How Montgomery County Shopped in the 1950s

HOW MONTGOMERY COUNTY SHOPPED IN THE 1950s

[Click on images to see them in larger size!]

 

Bethesda Paint and Hardware, c. 1940s

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

Stop and Shop, featuring free off-street parking

 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 in1923. 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.

 

Silver Spring Shopping Center: its Art Deco design, in line with the nearby Silver Theater, helped it receive historic preservation status. Photo c. 1940.

 

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.1 It was later purchased from its original owners by local entrepreneur Sam Eig in 1944. [Watch a video on the history of the Silver Spring Shopping Center; see a directory of stores from 1960]  The success of the shopping center contributed to Silver Spring’s growing reputation as a shopping destination– the first one outside of the District.2 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

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.

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.3  

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. [View a full-page newspaper ad commenting on the development in Silver Spring, dating from 1951]

The former Palais Royale, which became the Woodward & Lothrop “Bethesda Budget Store” circa 1947.

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.4

Woodward & Lothrop’s Suburban Store at Wisconsin Avenue and Western Ave.

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.

Transportation Pageant celebrating the development of the automobile. Woodward & Lothrop Opening Day ceremonies program, 1950.

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. 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.” [View the complete program from the opening ceremonies] 

 

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 MNCPPC 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.5 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.”6

Downtown Silver Spring, c. 1956 with parking lots surrounding the central business district. Construction of lots and improvements to road size and traffic flow could not keep up with the demand.
J.C. Penney stand-alone department store, Silver Spring 1948.

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, the Hoyt 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.7 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. 

J.C. Penney, anchor store at Congressional Plaza, 1958

[see a promotional brochure about Silver Spring from 1957]

 

REGIONAL SHOPPING CENTERS

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. Local chains such as Giant Foods, People’s Drugs, Raleigh’s Haberdashery, Hahn’s Shoes, Jelleff’s, and Drug Fair as well as national chains like Safeway, Rexall, Acme Market, A&P Foods, and Hardware City were clamoring for space in the suburban retail market. With each new store opening, profits became more secure, leading even more stores to follow the trend. This growth culminated in a proliferation of automobile-friendly shopping centers opening during the 1950s, when suburban retail expansion was reaching its peak. The two most common were regional shopping centers (which usually included a department store “anchor” as well as dining and entertainment) and neighborhood shopping centers (which focused more on everyday needs like groceries, drugstores, and variety stores).

This photo of the Congressional Plaza primarily emphasizes the parking lot. From County Manager’s Annual Report, 1958.

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. 

Advertisement for the Congressional Plaza Hot Shoppes, c. 1959

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 Avenus, 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. [Read an article about the history of Hot Shoppes]

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

View of the Flower Avenue Shopping Center: Giant Foods on the left, Flower Theater in the center, with the arcade shops beyond, c. 1951

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. 

Interior of Flower Theater, which was used as the community center for the Montgomery County Jewish Community until 1958.

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. 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.8 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. [see an advertising brochure for office space in the Eig Building, 1951]

Real Estate Atlas description of the Flower Avenue property, from the Maryland Historical Trust Inventory of Historic Property Form.

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). [Read an excerpt from the Maryland Historical Trust Inventory of Historical Properties form, written by Clare Lise Kelly, on the extensive historical context of the Flower Avenue Shopping Center.]

Chevy Chase Center, built 1952 across the street from Woodward & Lothrop.
Chevy Chase Lake Shopping Center, built in 1958

Another early-decade example of a neighborhood shopping center was built in 1952 by the Chevy Chase Land Company. 9 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 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. Other examples of neighborhood shopping centers opened during the decade include the Bradley Shopping Center in Bethesda (1953–pictured below), and the Wheaton Manor Shopping Center (1955).

Bradley Shopping Center in Bethesda, including Bradley Drug, Strosnider’s Hardware, Bruce’s Variety and more, opened in 1953.

 

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.10 

Aerial view: Wheaton Plaza, officially opened in 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. [see a promotional flyer for Wheaton Plaza, produced in 1959]

Wheaton Plaza featured open-air shopping under partial cover from the elements, with attractive landscaping.

