IN THE STEAMY DAYS of July
1953, Rockville ran out of water.
;is ironic development—the townis surrounded by streams, and is nameda;er one of them, Rock Creek—spurreda campaign to modernize both the gov-ernment and infrastructure of the quaintcounty seat of about 7,000 residents.
;e next municipal election swept agroup of reformers onto the city coun-cil and into the mayor’s office. Theywent to work, and in 1954 Rockvillewas proclaimed an All-America Cityby the National Municipal League and
Six years later, with land annex-ations and a population that hadswelled to 26,000, Rockville’s leadersbecame emboldened with can-do opti-mism. They signed up for an innocu-ous-sounding national program called“urban renewal,” and bulldozed 47 acresof the downtown that had grown organi-cally 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 itspast, Rockville has been trying to get itsdowntown right ever since. With the con-struction of an entire Town Square in themixed-use, neo-traditionalist model, ithas bet on a back-to-the-future approach.
Some of the early history of Rockvillecoincided closely with that of the UnitedStates. In 1776, Montgomery County wascarved out of Frederick County and thecounty seat was located at Hungerford’sTavern on today’s Washington Street.
In 1801, a few months a;er the fed-eral government took up residence onthe banks of the Potomac River, the set-tlement around the Montgomery Court-house 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 mostnotable event in thoseearly decades, it seems,was a large meteor showerin 1833 that reportedlyconvinced many townspeople to repenttheir sins.
On the eve of the Civil War, slaverywas common, and many town and out-lying residents were Southern sympathiz-ers. ;e county’s leaders were only able tomuster a two-vote majority on a motionto urge Maryland to stay in the Union,and even then the resolution backed thecontinuation of slavery. A few monthslater, federal troops disarmed a pro-Southern militia, the “Rockville Rifle-men,” and raided homes to confiscateweapons and arrest advocates of seces-sion. The town’s sympathies were wellrepresented by the Confederate soldierstatue that stood on the old courthousesquare. 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 aroundWashington, the coming of the railroadin the late 19th century spurred greatereconomic growth. Rockville becamepopular as a summer destination forwell-o; families wishing to escape thecapital’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.
PHOTOCOURTESYOFPEERLESSROCKVILLELooking 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, Rockvillekept its small-town feel, but with rapidexpansion and a population boom inthe 1950s, leaders were seduced by theurban renewal philosophy. In exchangefor federal money, “blight” would bevaporized, and a clean, modern templateplaced on the downtown.
No matter that there weren’t vastslums or industrial wastelands to becleaned up. A 1965 photograph showsRockville Mayor Alfred Ecker hurling aceremonial rock at a two-story buildingto 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 ofEcker three decades earlier, County Exec-utive Doug Duncan took a ceremonialsledgehammer to the bankrupt RockvilleMall. By mid-2007, the 15-acre RockvilleTown Square was a reality, with a rede-signed central library, residences, o;cesand upscale eateries. ■
our towns | ROCKVILLE/NORTH BETHESDA