Category Archives: Architecture

A Childhood Apartment… 30 Years Later

I finally had the chance to tour my childhood apartment at Steward Manor this weekend—the first time I’ve stepped foot inside since my parents and I moved in the summer of 1987. It’s amazing how every inch of space still holds so many vivid memories.

Even before starting Lost Laurel, it was Steward Manor’s history that first fascinated me. I’d begun researching it in earnest in 2010, visiting the rental office to copy vintage photos; and tracking down original plat survey drawings from 1959 at Ben Dyer Associates—the civil engineering company that’s still in business today.

I’d gotten a message from my friend, Joe Leizear, a longtime Steward Manor resident who became a maintenance man there himself. Joe shares a fascination for this kind of stuff, and knew I’d love to tour my old apartment when the opportunity arose. Sure enough, shortly after the most recent tenants moved out, Joe invited me to see it.

The tour wouldn’t have been complete without my oldest friends, Rodney and Ronald Pressley—twin brothers I’ve known since the first grade, and grew up with at the apartment complex.

It’s a surreal experience, walking through such a familiar place again after all these years… and it’s amazing how vivid the memories remain. Even with the many upgrades and changes—and even vacant—it still feels like it did in the 1980s. It felt like home.

Laurel Theatre / Petrucci’s: Demolition Pending

My next episode of Lost Laurel will focus on the long history of the derelict building at 312 Main Street, which originally housed the Laurel Theatre, and was the longtime home to Petrucci’s Dinner Theatre before a string of increasingly unsuccessful comedy clubs led to its demise. Here’s a preview:

Unfortunately, the City’s efforts to find a developer willing and able to salvage the critically-deteriorated building weren’t successful, and having recently had the opportunity to tour it myself, I completely see why.

A big thanks to SORTO Contracting, LLC (particularly Francisco Sorto, David Muir, Blaine Sutton, Harry Garlitz and Patrick Fink) for extending the invitation to see and document the building’s final days, and for sharing some truly fantastic finds that I’ll be including in the full episode. In addition to the building’s history, you’ll see for yourself just how far gone the structure actually was. (Yes, those were angry pigeons living inside… and I’m deathly afraid of birds.)

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The SORTO team was also kind enough to carefully remove and save the “Theatre” lettering from the façade for me—these are individually-cut wooden letters that are the only remaining vestiges of the Petrucci’s era (they originally spelled out the full name, “Petrucci’s Dinner Theatre” and matched the adjacent Pal Jack’s Pizza font.laurel-theatre-preview-pic5laurel-theatre-preview-pic6laurel-theatre-preview-pic7

The letters are badly deteriorated, and frankly, I’m amazed that they came down intact. I’ve got my work cut out for me, but I’m going to restore them.laurel-theatre-preview-pic8laurel-theatre-preview-pic9laurel-theatre-preview-pic10

Blaine Sutton and Patrick Fink of SORTO have also been sharing some of the unexpected treasures that only tend to resurface when walls start coming down. And in a movie theater that dates to 1929, that means some very old candy boxes and soda bottles, for starters! Here’s just a glimpse of what they’ve found:

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Photo courtesy of Blaine Sutton

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Photo courtesy of Patrick Fink

 

Patrick tells me that the pristine Pepsi bottle pre-dates 1951, at which point Pepsi stopped using the double-dot in their logo. It had been stuck in the plaster mortar in the ceiling below the balcony for at least 65 years.

I’ll have plenty more photos to share in the next blog update when the full video is ready. Those who don’t get Laurel TV will still be able to see the episode right here.

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Racing… to close Laurel Railroad Station?

There’s a rather unlikely story in the local news this week—a head-scratcher, really. It concerns two of Laurel’s historic landmarks, and how they’re supposedly at odds all of a sudden. I’m speaking of Laurel Park Racecourse and the Laurel Railroad Station.

I’ll get right into it: Laurel Park, which after decades of hard times is finally seeking to turn the corner with an ambitious plan to build “a transit-oriented development with retail and residential space near the racetrack,” has requested the state Department of Transportation open a commuter train stop in Laurel closer to the track.

Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Wikipedia

Because that would just be too easy, state Department of Transportation officials have said that it is unlikely the state will consider a “dual stop” at both the Laurel MARC station and the racetrack. A train platform is already at the racetrack, mind you, but is listed as a flag stop (where trains will only stop when there’s a specific request) on the MARC Camden line schedule.

So, here comes the head-scratcher: the idea being proposed is that the DoT would close the Laurel Station—which is on the National Register of Historic Places—in favor of building a new stop at the racetrack, a mere 2,500 feet away. Where, again, there is already a train platform in place. I’m not sure there’s a more polite way to put this, so I’ll just ask: Are you f***ing kidding me?

Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Wikipedia

Don’t get me wrong—I’m a huge supporter of both places. More than anything, I’d love to see a resurgence of horse racing in Laurel, and have Laurel Park once again become the premier venue that it can be. But certainly not at the expense of endangering what might be the town’s most recognizable landmark—a landmark that, frankly, has been more functional than the track itself in recent years.

Granted, I can’t see anyone in their right mind coming out and proposing that the old train station be demolished—to my knowledge, nothing like that has been discussed. But what would happen if/when the historic station ceases to be an active stop on the MARC line? We already know how vulnerable the city’s old buildings tend to be, especially when they’re vacant.

Lest anyone forget, Laurel came dangerously close to losing the station to fire in January 1992. John Mewshaw recently shared these photos with me—sobering reminders, all:

Photo: John Mewshaw, 1992

Photo: John Mewshaw, 1992

Photo: John Mewshaw, 1992

Photo: John Mewshaw, 1992

Photo: John Mewshaw, 1992

Photo: John Mewshaw, 1992

With the expectation that cooler, more rational heads will ultimately prevail in this, let’s look at some more reasonable options.

First, there’s the basic issue of supply and demand. If enough people genuinely start taking the train to the races again, as they did back in the early-to-mid-20th century, there’s no reason why the Department of Transportation shouldn’t reinstate Laurel Park as an active stop on the MARC line. But even then, closing the town’s historic station wouldn’t make sense, logistically, especially as it relates to everyday commuters with no interest in visiting the race track.

The current station sits in the heart of Laurel at the base of Main Street and provides easy access. From a marketing standpoint, its historic qualities also benefit the commuter rail industry—the classic, Queen Anne styling of the station literally makes you want to take the train… in a way that a new, more modern facility probably wouldn’t.

And marketing is something that Laurel Park obviously needs to do a better job of, too, if it hopes to reinvigorate the track to the point of needing an exclusive train stop to accommodate the masses. For the record, I’m not a fan of their newest logo:

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As a graphic designer myself, I have serious doubts that it was created by a professional. It’s poorly executed for a number of reasons, but I digress. Their logo problems aren’t the main concern here.

But what they should be focusing on—instead of this new train station folly—are unique ways to maximize their exposure (regardless of that hideous logo). And ironically, the old train station is a perfect opportunity for them. I’m just going to offer this up, so Laurel Park Powers That Be, do with it as you please:

Imagine seeing a row of shuttle buses lined up as you get off the train… buses that are whimsically adorned with thoroughbred horse artwork (or, to go even further, imagine the entire bus being decorated to look like a race horse itself…) A row of buses, each designed as an individual race horse, complete with saddle cloth number…

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Much like the old train station invites you to ride the rails, wouldn’t that pique your interest in going to the race track? And imagine the exposure the buses themselves would get just being spotted going back and forth on Route 1—especially when two or three at a time are “racing” there. (Not to encourage gambling, but you could even place bets on which “horse bus” arrives first…)

Keep in mind, I did this in about half an hour. Imagine what could be done with proper time and exploration. (And I’d be more than happy to design it for you, Laurel Park. I assure you, it’d be cheaper than a new train station, too.)

And from a practical standpoint, (e.g. the number of people actually going to the race track from the train station) wouldn’t shuttle buses also just make more sense? At least until Laurel Park starts generating the types of crowds that might require more drastic measures?

For the record, I do hope those crowds eventually return, but only after the race track (and the city) has solid plans in place to accommodate them. First, they need a plan to actually draw them. To paraphrase the Field of Dreams mantra, “Build it, and they will come.”

Source:
http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/howard/laurel/ph-ll-marc-station-moves-20150616-story.html
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Little Tavern Etching

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of meeting up for breakfast at Laurel’s legendary Tastee Diner with Michael Stewart. Michael is an award-winning photographer and artist, and also happens to be the father of one of my favorite bloggers—Diner Hunter, Spencer Stewart.

Spencer had alerted me to some wonderful new etchings his dad had recently produced, capturing Laurel’s Little Tavern in its heyday. (Spencer has done by far the most meticulous research on Little Tavern I’ve ever seen—be sure to check out his extensive site!)

Michael has been getting back to his illustrative roots with a printmaking class at Montpelier, and he really caught the essence of the memorable little white building with the green roof.

