AT HOME IN SILVER SPRING: Preserving a sense of place (The paths of preservation, part 2)


Last month our column focused on the two types of historic preservation familiar to most of us, namely, museum quality preservation of historically significant landmark buildings and preservation accompanied by repurposing old buildings, what is known as adaptive reuse. We ended by touching briefly on a less familiar and perhaps difficult-to-define form, what we think of as “neighborhood preservation”. Neighborhood preservation’s concern is broader than saving or reusing single structures. It is preservation on a much larger scale. It is about preserving the “sense of place” of a neighborhood.

Neighborhood preservation is about preserving the connective fabric that holds our community together. It entails various means and actions to preserve the qualities that are deemed valuable and worth holding onto in an existing community. It can often mean radically altering or even dismantling some existing buildings and putting back structures that are more compatible with a neighborhood. It often means extending the fabric of a given place with buildings that are compatible in scale and character with the ones that are around it and have come before these newer ones.

There really are no regulations for this that we are aware of that work particularly well. There are codes and organizations that have tried it, but they are often very restrictive and lead to well-intentioned but poorly executed results: Think of the badly detailed and over-scaled office buildings trying to ape nearby two hundred year-old colonial houses in Georgetown and Alexandria. Another thing that makes this category of preservation difficult is that it is anathema to most pure-minded preservationists, because by its very nature it may mean altering, and in some cases removing and replacing, portions of the existing fabric of communities.

A sense of place

We have probably all heard this term at one time or another, but what does it really mean? It is a cumulative sense of meaning, rootedness and purpose that we have towards the places where we live, work and play. The particular qualities we use to define a sense of place may be hard to determine, but we know them when they are there. This can be at its most poignant when, while going about our daily lives we feel a fondness and connectedness to our environment.

This is about more than just the physical environment. It is about the businesses, the culture, the institutions and the people that make up our places. The sense of place we have attached to our neighborhood is much like the sense we have towards our definition of home, only on a slightly larger scale. If home is where the heart is, then a neighborhood is where the sense of belonging is. And while buildings or the physical fabric that stitches them together is but one part of this complex recipe, it is critically important.

Preserving a sense of place

Sometimes it is the collective idea of a place that is worth preserving. And this may add up to much more than the sum of the physical buildings that populate a place. Think of it this way: Aren’t there some places that we know we like, but may have a hard time saying why? Aren’t there some neighborhoods we like and value and enjoy visiting, but to the casual observer, may not appear to have a lot of curb appeal, so to speak? Does every place really have to be as old, as intact, as, well, preserved, as Georgetown or Beacon Hill in Boston to warrant at least some basic form of preservation?

These are very complicated questions with even more complicated answers, but they are the kinds of questions we need to be asking ourselves when we think of some neighborhoods in Silver Spring. What do we like and what do we want to hold onto along the pre WWII commercial strip of Georgia Avenue from the District line to the Beltway? What about the art deco buildings along Colesville Avenue between Fenton and Georgia? And what about the mid-century modern buildings along Fenton and Bonifant Streets, and Silver Spring, Thayer and Sligo Avenues? Perhaps most significant, what about the surrounding early 20th century residential neighborhoods of bungalows, cape cods and colonials?

How many of you moved to this area and thought Fenton Village was nothing more than a collection of parking lots and small tatty buildings?  But as you got to know the blocks, bought coffee at Kefa Café, perused the latest findings at Silver Spring Used Books or eaten dinner at your favorite restaurant began to feel like Fenton Village was your own secret discovery? After a couple of years you began to feel a fondness for the clerks who know your face, and those tatty buildings began to develop ‘character’.

Did you know that a lot of the buildings are owned by the same couple of owners – people who feel protective for their buildings?  Now imagine if a full block of Fenton Village was replaced by a box store?  It is not quite the same, is it?  Sure, you could buy things cheap, but would you wander around on a sunny Saturday checking in with your favorite clerks?  If there is a test case for hard-to-define, it is Fenton Village, but there are more than a few of us who feel protective of this place.

weller's cloc

There are only a small handful of buildings in Fenton Village that would qualify as candidates for historic preservation as we typically think of it, like Wellers Dry Cleaning.  But Fenton Village as a place is worth considering.  We can keep the best buildings and a lot of the others.  We can infill the empty lots with similarly scaled buildings and businesses. If development happened this way, we would not only retain the place that is Fenton Village, but we would make it even better. If those parking lots are replaced with 10 story high rises, will Fenton Village be the same funky place we love?  If Wellers was replaced by a generic box store, wouldn’t we feel a deep sense of loss?

Just because Silver Spring is a bit harder to define than some places it does not mean we are any less worth saving. We hate to use clichés, but in this instance a particular one is very apt: You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. If an area is a gem in the rough, like Fenton Village seems to us, how much can one remove before the sense of synergy of the place is lost? How much can be added that positively contributes to its character and at what point would too much be added or taken away that the character is lost?

To preserve the sense of place we value, sometimes drastic action is necessary. Sometimes it means building and sometimes it may mean replacing, renovating or taking things down. Sometimes it will require lively and spirited debates and even protests. But perhaps more important than all of this, preserving a sense of place, preserving a neighborhood, requires a continued connection to and an awareness of our surroundings. It requires alert eyes and ears. It requires an awareness of what is around us and what has come before us. It requires attentive and engaged citizens willing to participate in an ongoing healthy dialog about what should or should not happen in their community. These may be the best tools for preserving our hard-to-categorize neighborhood.  Look around and decide what you want to preserve.

Meaza Gabru prepares crepes

Worth preserving: Fenton Café. Pictured, owner Meaza Gabru prepares crepes. Photo by Eric Bond


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.