50 years ago, the Wheaton Youth Center brought local teens together around rock-and-roll and symbolized the idealism of the young, fast-growing suburb. As pressure grows to replace it with a new recreation center, can this building adapt to become a part of Wheaton’s future?
To some, the 1960s-era building at Georgia and Arcola avenues is a local landmark with a storied musical history, but to others, it’s an eyesore and an exercise in nostalgia. They can’t even agree on what to call it: preservation supporters use its original name, the Youth Center, while opponents call it the Rec Center.
Whatever the name, county officials have been planning to demolish it and the adjacent library and put them in one new, $36 million building on the site of the library. The Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning Board both recommended the building become a historic landmark, but it doesn’t seem to have many friends on the County Council, which will make the final decision.
“Where rock-and-roll was invented”
When the Wheaton Youth Center opened in 1963, it won awards for its Japanese-style architecture. But it was better known for hosting famous musical acts, like Iggy Pop, Rod Stewart, and Led Zeppelin, who may have played their first US show there in 1969.
Eileen McGuckian of Montgomery Preservation, Inc. and the guys who hung out at the Youth Center as teens.
Local musicians played the youth center’s stage as well, including a 13-year-old Tori Amos, then living in Rockville, who gave her first public performance there at a talent show in 1977. In December, the kids who once hung out at the Wheaton Youth Center came back to celebrate the building’s 50th birthday with cake and a screening of filmmaker Jeff Krulik’s documentary “Led Zeppelin Played Here.”
Krulik, who lives in Silver Spring, says the building helped nurture a music scene in Wheaton. “Places like this are where the rock-and-roll concert industry was virtually invented,” he says. “The building speaks to me. The walls talk.”
"This was the cool place to be,” says Olney resident Rick, who grew up in Wheaton and hung out at the Youth Center every weekend. “It kept us off the streets, gave us focus…all the things that young people should learn.” Rick only recently learned about the building’s architectural history, but says “that alone” makes it worth saving.
Is preservation a “fanciful plan”?
To current users, however, the recreation center is too small and falling apart. December’s party happened in a crowded hallway between the gym with the leaky roof and the computer lab with four machines.
The county didn’t have to consider preserving the building because it wasn’t on its survey of historic buildings, a prerequisite for historic designation. The last survey was done in 1976 and doesn’t include any buildings from the 20th century, because nobody thought they were historic yet. Planner are working on a new survey to identify which buildings deserve further study, says historic preservation planner Clare Lise Kelly.
Naturally, residents anxious for a new recreation center fear that designation will add unnecessary delay and cost. Outside the party, opponents planted little yellow signs reading “NO DELAY” all around the building. Last fall, the Planning Board recommended keeping the old recreation center since the new one would be built next to it anyway, which wasn’t received well.
How the new recreation center and library (right) could fit in with the old one. Image from Montgomery County Planning Department.
"If the Planning Board wanted to add another element to their fanciful plan, they might as well have added a zoo for unicorns,” wrote Olney resident and library board member Art Brodsky in a letter to the Gazette.
Both sides disagree how much it would cost to rehabilitate the building, which has never been renovated. Architects Grimm + Parker, which is designing the new facility, estimates it could cost nearly $7.8 million to bring the building up to code and move in the Gilchrist Center for Cultural Diversity, currently housed in the library. Advocacy group Montgomery Preservation, Inc. hired a structural engineer to assess the building, who says it would cost just $1.3 million for more basic improvements.
Community leaders say neither price is worth it. Before a public hearing last night, Councilmember Nancy Navarro, who represents Wheaton, sent an email blast to her constituents asking them to testify against preservation. “We can - and should - find ways to honor the history of this facility in the new design, but not through historic designation,” she wrote.
Could the Youth Center represent the future again?
The Wheaton Youth Center is young enough that people don’t consider it truly historic, but old enough to be unfashionable and in disrepair. But for a community that grew up in the 1950s and 60s, buildings like the Youth Center are as much a part of Wheaton’s heritage and Montgomery County’s heritage as Victorian rowhouses are in DC, setting it apart as a product of its time.
Eileen McGuckian, president of Montgomery Preservation, Inc., was a student at Blair High School in Silver Spring when the youth center opened. “It’s the period of hopes and dreams, of things happening…it was exciting,” she said.
But Wheaton has changed a lot over the past 50 years, from a largely homogeneous, middle-class place to one that’s much more socioeconomically and racially diverse. At the party, Rick said that many of his friends growing up have moved out to Olney or Damascus, taking their memories with them.
And it was hard not to notice the contrast between the older white guys standing on the stage, reminiscing about their days playing in rock-and-roll bands decades ago, and the young, mostly black and Hispanic kids playing pickup basketball on the floor. For kids growing up in Wheaton today, this building belongs to a past they can’t relate to and people who don’t live there anymore.
Preservationists have to prove that a building that reflected Wheaton’s future in 1963 can still be a beacon today. One option is leasing it to a nonprofit group who would fix the building themselves, like the the Writer’s Center, housed in the Bethesda Youth Center.
Kelly sent me a list of 13 organizations willing to take over the building, including arts groups, theatre companies, and the Ethiopian Cultural Center, which serves the region’s quarter-million Ethiopian immigrants. These groups represent where Wheaton is today, and they might help this building become a valued part of the community again.
In any case, it might be too late for the Wheaton Youth Center. But I hope we’ll give Montgomery County’s other notable modern buildings a second chance. If you think this building deserves historic designation, you can email the County Council at mailto:email@example.com.