AT HOME IN SILVER SPRING: Fate of historic bank building uncertain

AT HOME IN SILVER SPRING • BY STEVE KNIGHT & KAREN BURDITT

We’ve made many trips past the blockish modern stone building on the corner of Georgia Avenue and Cameron Street at 8700 Georgia.   One summer, one of us even ventured into the basement for a short-lived hobby of tap dancing at the now-relocated Knock on Wood dance studio. We knew it was a mid-century modern building, and likely built for its current use as a bank, but otherwise hadn’t thought much more about it. But as the adage says “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone”, when we began hearing rumors that 8700 Georgia Avenue’s future was uncertain and that we may even lose it, we began to look closer at its history and architectural merits.

We follow a long line of people who have shed light on this building and its significance, and we would like to point you to an article Jerry McCoy wrote in this paper four years ago for a fuller explanation of its historical merits: takoma.com/archives/copy/2007/02/features_thenAgain0207.html

Furthermore, thorough research conducted by local architectural historians with EHT Traceries, funded by Montgomery Preservation Inc., has taught us a great deal about the building.
In a nutshell, 8700 Georgia was constructed in 1958 for the Perpetual Savings and Loan Association, a local institution with roots going back to the late 1800’s. Through most of the 20th century, Saving & Loans, not banks, were the primary means for prospective home owners to obtain mortgages, and Perpetual was the local industry leader. Headquartered at 11th and E St.  NW in Washington DC (demolished in the 1980s), in a building very similar to Silver Spring’s building,

Perpetual grew along with the postwar move toward greater home ownership. As the surrounding suburbs developed, Perpetual located branches in the downtowns of the growing communities, including Bethesda, Hyattsville and here in Silver Spring. These branches collectively represent the new concept of corporate image branding in architecture.
All four buildings, while not identical, are quite similar, like members of an immediate family.  The buildings employ many of the same details and materials, with slightly different renditions and adjustments to massing, footprint and size, each a unique response to its site and program.  Perpetual Savings and Loan eventually merged with Crestar Bank, which became SunTrust, the current bank tenant in the building, which is still known locally as the Perpetual Building.

One of the things that is appealing to us is that, while the Perpetual may not match the image of the prototypical classical or beaux arts bank building, its exterior still clearly expresses its purpose: its sturdy materials of limestone and granite with its blocky proportions say “I’m a bank. I’m solid. I’m not going anywhere; your money is safe here. “  At the same time, the building has a great deal of elegance; an airy two story banking hall, the polished granite and limestone exterior,  the fine aluminum mullions and other milled aluminum fittings lend an air of dignity. These are all important elements to have when an institution is trying to build a reputation of trust and confidence. In short, the Perpetual, like so many buildings of the time, is a great example of “Form Follows Function”, the all-to-often-misunderstood quote by the great architect Edward Sullivan.  The Perpetual represents the ideals of the 50’s; stability, modernity, and machined craftsmanship.

Why is the Perpetual worth saving?
The Perpetual is a durable and well crafted example from the era in which it was produced.

It represents a golden age of downtown Silver Spring, when it was coming into its own as a major suburban community just outside the nation’s capital in the 1940’s and 1950’s.
If you have read the previous articles we have written, you know we are not historians. While we recognize the history of our buildings is important, we are more interested that a walk down the street in our community feels safe, interesting and enjoyable.

Our older commercial buildings play a critical role in this and the Perpetual is a great example worth holding onto. It meets the sidewalk on both Georgia and Cameron, defining the pedestrian realm. It has large, well detailed windows, wonderful materials and a solid presence on the block.

Its details, like the double glazed windows, were cutting edge technology for their time. Its double height trapezoidal windows and walls of angular and planar stone are both elegant and whimsical. While a bit pensive and brooding to some, we think the building holds the corner on Georgia Avenue like a dignified guardian.
Also, you know we are fans of preservation and conservation wherever reasonably possible. The Perpetual, like most other commercial and institutional buildings of the early and mid-twentieth century, are some of the most elegant, durable and well-designed buildings that we have in our community.

Polished granite, quarried Indiana limestone and custom milled aluminum are materials we cannot easily afford to replace today.  We would dare to say, that whatever might replace the Perpetual would scarcely match its durability and craftsmanship. This care and attention to detail is simply not evident in the development we’ve seen added to our community in the last ten or more years (if you are in doubt, consider the poorly rendered quasi-colonial bank nearby).

In an era when everyone speaks of “going green”, the greenest thing we can do is to save and reuse our older buildings.  Well built, well detailed buildings are worth more than just the current fads in architecture – they are timeless examples of human skill and ingenuity. They are our heritage.

Saving buildings can mean using them in new ways
At first glance, we’ve asked ourselves, since the Perpetual says “I’m a bank”, why not keep it one? The current façade and ground floor use of space works well. However, if another use is preferred, such as a hotel, which is what the current owner has in mind, it seems to us the Perpetual is perfectly capable of adapting itself for the occasion. If a former jail in Boston can be converted into one of the swankiest and coolest hotels in that city, why can’t something interesting be done in the way of adaptive reuse with the Perpetual? Preservation, but more accurately adaptive reuse along with good quality restoration and sensitive remodeling and addition, is an engine of development.

Adaptive Reuse has given us many wonderful places here locally which continue to serve vital and vibrant functions in the community: Think of AFI Silver Theater, Union Station or The Old Post Office at Federal Triangle. Think of the recently opened Fillmore or the Hotel Monaco in the old General Post Office building in Penn Quarter.

We think another local adaptive reuse success story, the old Greyhound bus station terminal at 1100 New York Avenue in downtown Washington, could serve as an inspired example for the Perpetual: The Greyhound terminal was converted and added onto to create class A office space in the late 1980’s. In fact, many argue that the addition of a tall office tower behind the original low rise structure, with its iconic limestone-clad moderne clock tower, makes for not only a striking and original composition, but also for a warm  and inviting complex that improves on the original building.

Imagine retaining the primary stone facades of the Perpetual to maintain a street level presence. Imagine repurposing the airy banking room as the bones for an elegant boutique hotel lobby and imagine augmenting the original structure by erecting an elegant and complementary tower behind. Why couldn’t the same marvelous transformation happen to the Perpetual, as it becomes the most elegant and refined new/old building in Silver Spring? We would like to challenge the current owners to try!

About the Author

Steve Knight and Karen Burditt
Karen Burditt is a registered architect with 25 years experience, currently working with Esocoff & Associates Architects in Washington DC. Steve Knight is an Associate with David M. Schwarz Architects, also in Washington. Steve and Karen have lived in their bungalow in East Silver Spring for 12 years.