Friday, April 29, 2011

Celebrating Silver Spring's Treasures

May is the National Trust for Historic Preservation's National Preservation Month and this year's theme is "Celebrating America's Treasures."  The purpose of this advocacy is to showcase our country's diverse and unique heritage and downtown Silver Spring is certainly home to a wide variety of treasures worth celebrating.

One such treasure is the building located at 8412 Georgia Avenue, constructed in 1937 as the Silver Spring Post Office.  This federal buildings (the first to be erected in Montgomery County) was one of 1,100 post offices constructed in the United States between 1934 and 1944 that featured murals or sculptures commissioned by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture.  Fourteen of these post offices were located in Maryland with three in Montgomery County (the other two were Rockville and Bethesda).

Located in the lobby of Silver Spring's new post office was a 16-foot-long oil on canvas mural titled The Old Tavern by Nicolai Cikovsky.  The mural depicted the crossroads of Sligo, Maryland (today’s intersection of Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road) at the end of the Civil War.  Civil War Union soldiers are reading mail picked up at a tavern located where Discovery Communications stands today.  When the post office closed in 1981 and relocated to Second Avenue, the mural was carefully removed from the wall, placed in storage and promptly forgotten.  

In 1994 after a year long search I located the mural rolled up in a cardboard carpet tube that was stored in the basement of the demolished (2003) Blair Station Post Office, located at 8045 Newell Street.  A three-year effort was commenced by the Friends of the Silver Spring Library to raise $25,000 to conserve the mural, which was badly deteriorated.  In 1997 the restored mural was ceremoniously unveiled at the Silver Spring Library where it is now on permanent view.  I'm told that the mural will become the centerpiece of the new Silver Spring Library, planned for the corner of Fenton and Bonifant streets.

After the mural was removed from the post office in 1981, the rest of the interior was completely gutted.  Disposed were the postal clerk windows, post office boxes, writing tables, highly stylized ceiling light fixtures (they looked like miniatures of the planet Saturn), and a plaque honoring the individuals responsible for the post office’s construction.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s name was prominently placed near the top of this plaque. 

Although no extant photographs had surfaced showing the plaque in situ, documentation of its existence was established through a full-scale architectural rendering housed in the archives of the Silver Spring Historical Society.  Long had I wondered what became of the plaque, along with everything else that had graced the lobby. 

In 2006 I received a note in the mail from the manager of the Silver Spring Library.  A man in Western Maryland had mailed to the library a small black and white photograph.  The image showed a group of well-dressed men lined up in front of the Silver Spring Post Office.  Written on the back was, “Silver Spring Post Office / Recruiting Office in 1942." 

This was new information to me as I had not known that the draft board during WW II was located in the post office, theorizing instead that draftees went to 1927 Maryland National Guard Armory, located east of Georgia Avenue on Wayne Avenue.  The Armory, a Montgomery County-designated Master Plan for Historic Preservation structure, was demolished in 1998 for construction of a parking garage that was built five years later. 

The library manager thought that the Silver Spring Historical Society would be an appropriate home for the photograph.  Little did the manager, or I, know what other “treasures” the donor of this photograph possessed.

Enclosed with the photograph was contact information for the sender who lived in Little Orleans, Maryland.  I immediately called the gentleman, identified myself as founder and president of the Silver Spring Historical Society, and explained how the Silver Spring Library had sent me the photograph.  When the man said, “I also have a plaque if you want it,” I couldn’t believe what I had heard.  Without asking I knew exactly what plaque he was referring to.  

It turned out that the caller had worked at the Silver Spring Post Office from 1958 to 1975. Later, he had advanced to the position of postmaster of Mt. Rainier, Maryland and the plaque was given to him by a fellow post office employee who had obtained it when the Silver Spring Post Office's Georgia Avenue facility closed in 1981.  The plaque was in his shed where it had been sitting for over two decades. 

"I’ll be out this weekend,” was my response!  I knew the exact location of Little Orleans, 108 miles west of Silver Spring, as I had stopped there during a four-day C & O Canal bicycle “ride through” from Cumberland, MD to Georgetown in 2003.  My companions and I had replenished our water bottles at the landmark Bill’s Place in Little Orleans where I, of course, had no idea that the object of my desire was just up the hill and around the bend.