 

DISCRIMINATION ON DISPLAY

Though shopping centers were destinations that attracted crowds of suburbanites, not everyone was welcome. Up until the 1960 opening of the Woodward & Lothrop in Wheaton plaza, that company had open discrimination policies in its stores, most blatantly refusing service to black patrons in the Chevy Chase-Bethesda store’s tearoom. A public relations manager told a Washington Post reporter in 1957, “We do not serve Negroes at the Chevy Chase store [meaning the restaurant]. No explanation is necessary.”11 According to a list compiled in 1958, the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Woodward & Lothrop had adjusted its discrimination policy after the NAACP conducted a survey of Montgomery County establishments to determine their attitudes toward black customers. However, local NAACP members picketed opening day for the Wheaton Plaza store in February of 1960, citing ongoing discrimination at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase tearoom as the reason for the demonstration.12 After consistent picketing and boycotts, Woodward and Lothrop publicly announced the lifting of its policy of discrimination by March 5, 1960.13 

Washington Post reporting on the February pickets, 1960.

In 1962, the Montgomery County Council passed a public accommodations ordinance that prohibited discrimination based on race or religion in public establishments (including a strange exemption for “taverns” that sold alcohol in higher volumes than food, which was not removed from the language of the law until 1968). But despite the public accommodations law, and despite the County’s successful integration of its public schools by 1959-1960 school year, organizations like the NAACP and the Human Relations Commission were continually forced to address an established culture of racism in the suburbs.14 

CONCLUSION

In the course of one decade, the act of shopping for the family had been transformed from a hassle-filled city excursion into a suburban idyll of convenience around every corner. Consumers, retailers and developers had capitalized on their codependent relationships: reacting to and evolving with each other to create an entirely new societal structure based on the automobile, designed for the family, and revolving around the suburban home. The intense development in the suburbs and the shift in the retail market share away from the city center contributed to the growth of Montgomery County and other local suburban jurisdictions, but also contributed to the eventual decline of the shopping districts in Washington, D.C. The suburban built retail environment, which reached its developmental peak in the late 20th century, had its roots here in the 1950s when department stores and shopping centers were planted throughout the countryside, turning Montgomery County’s farmland into a land of profit.

Footnotes

  1. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form: Silver Theatre and Shopping Center. Maryland Historic Trust, 1988
  2. Jaffeson, Richard C. Silver Spring Success: The 300 Year History of Silver Spring, Maryland. Fifth Edition, 2003.
  3. Longstreth, Richard. The Mixed Blessings of Success: The Hecht Company and Department Store Branch Development after World War II.
  4. Lisicky, Michael J. Woodward & Lothrop: A Store Worthy of the Nation’s Capital.
  5. Harness, Conrad P. “Maryland’s ‘Second City’ Preps for Expansion.” Washington Post: August 4, 1946.
  6. Harness, Conrad P. “Bethesda Lures Investors, Business.” Washington Post: February 5, 1950.
  7. Homer Hoyt Associates. “Economic Survey of Montgomery and Prince Georges Counties, Maryland.” Washington, D.C., January 1955
  8. Kelly, Clare Lise. Montgomery Modern. Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission: Silver Spring, MD. 2015
  9. Town of Chevy Chase: Past and Present. Town of Chevy Chase: Montgomery County, MD. 1990
  10. “Looking Ahead: A General Plan for the Maryland-Washington Regional District, 1958-1980.”
  11. Jones, Jean. “Negro Eating Ban is Checked.” The Washington Post and Times Herald. August 26, 1957.
  12. “NAACP Pickets New Store in Wheaton Plaza.” The Washington Post, Times Herald. February 6, 1960.
  13. “Store Lifts Negro Ban in Restaurant.” Washington Post, Saturday, March 5, 1960
  14. Johansen, Bruce Richard. “Imagined Pasts, Imagined Futures: Race, Politics, Memory and the Revitalization of Downtown Silver Spring, Maryland.”