Shopping in Montgomery County
in the 1950s
Bethesda Paint and Hardware on Wisconsin Ave., c. 1940s (Montgomery History)
People who lived in the fledgling suburbs developing in Montgomery County in the mid-to-late 40s had reasonable local amenities: mom and pop grocery, hardware, and drug stores for day-to-day needs right down the street from their homes. But going shopping for clothes, shoes, cosmetics, appliances, or household finery meant going into the District. Retailers had always banked their profit shares on prime real estate in the densely populated city center, where all the people and all their money still resided. Post-war, however, the tide began to shift.
The districts down-county were suddenly bursting with middle-class suburbs, increasingly populated by people who had middle-class incomes. Those new residents were becoming more reluctant to return to the city in their cars; traffic congestion now choked the narrow city streets, while parking was difficult to find and expensive. They wanted the caché of city shopping without the commuting hassle. Instead of fighting to draw them back to town, retailers began to follow their customers beyond the city limits, building and refining a new network of consumer-driven, automobile-friendly shopping centers throughout the decade.
THE FIRST SUBURBAN SHOPPING CENTERS
One of the earliest examples of a planned, automobile-oriented shopping center in the area was the Stop and Shop on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C., which was built in 1923. Its most unusual feature was the off-street parking spaces that allowed shoppers to park once, and then patronize several different shops. Montgomery County followed this example a few years later, expanding the model and setting a precedent for modern suburban design.
When it opened in 1938, the Silver Spring Shopping Center was nearly one of a kind. Previously, retail stores in the County were oriented along the street, in a pattern known to planners as “ribbon development,” forcing shoppers to visit one store at a time, either on foot, or by re-parking their vehicles each time. The concept of a shopping “center” with a centralized off-street parking lot that serviced multiple business establishments was revolutionary, and immediately imitated in similar communities nation-wide. The complex included 19 stores, the Silver Theater, and a gas station/service station on the corner. Developed by a partnership formed by Washington developer G. H. Hillegeist, Albert Small, S.E. Godden and William Alexander Julian, former Treasurer of the United States, it was designed by New York architect, John Eberson and built by Mohler Construction Company (MHT form, 1988). It was later purchased from its original owners by local entrepreneur Sam Eig in 1944.
Stop and Shop, featuring free off-street parking
Silver Spring Shopping Center: its Art Deco design, in line with the nearby Silver Theater, helped it receive historic preservation status. Postcard 1946.
The success of the shopping center contributed to Silver Spring’s growing reputation as a shopping destination– the first one outside of the District (Jaffeson, 2003). This reputation encouraged one local D.C. department store, The Hecht Company, to undertake a bold new strategy, post-war, expanding more fully into the developing suburban community.
THE FIRST SUBURBAN DEPARTMENT STORES
Construction of the new suburban Hecht's in Silver Spring, 1947. (Montgomery History)
Already flourishing with retail development established in the 1930s, Silver Spring was poised to become the new “downtown” of Montgomery County, largely due to the influence of political boss and real estate magnate E. Brooke Lee, who lobbied the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission to prioritize zoning and parking amenities that favored business and retail expansion in Silver Spring and Bethesda. Taking advantage of cheap land and counting on profits from the migrating location of its middle-class consumer base, the Hecht company planned not a branch or a satellite in the suburbs, but a store equal to their downtown flagship store, with all the same products and amenities (Longstreth, 1994).
Hecht’s in Silver Spring, opened 1947; pictured here after the two-story expansion in 1950. Note the alteration in the coloring of the granite face at the midpoint.
The new stand-alone suburban Hecht’s opened in 1947, on the corner of Fenton St. and Ellsworth Dr. in Silver Spring, one block over from the main thoroughfare (which was Georgia Avenue/Colesville Road). Designed and built by the New York firm Abbott, Merkt & Co., the building had a sleek, modern facade, boasting 160,000 square feet on four floors, with 116 departments staffed by 300 employees in a comfortable air-conditioned atmosphere, plus free off-street parking. The new store was an immediate runaway success, leading to a two-story expansion in 1950 and another extension in 1955, adding another 100,000 square feet to the building.