The plaque, fabricated of cast aluminum, weighs 17 lbs. and measures 21” x 32”.  Also donated to the SSHS a hinged 3 1/2” x 5” front door to PO Box 413 that was in the post office’s lobby.  The cast aluminum front features a proud, bas-relief eagle surrounded by radiating lines with the locking mechanism centered in a shield placed over the eagle’s breast.  I wondered whose hands had held the many keys that opened and closed this door for forty-four years and what missives did the door guard?

The Silver Spring Historical Society desires to permanently exhibit these items alongside the mural at the new Silver Spring Library.  An offer was made a couple of years ago to officials with the Montgomery County Public Library system to display the items at the new library but no acceptance was ever given.  So attention MCPL!  Display of these and many other historical artifacts located in our archives are still available and would serve as a wonderful library amenity to educate the public about Silver Spring’s fascinating heritage!

If you or someone you know worked for the Silver Spring Post Office on Georgia Avenue, please share your reminiscences (and perhaps photos) with the Silver Spring Historical Society.  Please email me at

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Not Even the Dead Get Respect

On April 14th the Silver Spring Historical Society commemorated the 100th anniversary of the birth of Norman Lane, the "Mayor" of Silver Spring.  A brief ceremony was held on Georgia Avenue at the statue depicting Norman that was created by artist Fred Folsom in 1991.  The event included the placing of a beautiful floral wreath generously donated by Bell Flowers.

During my remarks to the five people who took the time to remember Norman, I mentioned that I expected the wreath to be stolen before the day was over.  Well, I was a bit too pessimistic.  It lasted four days before it was ripped off.  Whoever stole it, sometime between Sunday afternoon and this morning, couldn't be bothered with the metal stand that the wreath was attached to and left it behind.

This event sadly reminds me of a recent exchange I had with an individual who thought "someone" should find a copy of the Grecian nymph statue that originally graced (nearly a century ago) the stone grotto of the Silver Spring and install it.  I told this person that such a statue wouldn't stand a chance of surviving because vandals would either destroy it or steal it outright.  This person was incredulous that anyone would do such a thing.

Ah, the joy of ignorance.

The little benevolent piece left inside of me should say, "If this person needed the flowers so badly, then they should have and enjoy them."  But it just can't.  For too long disrespect has been shown to Silver Spring's heritage and this theft is simply the latest example.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Happy 100th Birthday Norman!

Half a dozen folks gathered this morning at Georgia Avenue's Mayor's Promenade to honor the 100th birthday of Norman Lane.  Placed before artist Fred Folsom's 1991 portrait bronze statue of Norman was a beautiful floral wreath donated by Bell Flowers (thanks Chad Mangum!).

(Left to right) Chad Mangum, Jerry A. McCoy, Charles Atwell,
Richard Jaeggi, Chris Matthews, unidentified.  Top & bottom photos by George French.

The quick 15 minute event began and ended on a note that Norman would have especially appreciated.  A homeless man approach one of the free newspaper boxes positioned directly opposite the statue.  He opened the box and started rooting through the newspapers and, one by one, pulled out four cans of malt liquor.

After the formal portion of the ceremony was over a few of us were talking when a different homeless man came around the corner singing out loud and barged right into the middle of our group.  He asked for money for "coffee."  In return he was asked, "Do you know where you are going to go to buy it?"  He responded, "No."  It was suggested to him that Kefa Cafe would be a good place to go!  I don't know if money was proffered for at that point I needed to leave to go to work.

This fall will be the 20th anniversary of the statue's dedication.  Perhaps another event can be held to commemorate one of the best examples of public art in Montgomery County.

Photo by Jerry A. McCoy

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"Don't Worry About It!"

Thus was the catch phrase spoken by Norman Collins Lane, affectionately known as the "Mayor of Silver Spring," who was born a century ago on April 14, 1911.  Norman was a homeless man who spent the better part of twenty-five years walking the streets and alleys of downtown Silver Spring.

This dignified portrait of Norman was taken in 1971. 
Copyright Dave Stovall.
He collected handouts of money and food and did odd jobs around the community.  One of these jobs was as a groundskeeper picking up trash at the Bethesda Naval Hospital.  One day in October of 1965 he encountered the 36th President of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson.  President Johnson was at Bethesda to have his gall bladder removed and supposedly said to Norman upon meeting him, "Christ, you look in worse shape than I do!"

Photograph taken in 1965 of Norman meeting President Johnson. 
The photo is inscribed, "To Norman Lane
With best wishes Lyndon B. Johnson."  Collection of Iris Hyson.

