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Monday, May 20, 2013

Historic Preservation and Community Revitalization The Silver Spring Experience



Downtown Silver Spring, Maryland's “revitalization” began nearly a generation ago in 1987.  The first failed proposal, dubbed the Silver Triangle, called for a large-scale commercial center to be constructed at the intersection of Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road, Silver Spring’s original “Main Streets”; it called for demolition of the Streamline Moderne 1938 Silver Theatre and Silver Spring Shopping Center.  Seven years later, the developer responsible for building in Minnesota the world’s largest (78-acre) covered shopping center, the Mall of America, proposed a 28-acre version for Silver Spring dubbed the American Dream; it too failed.

In 1997 the Montgomery County government established the Silver Spring Redevelopment Steering Committee, a group of civic, business, and community leaders tasked with creating a smaller-scaled revitalization project for the defined “core” of Silver Spring’s Central Business District (CBD). For a small but very vocal number of civic activists, a huge part of this vision was and remains the inclusion of historic preservation as an integral facet of our community’s continued redevelopment.  The goal to integrate important landmarks of Silver Spring’s past, the structures that give our community character and a “sense of place,” has only been partly successful. 


On one hand the historic Silver Theatre and Silver Spring Shopping Center was saved and restored after a long and difficult preservation battle to become the centerpiece of the revitalized downtown Silver Spring.  Since 2003 the theatre has been the East Coast home of the American Film Institute.  On the other hand our Gothic Revival 1927 Maryland National Guard Armory, a designated county historic landmark, was sacrificed in 1998 to make room for a parking garage.  This despite the fact that there were a number of other parking facilities in the commercial core and the area has convenient access to public transportation.

With redevelopment completed in the core area bordered by Georgia Avenue, Colesville Road, Fenton Street, and Wayne Avenue, historic preservationists hope that future redevelopment will not come at the expense of losing Silver Spring’s oldest commercial buildings.  Located further south on Georgia Avenue, and on Colesville Road, is an impressive assemblage of early to mid 20th century structures.  Most of these are enlivened by multicultural, small independent businesses, offering residents and visitors a unique opportunity to connect with our origins and vibrant past. 


This authenticity provides a unique opportunity for the creation of Heritage Tourism, a vital form of economic and educational development.  These buildings are survivors of a true “Main Street” community, a rare commodity in Montgomery County and increasingly in large communities throughout the United States.  Their human scale and walkable spaces exemplify an authentic environment that “new urbanist” planners around the country are striving to manufacture.  Silver Spring has the “real thing” and these structures must be included in future revitalization plans.


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A promising step in that direction was the April 2010 unveiling of the first six of twenty planned markers on the Silver Spring Heritage Trail, created as legally required mitigation for the demolition of the Armory.  The Silver Spring Historical Society provided all of the text and photographs that appear on the signs, with fabrication funded by the county government.  Two additional signs were installed in 2013 with more to come.  The SSHS anticipates that the trail will educate the public about the history our community embodies and the importance of maintaining its sense of place.

English critic-art historian John Ruskin recognized as early 1849 the importance of preserving our architectural heritage.  In The Seven Lamps of Architecture, he wrote:  “They [buildings of past times] are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us. The dead have still their right in them: that which they laboured for, the praise of achievement or the expression of religious feeling, or whatsoever else it might be which in those buildings they intended to be permanent, we have no right to obliterate.”