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When stuck in the daily snarl of metal, concrete, and exhaust fumes that is Rockville Pike, surrounded by glaring commercial come-ons, one’s thoughts do not immediately turn to history. Indeed, history along this gridlocked route is usually measured by those who remember what Congressional Shopping Center looked like before Tower Records moved in—what was it, five, eight years ago? With an unavoidably aggressive, unbroken stretch of shopping and eating possibilities, Rockville Pike has justly earned its reputation as both eyesore and headache.
Eileen McGuckian, on the other hand, takes a broader view. “If all you see is strip shopping centers and stoplights, that’s all you see,” she says with the astute patience of the teacher she once was. “But if you look for something, there’s something else there.”
McGuckian’s sharp eyes can spot such somethings as an airport hangar, a one-room schoolhouse, trolley tracks, Gothic-, prairie-, and federal-style farmhouses, a 280-year-old oak tree that Gen. Braddock rested under on his way north during the French and Indian War…in short, history. McGuckian has collected these and many other landmarks and factoids into a 40-page booklet, Historic and Architectural Guide to the Rockville Pike.
Tracing a 9.5-mile route from the Madonna of the Trail statue in downtown Bethesda to the Montgomery College campus, the guide’s clearly described markers make it perfect for use on a walking tour—except, of course, no one walks along the pike. In arranging our meeting, McGuckian and I identified ourselves exclusively by the cars we drive.
McGuckian is the executive director—and lone, part-time employee—of Peerless Rockville, a historic-preservation society. She calls it “the city’s conscience.” Last Tuesday, Peerless presided over the sale of the Wire Hardware building, a Queen Anne-style structure the organization bought, rescued, and restored in old Rockville. The historic site will now be offices with strict covenants guarding its future survival.
The guide is a Peerless publication, doing double-duty as a fund-raising device. Generously illustrated with some of the 3,000 photographs in the group’s collection, it is both pleasantly nostalgic and a startling reminder of time’s passage. For example, consider this excerpt from the 1890 real estate brochure that gave Peerless Rockville its name:
As a winter sanitarium, summer resort, and all-the-year- round place of residence, Rockville stands without a rival. An altitude of 500 feet, unapproached train service, and an organized community of about 1,500 people, are the claims upon which its superiority is based….There is no malaria here, and rarely a mosquito….The pure ozone-bearing air, delicious, cool water, the numerous groves of pine and of hard-woods, the many dashing streams of water, rich vegetation, abundant supply of fresh vegetables and country produce, all combine to make Rockville a health-giving place of residence.
Standing in the shadow of a grotesquely immense, block-filling structure soon to house a furniture discounter, McGuckian is aware of the irony inherent in the above passage. “The idea is that it’s not a static place,” she says. “Things are happening all the time, and there’s no reason for them not to. You can’t put things in formaldehyde.”
“The pike was built as a commercial concern,” she points out. “It was built to make money.” Unfortunately for the original owners, it didn’t.
Records dating back 300 years make note of a Seneca Indian trail along the same course, which was supplanted by settlers moving goods from the port of Georgetown to Frederick and back. In 1805, the Washington Turnpike Co. received a charter to build a proper road, which they did using the “piking” method, a kind of early macadam. McGuckian unearthed a description of the back-breaking process and includes it in the book. It makes one tired just reading it.
Though toll gates set at Tenleytown, Bethesda, and what is now Georgetown Prep drew dollars from farmers and travelers, the company couldn’t make enough to keep up with repairs. “I tried to get that point across,” says McGuckian, “that people have been bitching about the condition of the pike since it started. There are stories of stagecoach rides where people are being jostled all around because the conditions are so awful.” In a move that probably upset Newt Gingrich’s grandparents, the government eventually took over maintenance of the road when the marketplace proved unworthy.
Mudholes and potholes are fewer today. Modern complaints focus on aesthetics. McGuckian shares the cognoscenti’s annoyance with uninspired design and planning, but also accepts the road’s reality. “That’s why the pike is so interesting,” she says. “It does show some architecture from all of those boom years.” By the ’70s, though, matters had degenerated to the point where a “de-uglification” program was instituted.
“People realized that it could look better; there’s no reason why you have to have things looking that ugly,” McGuckian says.
But there are, she contends, “nice buildings on the pike. I’ve tried to call attention to some of them.” In addition to salvaging the past, Peerless hands out awards for new construction. A Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill-designed office building—six stories of angular, aqua glass—draws praise. The furniture discounter’s looming monolith, however, will not be nominated.
As we look out the soaring, arched windows of the stately 104-year-old red-brick courthouse in downtown Rockville, and workers busily clear away the remains of the second demolition of the Rockville Mall—in preparation for a third multimillion-dollar attempt at creating a workable town center—one wonders if historian McGuckian is at peace with the venerable pike’s evolution from, as her book states, “Indian Path to the Golden Mile.”
A reluctant grin spreads across her face before she admits, “I don’t drive it any more than I have to.”
Copies of Historic and Architectural Guide to the Rockville Pike may be ordered for $5 from Peerless Rockville, P.O. Box 4262, Rockville, MD 20849-4262, or by calling (301) 762-0096.