Norman's beverage of choice was Pabst Blue Ribbon beer...morning, noon and night...and he usually wore a construction hard hat. Robert Phillips, owner of the Silver Spring Auto Body Co. (demolished) provided Norman with a cot and a hot plate in his business, the closest that Norman would accept to the comforts of a home.  Norman liked to rummage through the dumpsters behind Bell Florist and Pumphrey's Funeral Home (demolished) where he would retrieve discarded roses and then proceed to give one to each woman he passed on Georgia Avenue.

For years this sign was attached to the Silver Spring Auto Body Co. until it disappeared
 in 2003 after the business shut down. Photo taken by Jerry A. McCoy in 1996.

Silver Spring Auto Body Co. sign donated by Charles Atwell. 
Collection of SSHS Archives.

When the ABC television show "Real People" featured a 7 1/2 minute segment on Norman in 1979, it asked people in downtown Silver Spring if they'd vote for him if he ran for office.  Everybody said sure with one black guy responding, "Why not? The last two white men I voted for were bums too."

Such a colorful personality seemed to beg to be immortalized and that was what artist Fred Folsom did, starting in 1974 by creating dozens of studies, paintings and lithographs depicting Norman.  On October 11, 1991, four years after Norman passed away in the back seat of an National DC cab abandoned off of Sligo Avenue, Folsom dedicated a life-sized bronze portrait of him.

Oil on masonite, 12" x 12", by Fred Folson, copyright 1987.
Collection of Jerry A. McCoy.
The bust is located in the walkway, named "Mayor's Promenade," located next to 8219 Georgia Avenue.  This walkway led back to the front door of the Silver Spring Auto Body Co.  The alley that this business faced, running parallel to Georgia between Thayer and Sligo avenues, was also named "Mayor Lane."

Photo by Jerry A. McCoy.

Please join the Silver Spring Historical Society on Thursday, April 14th, at 9:00 a.m to honor Norman on his 100th birthday.  If anyone knew him, we would love to hear some stories.  And if anyone knows how the tune goes, we could sing this song written in 1979 by Harry Merrick, then the lead singer of the five-member Chase Holiday Band...

"He's walking down the sidewalk, moving kind of slow.  He looks kind of funny, but he's never feeling low.  And if you ask him he'll tell you everything is OK.  He never worries, you can always hear him say, 'It's all right, don't worry about it.' 

He's the mayor of Silver Spring, Norman is his name.  Things will come and go, but he'll always stay the same.  People have to relax and take it day by day because he never worries and you can always hear him say, 'It's all right, don't worry about it.' "

Sunday, April 3, 2011

I'm Walking Yes Indeed I'm Talking...

Yesterday I led a two hour, half mile walking tour of Downtown Silver Spring for about twenty folks. The free tour was filmed and will appear as a short segment of the cable television show Paths to the Present: Montgomery County Stories, produced by Barbara Grunbaum for County Cable Montgomery and the Montgomery County Historical Society.  

Mike the cameraman films the group in front of the 1922 Silver Spring National Bank,
scene of our community's first bank robbery.  Photo by Barbara Grunbaum.

The walk was held in association with the Montgomery County Historical Society and the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County as part of the dual exhibits Between Fences and Good Neighbors: Fences in Montgomery County, currently on display at the Silver Spring Civic Building thru April 30, 2011.  Between Fences is a traveling exhibit organized by the Smithsonian Institution and is well worth seeing, as is Good Neighbors, organized by the MCHS.

For me the tour was reaffirming after last Monday's depressing loss before the Historic Preservation Commission of the Silver Spring Historical Society's nomination of the 1956 First Baptist Church of Silver Spring.  It was nice to be surrounded by like-minded individuals who believe that it is important to preserve Silver Spring's history. They were engaged, interested, and asked questions about the many buildings that I profiled, including the ones that were no longer extant. Sadly, some of these lost structures were standing when I first began to offer these tours over ten years ago.

"If you've got a camera, take a photo of this church while it's still here!"
Photo by Barbara Grunbaum. 
A "Currier & Ives" view of the First Baptist Church of Silver Spring.
Photo by Jerry A. McCoy.

Tour participant looks a photos of the 1927 Silver Spring Armory,  a designated historic
structure destroyed by Montgomery County in 1998 for construction of a parking garage.
A piece of the armory is in the background.  Photo by Barbara Grunbaum.

The tour concluded at Silver Spring's restored 1945 Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Station.
Open for free tours the first Saturday of each month, a new attraction at the station is the
installation of a large
model railroad display...swamped by kids!  Photo by Barbara Grunbaum.