceived environment, as space exploration made the universe seem to be the limit. A new era called for new building forms, made possible with innovative technologies. By the early 1960s, architects were experimenting with a variety of roof forms.
The zigzag roof of the Sligo Adventist Elementary School must have been a striking contrast to the traditional flat roof schools that had been built for decades in the county up to this time. Architect Ronald Senseman, a Silver Spring resident, designed Sligo Adventist Elementary School. Flanking the entryâ€™s geometric roofline is warm-toned, stone facing. This sets a contrast between manmade shapes and materials and the organic shapes and materials of natureâ€”a dichotomy found on many modernist projects of this era. Senseman continued the stone in a series of column-like piers found on each side elevation.
Ronald Senseman designed many modernist projects in the region, including schools, churches, and motels. For more information on Senseman, see a recent Montgomery Modern post.
The zigzag roof was fairly popular in the early 1960s, yet most original examples have been demolished or remodeled. Another example, also designed by Senseman, was the Park University Motel (1962), 7200 Baltimore Road, in Prince Georgeâ€™s County. Hereâ€™s a photo from a c1963 ad for Ruberoid roofing.
The dramatic roofline today is obscured through remodeling for the facility, now Quality Inn & Suites.
Incidentally, according to the ad, the Park University Motel project used Ruberoid T/NA 200, which the company marketed as â€śthe industryâ€™s first prefabricated, prefinished, built-up roofing systemâ€ť. The lightweight, pliable product was composed of polyvinyl fluoride film and a durable asbestos felt.
The same c1963 Ruberoid Company ad enticed architects to stretch their imagination in roof design.
Many examples of such modernist geometry are still found in our area, if we look closely.
Groundbreaking for Sligo Elementary School was September 22, 1963, and the school opened one year later. More information on its history may be found on the school website.
This sleek blue building, constructed in 1963, is another mid-century modern gem in downtown Silver Spring. Built three years after the American National Bank Building, the Operations Research Institute building was designed by prolific local architect Ted Englehardt. Previously we blogged about Englehardtâ€™s Wellerâ€™s Dry Cleaning. For the Operations Research Institute, Englehardt designed an International Style office building with beautiful turquoise spandrel panels made of porcelain enamel.
Developer Carl M. Freeman moved his offices here in 1964. The firm occupied the first and part of the second floors. Freeman, who pioneered the modernist garden apartment in the DC area, was at this time one of the top 12 builders in the country.
Some part of the ground floor was originally open, as seen in this historic photo. Today, the west section retains a ground floor drive-through to connect the parking area with Spring Street entrance.
Some window units are hinged on top and can be opened with a special tool. Our historic preservation unit of the Planning Department had offices on the top floor of this building in 2011-2012. The space was well-lit and open (and the building is very well maintained). It has held up well over the years!
This post is not specifically about Montgomery County, but itâ€™s about a great film I recently saw that really sets modernism in context. Itâ€™s Visual Acoustics, the documentary of a man helped bring modern American design into the forefront: architectural photographer Julius Shulman (1910-2009). Through his spectacular photos, it is said that Shulman defined the way we look at modernism. His photos of works of Richard Neutra, Frank Lloyd Wright, and other modernist designers great and small appeared in architectural journals and books throughout this era.
Shulmanâ€™s work was not always credited at the time. My copy of Leonardo Benevoloâ€™s History of Modern Architecture bears witness to this, with great photos of Neutra houses which are not credited (!) but are clearly Shulmanâ€™s iconic work, such as this view of the Kaufman House (1946) in California.
The documentary film of Shulmanâ€™s work is called Visual Acoustics (2009) and is narrated by Dustin Hoffman. Created before Shulmanâ€™s death in 2009, the film has fascinating interviews with Shulman who describes his philosophy for finding the essence of a building and technique of single point perspective.
Visual Acoustics, which was playing on PBS in recent months, is now available on Netflix. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in modern architecture, and itâ€™s been known to change the minds of those who are not yet admirers. Here is a trailer. Go see the film!
Shulmanâ€™s photographs and papers are at the Getty Museum which had an exhibit of his work a few years ago. Check out some highlights.