More conservatively, competing local department store Woodward & Lothrop had dipped a toe in the suburban waters by opening “satellite” stores in the branch properties vacated by Palais Royale, a competitor they bought out in 1946. The Bethesda branch became the Woodward & Lothrop “Bethesda Budget Store,” functioning as an outlet for sale merchandise. These stores were meant as a customer loyalty stop-gap: containing a limited selection of goods, they were no replacement for the downtown flagship store experience. They served mainly to keep the W&L name fresh in the minds of suburban consumers with the intention of luring them back to the District store for their main shopping (Lisicky, 2013).
The former Palais Royale, which became the Woodward & Lothrop “Bethesda Budget Store” circa 1947. (Lisicky, 2013)
Woodward & Lothrop’s Suburban Store at Wisconsin Avenue and Western Ave. (Montgomery History)
But already by 1950, they were ready to follow Hecht’s lead and open a full-amenities department store on the west side of the county near the communities of Chevy Chase and Bethesda. Hecht’s had also considered the Bethesda area as a potential location for their first store, but that suburban community to the west of the District was always considered upscale from the more middle-class population centered in Silver Spring to the east. Similarly, the various department stores existed in a hierarchy of prestige: Woodward & Lothrop had always been near the top, and Hecht’s had risen to the middle. It made good business sense to geo-locate retail establishments near their target clientele.
The new Chevy Chase-Bethesda Woodward & Lothrop on Wisconsin and Western Avenues included all the luxury amenities of its downtown counterpart, plus conscious appeals to suburbanite priorities: parking for more than 500 cars, convenience of location, a building with timeless classical lines, and even a 300-seat auditorium for use by the community to demonstrate the company’s dedication to “civic responsibility.” The opening ceremonies in November of 1950 stretched over three days, and included a reception, a luncheon, a laying of the cornerstone ceremony, a program for W&L suppliers, and the official opening of the doors by Mrs. Margaret A. C. Welsh, who as a child had been the very first customer in the Woodward & Lothrop on Pennsylvania Avenue at its opening in 1880. (To see the program from this ceremony, scroll over image at left or view in a new tab.)
The final event was a “Transportation Pageant” — essentially a classic car show of pre-WWI-era cars–held in the parking lot as “a special salute” to the transportation industries, whose “remarkable growth has made possible the development of what is rapidly becoming a basic institution in the modern design of American living, the suburban store.”
NEVER ENOUGH PARKING
Suburbanites used their cars for every errand: as labyrinthian housing developments remained isolated from all else, walking was not the practical option it was in the inner-city organization of mixed-use development. Hecht’s chose to build in Silver Spring partly because the M-NCPPC had created several large areas zoned for parking in the town center area. Silver Spring (Maryland’s “Second City”) boasted in 1947 that $800,000 had been spent on construction of three parking lots near the newly-finished Hecht’s (Washington Post: August 4, 1946). The Post noted in 1950 that Bethesda planners, “taking their cue from Silver Spring’s success with off-street parking lots, have made a study for a proposed public parking lot program" (Washington Post: February 5, 1950).
Aerial view of Silver Spring, 1956, noting the orientation of Hecht's in relation to the Silver Spring Shopping Center, as well as the surrounding parking lots.
At left, a 1951 newspaper advertisement for Silver Spring as the new shopping destination. Scroll over to zoom in or view in a new tab. (Montgomery History)
Ironically, the issues of parking and traffic eventually led to Hecht’s decline in its pioneering Silver Spring location. The experiment of the stand-alone department store quickly revealed its flaws in the automobile-driven suburban market: central business districts (like Silver Spring and Bethesda) were increasingly too crowded to allow for easy access to retail establishments.
Silver Spring especially had built a fast reputation as a retail destination– by 1950, J.C. Penney, H.L. Green, Sears & Roebuck, Hahn Shoes and Jeleff’s had joined Hecht’s in the Georgia Avenue/Colesville Road corridor. But by 1955, an economic survey suggested that Silver Spring was losing retail to D.C. and “other areas” due to lack of parking lots and adequate improvements to streets and traffic flow (Hoyt, 1955). The “other areas” referred to the new development taking place beyond established communities, where developers were turning their attention away from housing and toward commercial expansion.
Above: J.C. Penney stand-alone department store, Silver Spring 1948 (Images of America, 2005).
Below: J.C. Penney as anchor store in Congressional Plaza, 1958.
