IN THE STEAMY DAYS of July
1953, Rockville ran out of water.
;is ironic development—the town
is surrounded by streams, and is named
a;er one of them, Rock Creek—spurred
a campaign to modernize both the government and infrastructure of the quaint
county seat of about 7,000 residents.
;e next municipal election swept a
group of reformers onto the city council and into the mayor’s office. They
went to work, and in 1954 Rockville
was proclaimed an All-America City
by the National Municipal League and
Six years later, with land annexations and a population that had
swelled to 26,000, Rockville’s leaders
became emboldened with can-do optimism. They signed up for an innocu-ous-sounding national program called
“urban renewal,” and bulldozed 47 acres
of the downtown that had grown organically for more than 160 years.
A total of 111 buildings were razed.
Only a few iconic structures, such as
the Red Brick Courthouse that dated to
1891, were saved.
Having made a dramatic split with its
past, Rockville has been trying to get its
downtown right ever since. With the construction of an entire Town Square in the
mixed-use, neo-traditionalist model, it
has bet on a back-to-the-future approach.
Some of the early history of Rockville
coincided closely with that of the United
States. In 1776, Montgomery County was
carved out of Frederick County and the
county seat was located at Hungerford’s
Tavern on today’s Washington Street.
In 1801, a few months a;er the federal government took up residence on
the banks of the Potomac River, the settlement around the Montgomery Courthouse became known as Rockville.
Only 150 people were counted within
its limits, along with countless farm ani-
mals. ;e General Assem-
bly passed a law banning
geese and pigs from run-
ning loose within the vil-
lage limits. A visiting
writer dismissed the court-
house as being “without
either taste or elegance.”
;e town grew slowly
during the ;rst half of the
19th century. The most
notable event in those
early decades, it seems,
was a large meteor shower
in 1833 that reportedly
convinced many townspeople to repent
On the eve of the Civil War, slavery
was common, and many town and outlying residents were Southern sympathizers. ;e county’s leaders were only able to
muster a two-vote majority on a motion
to urge Maryland to stay in the Union,
and even then the resolution backed the
continuation of slavery. A few months
later, federal troops disarmed a pro-Southern militia, the “Rockville Rifle-men,” and raided homes to confiscate
weapons and arrest advocates of secession. The town’s sympathies were well
represented by the Confederate soldier
statue that stood on the old courthouse
square. County o;cials decided in early
2017 to move the statue north to White’s
Ferry a;er public criticism of Confeder-
ate symbols erupted nationally in 2015.
As with many communities around
Washington, the coming of the railroad
in the late 19th century spurred greater
economic growth. Rockville became
popular as a summer destination for
well-o; families wishing to escape the
capital’s muggy heat.
Well-heeled travelers used the train
for their commutes. Rockville Pike, so
worn that some sections were 12 feet
below the adjacent lands, had “long
This was East Montgomery Avenue in 1917,
looking west opposite the historic Red Brick
Courthouse. The buildings were later torn
down in the 1960s as part of urban renewal.
Looking back BY STEVE DRYDEN
been known as one of the worst pieces
of main highway in the state,” the Mary-
land Geological Survey declared in 1899.
;e road wasn’t paved until 1925.
;rough two world wars, Rockville
kept its small-town feel, but with rapid
expansion and a population boom in
the 1950s, leaders were seduced by the
urban renewal philosophy. In exchange
for federal money, “blight” would be
vaporized, and a clean, modern template
placed on the downtown.
No matter that there weren’t vast
slums or industrial wastelands to be
cleaned up. A 1965 photograph shows
Rockville Mayor Alfred Ecker hurling a
ceremonial rock at a two-story building
to kick o; the urban renewal o;ensive.
“;e result was disaster,” Washington
Post architecture critic Wolf Von Eckardt
declared in 1979.
Downtown Rockville was de;ned by
a squat concrete mall and hulking, style-
free municipal buildings.
In 1995, eerily repeating the action of
Ecker three decades earlier, County Executive Doug Duncan took a ceremonial
sledgehammer to the bankrupt Rockville
Mall. By mid-2007, the 15-acre Rockville
Town Square was a reality, with a redesigned central library, residences, o;ces
and upscale eateries. ■
our towns | ROCKVILLE/NORTH BETHESDA