If you read my previous post for Historic Preservation Month, you know that in picking a theme for this yearâ€™s Preservation Month, the National Trust for Historic Preservation issued a challenge to people in communities across the country to discover hidden gems and celebrate local historic resources.Â Montgomery County historic preservation planners responded by preparing a list of historic resources we hope you will discover.
While Preservation Month has become a fun annual event to raise awareness and celebrate historic preservation nation-wide, our exploration of the countyâ€™s historic resources will continue long after we turn the page on May. Our efforts have led us to look beyond what many people recognize as historic, and to start thinking about buildings and places from a period of our history that historic preservationists have only recently begun to consider. Â Not long ago Montgomery County historic preservation planners launched a new initiative to study local mid-20th century modern buildings and communities, part of an effort we call MontgomeryModern. The historic value and design significance of the mid-century era â€” the 1940s through the 1960s â€” has, until recently, been largely overlooked. But as more than 50 years has passed since these buildings and communities were constructed, we have begun to investigate their historical, cultural and architectural importance. Â As a result of a more complete understanding of these mid-century resources, property owners and decision-makers may find more of these resources appropriate for historic preservation.
MontgomeryModern is exploring mid-century modern buildings and communities that reflect the optimistic spirit of the post-war era in Montgomery County, Maryland. Preservation planners want to help raise the public’s understanding of â€“ and appreciation for â€“ these buildings and communities developed during a time of tremendous growth in Montgomery County. To encourage your discovery of mid-century architecture we included four Modernist buildings or communities in our Preservation Month list of Montgomery County gems. Carderock Springs, a community of 275 houses designed by Keyes, Lethbridge, and Condon and developed by Edmund J. Bennett between 1962-1966, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Also listed in the National Register is Rock Creek Woods, a 76-house development that is one of several in Montgomery County by regionally prominent architect Charles Goodman.Â World-renowned architect Marcel Breuer designed the International-style Seymour Kreiger House in Bethesda.Â The Kreiger House, built in 1958, is listed in the National Register and is designated in the Montgomery County Master Plan for Historic Preservation.Â The WTOP Transmitter Building, built in 1939 in Wheaton, is also a landmark modernist building that has been designated in the Master Plan for Historic Preservation.
The intent of including in our list these four historic resources is to give you a taste of the remarkable mid-century modern buildings and communities we have in Montgomery County, and to encourage you to investigate our MontgomeryModern initiative as we learn more about hidden gems from the mid-century.
This article has been corrected with two facts: the exterior panels are glass, not porcelain, and in the summer of 2012, the horizontal band over the parking lot entrance was taken down for construction of 8711 Georgia Avenue. Thanks to readers for your comments. Clare Lise Kelly 9-12-12
Designed by architect Edwin Weihe in 1960, the American National Bank Building, at 8701 Georgia Avenue, is a fine example of an International style office building. When it opened in 1961, it was the tallest building in Silver Spring and featured severalÂ design innovations.
Architect Edwin Weihe placed the buildingâ€™s heating, cooling, and elevator equipment in a low roof penthouse, designed so that it is not immediately apparent from the streetview. Real estate columnist Joseph Byrne, of the Washington Star, observed that Weiheâ€™s design followed advice of the Washington Fine Arts Commission to avoid ugly penthouses prominent in Washingtonâ€™s skyline by 1961.
The structure has precast quartz mullions that are welded to the steel frame.Â Each mullion is 6 inches wide, 8 inches deep and 10 feet tall, and weighes 800 pounds.Â Two metal plates are embedded into the cast mullions and welded to metal plates sunk into the concrete superstructure.
A historic view of this building shows how little it has changed.Â One element that has been lost is the horizontal band at the street level that connects the parking lot entrance to the main building. This element was taken down in July 2012 for the construction of 9711 Georgia Avenue.
The modernist building with green glass panels certainly bear witness to the influence of such a landmark as Gordon Bunshaftâ€™s Lever House which dates from 1952.Â Lever House, Park Avenue, New York City, was a harbinger of the glass curtain wall technology that predominated mid-century commercial buildings.Â Note the horizontal section next to the tower, and the Le Corbusier style pilotis, both echoed in the American National Bank building.