Throughout the post-war era, the concept of shopping in the suburban districts was constantly evolving and being reorganized to suit the needs of the consumer. Retail chain stores– both regional and national– were expanding into the D.C. suburbs at a fast pace throughout the 1930s and 1940s, chasing the increasing wealth in the County. This growth culminated in a proliferation of automobile-friendly shopping centers opening during the 1950s, when suburban retail expansion was reaching its peak.
REGIONAL SHOPPING CENTERS
The regional shopping center consisted of one or more anchor department stores (such as J.C. Penney, Hecht’s, or Lansburghs) combined with smaller specialty shops, dining establishments, and entertainment. Both local and national department stores transitioned to the anchor-store model for their suburban market as the decade progressed. One benefit of operating within a shopping center as opposed to a building a stand-alone department store within a central business district was the abundance of land available for parking. Additionally, large-scale department stores had more control over their competition in a shopping center by working with the leasing companies to develop a variety of stores within the complex that drew a large base of consumers without providing overlapping services.
Promotional image of Congressional Plaza, c. 1958, emphasizing primarily the massive parking lot, as well as a pop-up carnival on the right. (Montgomery County Manager's Annual Report, 1958).
Cars lined up at a Hot Shoppes Drive-Thru (Courtesy Marriott International Archives).
Congressional Plaza, opened in Montgomery County in 1958, is a prime example of a regional shopping center, with a J.C. Penney anchor store, a Giant Foods, a People’s Drug store, and a new Hot Shoppes among the big name retailers. Hot Shoppes itself was a clear indicator of the progression of suburban retail. Started by J.W. Marriott as a D.C. curbside hamburger stand in the 1920s, the chain expanded outside of the District throughout the 30s and 40s, as well as riding the wave of suburban development in 1950s Montgomery County. Hot Shoppes eventually opened twelve locations in Maryland, along all the major thoroughfares: Wisconsin Avenue, Georgia Avenue, Colesville Road, New Hampshire Avenue, and Viers Mill Road. Its casual diner atmosphere and unique menu items not only catered to suburban shoppers looking for a snack between errands, but established it as a staple of 1950s youth culture in Montgomery County.
Within the same year that Congressional Plaza opened (1958), several other regional shopping centers were opened in the County, including both Twinbrook Shopping Center and Hampshire-Langley Shopping Center.
NEIGHBORHOOD SHOPPING CENTERS
Developers were enamored with the retail possibilities in the “Nabes”– an industry term at the time that referred to the suburban neighborhoods where shopping/dining/entertainment centers and their large free parking lots were turning big profits. Neighborhood shopping centers were usually anchored by a grocery store (Giant Foods, Safeway) and included a drug store (Peoples, Drug Fair), a five-and-dime, a bakery or deli, and other services like cleaners, florists, and small retail outlets. 1950 saw the opening of three large neighborhood shopping centers: Wheaton Shopping Center, Veirs Mill Shopping Center in Rockville, and Flower Avenue Shopping Center in Silver Spring. These early neighborhood shopping centers, like their pioneering counterparts of the 20s and 30s, were built during a unique time in history when the design of shopping centers was still considered an art form in the architectural world, worthy of prestige and awards.
Bradley Shopping Center in Bethesda, including Bradley Drug, Strosnider’s Hardware, Bruce’s Variety and more, opened in 1953.
An early-decade example of a neighborhood shopping center was built in 1952 by the Chevy Chase Land Company (Town of Chevy Chase, 1990). Situated next to a Howard Johnson’s restaurant and across the street from the first suburban Woodward & Lothrop opened in 1950, the Chevy Chase Center (at top left) on Wisconsin Avenue featured a People’s Drug store, a Giant Foods, Raleigh’s Haberdashery, Tweed’s ‘N Things, and other specialty stores. Now called “The Collection at Chevy Chase,” the property still hosts a row of retail stores, though they are notably more upscale than their historical counterparts.
The Chevy Chase Land Company also built the Chevy Chase Lake Shopping Center in 1958 (at bottom left). Other examples of neighborhood shopping centers opened during the decade include the Bradley Shopping Center in Bethesda (1953–pictured above), and the Wheaton Manor Shopping Center (1955).
Blurring the line between a regional and neighborhood shopping center, the Flower Avenue complex (consisting of a Giant Foods, the Flower Theater, Whelan Drugs, a gallery of small retail shops and later a Woolworth & Co.) was developed, designed and built by a virtual “Who’s Who” list of big names in development and architecture at the time. Fred S. Kogod, Max Burka, John J. Zink, Frank Grad and Son, John Eberson, and Edwin Weihe all had a hand in the Flower Avenue project, most of whom belonged to the local Jewish community.
