Wheaton residents want a new recreation center, but historic preservationists say the current one, where Led Zeppelin allegedly played a show in 1969, should stay. On Thursday, the Montgomery County Planning Board will hold a public hearing about whether to make the Wheaton Youth Center a historic landmark.

The Wheaton Youth Center today. Photo by Clare Lise Kelly.

County officials are already planning to demolish the Wheaton Youth Center and adjacent Wheaton Regional Library, both on Georgia Avenue a few blocks north of downtown, and replace them with a new, combined facility that would also hold the Gilchrist Center for Cultural Diversity, the county’s welcome center for immigrants and new residents. The county has set aside $36 million to build the complex, which could open as early as 2016.

Everyone seems to agree that the library, a brown bunker built in 1960 and renovated in 1985, deserves to go. Some feel the same about the youth center, citing its leaky roof, moldy carpeting and broken kitchen appliances. But historic preservationists want to save the Japanese-inspired building, whose concerts with nationally touring bands are the subject of a new documentary. One county planner has proposed a way to build a new building while saving the old one.

Youth center gave Wheaton a music scene

During the 1950’s, Montgomery County noticed that local teens were anxious for places to hang out but had nowhere to go. The Park and Planning Commission proposed building “youth centers” across the county where teens could gather and hired renowned local architecture firm Keyes, Lethbridge & Condon to design them, but only two were built, in Bethesda and Wheaton.

The Velours play at the Wheaton Youth Center in the 1960’s. Photo from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

The Wheaton Youth Center opened in 1963 and won an award from the American Institute of Architects for design excellence. Architect Arthur Keyes, who passed away in 2012, said Japanese architecture inspired the youth center, from the curved rooftop to rooms based on the proportions of 3-by-6 foot tatami mats. Fresh and exotic at the time, the design seemed to fit the idealism of its young clients.

And it worked: the Wheaton Youth Center quickly became a cornerstone of the youth scene, first hosting local teen bands, then later nationally-touring musicians like Rod Stewart, Iggy Pop, Bob Seger, and Led Zeppelin, which reportedly played their first US show there in 1969. Those who were around at the time say the youth center’s Battle of the Band contests helped bridge the gaps between blue-collar Wheaton kids, who enjoyed R&B and soul music, and white-collar kids in Bethesda who preferred rock-and-roll.

The youth center eventually lost its hold on the music scene. The Recreation Department staff who supported the concerts moved on, and larger, dedicated spaces opened for touring bands to play at, like the Capital Centre in Landover, which opened in 1973.

But Wheaton remained a place where kids came to hear and make music. During the 1990’s, the club Phantasmagoria a few blocks away hosted touring bands and anchored the regional ska scene before the county bought and turned it into the Gilchrist Center for Cultural Diversity in 2001. The center moved to Wheaton Regional Library a few years later.

Can we remix the youth center?

It’s clear the existing library, youth center and Gilchrist Center aren’t meeting the community’s needs. Residents are impatient for a new recreation center and library, and County Council President Nancy Navarro says she’s worried that historic designation could get in the way.

And architects Grimm + Parker’s early designs for a new facility are promising. It brings the building right up to Georgia Avenue, asserting its presence as a significant community institution and gathering place and making it easier for those coming by foot, on bike, or on transit to get there.

Early design for the new combined library, recreation center, and Gilchrist Center.

Planner John Carter’s proposal for saving the youth center while building a new, smaller facility next door. Both images from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

But the current youth center is by no means beyond repair, and there could be a way to save it while giving Wheaton the new recreation center and library people want. In a memo to the Planning Board, county planner John Carter proposes restoring and reusing the youth center as the new Gilchrist Center, while building a new, smaller rec center and library next door.

The result is a sort of “campus” of public buildings with a play area and amphitheatre in the middle, as opposed to having it off to the side as originally proposed. The Gilchrist Center gets its own space instead of being on the second floor of a larger building. Wheaton gets a new rec center and library, while saving a unique part of its architectural and musical identity.

Buildings can be a part of music history

Some downplay the Wheaton Youth Center’s significance to music history. The Gazette ran an editorial asking “since when has rock ‘n’ roll been about bricks and mortar?

The answer’s obvious to anyone who’s been to CBGB in New York, which helped spawn punk and New Wave in the 1970’s; 924 Gilman in Berkeley, the all-ages space where Green Day got its start; or even the Birchmere in Alexandria, which developed DC’s bluegrass scene. Music doesn’t happen in a vacuum: it happens in places, with people and scenes and, yes, physical buildings.

There’s no shortage of buildings from the 1950’s and 1960’s in Montgomery County, many of which are past their useful life and were rightfully demolished and replaced, like the old Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville, built in 1969. Other buildings, like the Flower Theatre in Long Branch, have lost much of their original features but still have some things worth saving. And a select few have not only the architectural but cultural significance to justify saving them, like the Wheaton Youth Center.

Montgomery County is fortunate enough to have the means to build new, state-of-the-art public buildings, whether with the Wheaton Youth Center in 1963 or its potential replacement today. The community needs a new recreation center and library, but that doesn’t mean we should simply wipe the slate clean. Whether or not Led Zeppelin played at the Wheaton Youth Center, there’s plenty of merit to save it.

Update: The Planning Board voted to recommend giving the Wheaton Youth Center historic designation.