`Peerless' preservationists

Vision: A Rockville group that has worked for 25 years to save landmarks others see as ripe for demolition will be honored by the Maryland Historical Trust.

April 30, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

ROCKVILLE -- Eileen McGuckian looks out her office window and sees brown concrete. Huge vertical slabs of it.

Luckily she can't see in the other direction. Beige brick, and a gruesome hodgepodge of metal and stone.

This is the heart of Montgomery County government, a monument, critics say, to building techniques perfected by Josef Stalin.

But McGuckian, ever the optimist, sees architecture and history where others see a terrific opportunity for the wrecking ball.

For her vision, the Maryland Historical Trust will honor her and Peerless Rockville, the organization she helped found, with its 1999 Preservation Service Award at ceremonies tonight in Easton.

"A lot of their original ideas were seen as radical, now they're just seen as the right thing to do," says County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, an early champion as a member of the Rockville City Council and later as mayor. "The county is a much better place because of them."

Peerless has spun off other nonprofit organizations: a group saving the tiny Higgins Cemetery and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference (he's buried next to the city's busiest intersection).

Peerless Rockville. The name is spunky, just like the Peerless Rockvillians, who have spent 25 years trying to keep government from plowing under and paving over local history.

The group is known for its "$1 specials," says McGuckian of the places it snaps up as the buyer of last resort: a two-room schoolhouse, an 1874 farmhouse, an early 1800s cemetery.

But it all started in 1974 with a building McGuckian couldn't save -- the Masonic Lodge, a victim of a 10-year urban renewal purge that demolished 16 blocks of the old downtown.

"I remember standing across the street with a friend snapping pictures. One was of a bulldozer snapping at this lovely building," McGuckian remembers.

Peerless Rockville was formed on the dining room table of a house that would later become a preservation showcase, its owner a warrior for the legal hurdles to come.

Origin of group's name

The name came from an 1890 real estate prospectus, Peerless Rockville, that noted: "Like an eagle on its eyre [sic], Rockville looks down upon the National Capital from an altitude of 500 feet. As a winter sanitarium, summer resort, and all-the-year round place of residence, Rockville stands without rival."

Peerless attracted families "looking for a sense of community and a sense of place," McGuckian says.

Almost immediately, the group talked regional transportation officials into moving the old Baltimore and Ohio Railroad station out of the path of the new Metro subway system. Then it persuaded the State Highway Administration not to raze the 1909 Montrose Schoolhouse for a road-widening project.

But in the best tradition of one step forward and two steps back, county government was busily building a $40 million concrete office tower and circuit courthouse that are best viewed from the inside out.

"It's kind of brutal," says Takoma Park architect Ralph Bennett, who is chairman of the county Housing Opportunities Commission. "It's 1970s design, and charm wasn't a big deal back then."

Still, Bennett predicts that the complex "will be prized some day."

Says Duncan, whose second-floor office is in the tower: "No, no. Never. It'll never be historic. It'll never be prized. It's a concrete slab."

Opposing arguments

McGuckian has heard similar arguments, often about whatever project Peerless is tackling.

"People used to hate Victorians and bungalows, now they command top dollar," she says. "You never like anything from your own time that's new or different."

Peerless Rockville has had its share of fights, one of which went all the way to Maryland's highest court after the owner of a historic building tried to renege on a purchase agreement and instead sell it to someone not interested in preservation.

The Court of Appeals agreed with Arthur Wagman, the Peerless lawyer and charter member ("I'm retired and limit my clients to pro bono and those who can't pay.").

As a result, Wire Hardware, Rockville's last intact 19th-century commercial building, was restored and is used by a gallery and insurance company.

With 400 member families and a budget of $150,000, Peerless is beginning its next quarter-century by looking inward and deciding which projects it can take on and which ones it can't.

"It's painful," says McGuckian. "We can't be all things to all people. We have to decide what we do best.

"But the award is nice. It gives us an excuse to look back at 25 years and think, `Gee, maybe we did make a difference.' "

Pub Date: 4/30/99

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