View of the Flower Avenue Shopping Center: Giant Foods on the left, Flower Theater in the center, with the arcade shops beyond, c. 1951
Montgomery County benefited from a dynamic community of Jewish immigrants who had fled Czarist Russia in the early part of the century and had established themselves as entrepreneurs in the grocery business in particular, as well as savvy investors in real estate. The first census taken of the Jewish population in 1957 found that there were more Jews in lower Montgomery County than anywhere else in the Washington D.C. region (Kelly, 2015). Two communities– B’nai B’rith in Silver Spring, centered around Abraham Kay’s Indian Springs Village/Golf Club, and the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Jewish Community–had combined to form the Montgomery County Jewish Community by the late 1940s. For many years, they used the Flower Theater as a community center for their regular services, holiday services, and fundraising benefit events, until their synagogue, Ohr Kodesh on East-West Highway, was completed in 1958. Sam Eig–another Jewish immigrant, local real estate magnate, and developer of the 1951 Eig building–donated to the construction of the synagogue.
Top: Klinge Real Estate Atlas description of the Flower Avenue property,
Bottom: Interior of the Flower Theater, which was used as the community center for the Montgomery County Jewish Community until 1958.
The Flower Avenue Shopping Center was completed in two stages from 1950-1954. Giant Foods and its Heidi Bakery opened in 1950 as the first Giant store in the regional chain to be incorporated into a shopping center. Along with it opened an arcade of shops including a florist, cleaners, gift shop, hardware store, children’s clothing store, Whelan Drugs, and the Flower Delicatessen, which catered to the Jewish population by providing kosher options for lunch and business hours on Sundays.
The Flower Theater, also opened in 1950, was the highest quality of its time, featuring push-back seats, air conditioning, RCA projection and sound system, seating for 950 people, and included a sound-proof nursery and party room upstairs, overlooking the main theater space A Woolworth & Co. was added in 1954 (far-right property on the footprint above, with the corner entrance).
THE FIRST MALL
By this time M-NCPPC planners had enough experience with the design of shopping centers to publish, in a 1958 report titled “Looking Ahead,” a comprehensive description of both inner and outer design for the ideal consolidated business district– the beginning of a concept that would develop into the late-20th-century indoor shopping mall. Each one should be spaced out from others to avoid over-competition, contain appropriate establishments for the local population, and be set back from the main intersections, allowing for multiple access-points from different roads. (The planners had learned their lesson from downtown Silver Spring, and were determined to avoid traffic congestion entering and exiting large complexes). The shopping center should provide a range of services conveniently clustered (e.g., dress, hat, and shoe shops in one section and grocery, bakery, and drugs in another), contain pleasant landscaping, including plants and benches, provide for ample parking–suggested was 4-5 times the floor space– and allow for separation of various types of traffic flow: consumer vehicles vs. pedestrians vs. delivery vehicles (Looking Ahead: A General Plan, 1958).
Aerial view: Wheaton Plaza, officially opened in 1960. (Montgomery History)
Wheaton Plaza featured open-air shopping under partial cover from the elements, with attractive landscaping. (Montgomery County Manager's Annual Report, 1960)
Wheaton Plaza was the culmination of that planning vision. Conceived 1958-1959, it opened at the very end of the decade, in early 1960, as the epitome of a mid-century shopping center. Anchored by Woodward & Lothrop department store and a Montgomery Ward with an auto center, it boasted one million square feet of retail space. This semi-covered open-air pavilion in Wheaton also hosted a Giant foods, three restaurants, and 55 additional specialty retail stores, all surrounded by 4000 parking spaces. It was an enormous draw, and its success eventually led to a decades-long decline for the shopping district in central Silver Spring, as well as for the Washington, D.C. shopping district.
It must be stated that the majority of suburbanization in Montgomery County and similar development in the early 20th century was driven by "white flight" from urban centers like Washington, D.C. These suburban communities continued a tradition of racial segregation which only began to come under harsher scrutiny during the 1950s, with the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 and the growing momentum of the Civil Rights movement into the 1960s.
Children walk along a street in Lyttonsville, an African-American community adjacent to Silver Spring. Black communities protested against discrimination but also opened their own eating and shopping establishments nearer their homes. (Montgomery History, 1967)