Architect Edwin Armstrong Weihe (1907-1994) had a major influence on the development of downtown Washington.Â Known as â€śMr. Zoningâ€ť for his active role in modernizing city codes, he pioneered the innovative use of concrete in Washington, DC, and was known for his use of pedestrian arcades and graduated setbacks.
Specializing in office buildings, hotels, apartment buildings, mixed use buildings and other commercial structures, Weihe’s firm designed more than 90 office buildings in the K Street corridor and elsewhere in the District, and more than 100 large buildings in Crystal City, Baileyâ€™s Crossroads, and other urban centers.Â In Montgomery County,Â Weihe designed several other mid-century projects in the Silver Spring area including a store and apartment at 7614 Georgia Avenue NW (1940); Rock Creek Gardens apartments (1948), near Grubb Road and East West Highway; and Cape Cod houses for Carroll Knolls subdivision of 200 dwellings (1948), Forest Glen; and the F. W. Woolworth & Co. store (1954), Flower Avenue Shopping Center.
AÂ member of the AIA from 1946, Edwin Weihe received the first lifetime achievement awardÂ ever bestowed byÂ the Washington Chapter of the AIA, when he was presented with the Centennial Award in 1991.Â He was recognized for being the first architect to promote flat plate concrete construction as a solution to the cityâ€™s building height restriction, as well as for his pioneering the use of precast concrete as building cladding in the District.Â Edwin Weihe retired from active practice in 1987.Â He died in 1994, at the age of 87.
In the design phase, the Silver Spring office buildingÂ was originally called the Bank of Silver Spring but by the time it opened it was renamed the American National Bank, which company occupied the first and lower levels.Â It is now known as the Zalco Building.
Guest post by Scott Whipple
The Washington Postâ€™s â€śWhere We Liveâ€ť blog recently featured Washington area mid-century architecture (Washingtonâ€™s mid-century modern neighborhoods | Washingtonâ€™s mid-century modern neighborhoods, part 2), making mention of a number of Montgomery Countyâ€™s recent past resources — including the Rock Creek Woods, Hammond Wood, and Carderock Springs National Register historic districts.
As Amanda Abrams writes in the first post, â€śIâ€™ve found that once I look for them, I start seeing modernist communities everywhere.â€ť We expect to be seeing more mid-century resources, too. So weâ€™ve started the MontgomeryModern initiative to explore our countyâ€™s mid-century architectural history. We share the excitement about this architecture that Michael Shapiro mentions in his post, and we hope you will come along with us we discover MontgomeryModern.
The Bushey Drive Elementary School, in Wheaton, is a three-story, round school designed by Deigert and Yerkes in 1961.Â Â
As noted in my colleagueâ€™s recent post on round houses, round schools were also promoted for lower operating costs, greater efficiency, and lower building costs.Â In this era, round and hexagonal schools were built across the country.Â
In plan, the school had a middle story with common rooms (kitchen, library, general purpose room) and offices, sandwiched between top and bottom floors of classrooms.
David Norton Yerkes and Robert C. Deigert were partners in a Washington DC firm from about 1946 to 1966.Â Â In Montgomery County, projects designed by the firm include numerous custom houses and the Primary Day School in Bethesda.Â Noteworthy local projects are the U.S. National Arboretum Administration Building (1963) and the Netherlands Embassy.
The Bushey Drive School was for many years home to a theater group organized by Montgomery County Recreation Department.Â The theater group survives, named Round House Theatre, for its place of origin.Â Today, the Recreation Department has administrative offices at the Bushey Drive School which still accommodates theatrical performances.
guest post: Scott Whipple
In an interview for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Albert Ledner, a 2009 AIA Medal of Honor winner, discusses his fascination with Frank Lloyd Wrightâ€™s work, the influence of nature on his designs, and the approach of blending Organic design with Modern architecture. Ledner said, â€śIf people can understand the principles and relate that to architectural design, maybe it will begin to open some doors to them appreciating these designs.â€ť Opening doors for people so they can understand and appreciate the architecture of the recent past is exactly what we are trying to do with our Montgomery Modern initiative.