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1997. (Laurel Historical Society archives)

1997. (Laurel Historical Society archives)

Of course, the building is still there at 115 Washington Boulevard—just across the street from the Tastee Diner. In fact, since it reopened as Laurel Tavern Donuts in 2008, it’s the only known establishment that still makes the famous Little Tavern Sliders from the original recipe, which was handed down by a former manager at the restaurant. Laurel’s Little Tavern first opened in 1939, and was among the very last to close its doors.

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(Photo: © Michael G. Stewart)

After a great meal and wonderfully nostalgic conversation, (both of which are always enhanced by the Tastee Diner’s one-of-a-kind ambiance) I had my original etching framed before I even made it back home!

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If you’d like one of your own, contact Michael at michephoto@msn.com or through Facebook.

Here are a few more photos from Michael’s archive, that he shot of the Little Tavern and Tastee Diner between 1987 and 2008:

Inside the Little Tavern in 2005. (Photo © Michael G. Stewart)

Inside the Little Tavern in 2005. (Photo © Michael G. Stewart)

Little Tavern 2007 photo Michael G. Stewart

(Photo © Michael G. Stewart)

2008, after closing. (Photo © Michael G. Stewart)

2008, after closing. (Photo © Michael G. Stewart)

An aerial view above Washington Boulevard. (Photo © Michael G. Stewart)

An aerial view above Washington Boulevard. (Photo © Michael G. Stewart)

1987. (Photo © Michael G. Stewart)

1987. (Photo © Michael G. Stewart)

The Tastee Diner's Washington Boulevard sign in 1987. (Photo © Michael G. Stewart)

The Tastee Diner’s Washington Boulevard sign in 1987. (Photo © Michael G. Stewart)

Oh, and I almost forgot—you can’t go to the Tastee Diner without enjoying copious amounts of good, strong coffee and a slice of pie, even it’s for breakfast.

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(Photo: © Michael G. Stewart)

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The End of the Library

By now, many of you already know that the Stanley Memorial Library has always been a very special place for me.

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It was the first library I can remember ever going into as a child, and I still vividly recall my amazement at learning that there was no limit to how many books I could check out at any given time—and that it was all completely free. What madness! “How do they stay in business?!” I asked my mom.

Fast-forward a few years; and as a not-quite-fifteen-year-old kid in 1987, I got my work permit and was given my very first part-time job: manning the desk at the “Computer Connection“—the library’s small public computer lab. I scheduled reservations for people I can still picture to this day, including Mr. Anderson, the budding fiction writer who plugged away at the Apple IIe at least twice a month. Other, more utilitarian types booked time on the IBM PC; and surprisingly, hardly anyone ever used the Macintosh. Librarian Carl Keehn, who’d hired me, was the first to encourage me to take advantage of any downtime by learning all I could—particularly on that Macintosh. (As a graphic designer today, that’s my primary tool).

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As I recently learned from Carl, I almost didn’t get that job. Not because I wasn’t qualified, but because I was still underage. The law didn’t allow me to work past 8:30, and the job required me to stay until 8:45. The library actually ended up applying for a waiver, and the rest was history.

The Computer Connection gig only lasted a couple of years, though, as the first of many county cutbacks began to loom. Nonetheless, while the computers were going bye-bye for the 1990s, I was glad to learn that my job wasn’t. In fact, it was really just beginning. I was reassigned as a clerical aide, or page—where I got to re-shelve books and locate back issue periodicals for patrons.

Well, I’m not going to bore you with my whole employment story again. Suffice it to say that I grew up in that library. Not only was it my first job, I ended up working there all throughout high school and college. I can’t begin to count how many good memories that place holds for me. Even the very first date I ever went on—the library is where I met and nervously asked out that first girl I really liked, right there in the parking lot.

Even after starting my first full-time graphic design job in 1997, I clung to the library; I continued to work part-time on the weekends, not because I needed to, but because I guess I really just didn’t want to let it go.

And that feeling that crept back again, nearly 20 years later—with the announcement of a new Laurel Library branch now due to be built on the site by 2017. Yes, even in spite of the 1993 expansion which nearly tripled the size of the original building, the old library had far outgrown the space. But to imagine those old walls, the sight of which conjure so many fond memories, being torn down—it was a tough pill to swallow.

The demolition was originally scheduled for last fall, I believe; but for one reason or another, there were delays. The library’s last day of operation in this building had been March 8, 2014. Shortly thereafter, a temporary (and much smaller) facility was established behind City Hall at 8101 Sandy Spring Road. But the old building sat empty and untouched for over a year, until finally, the familiar signs of pending destruction began to emerge: construction crew trailers were installed in the parking lot, and a chain link fence went up around the perimeter. Each weekend, I’d make the drive from Centreville, VA to Laurel, hoping to catch the first moments of it on film, but dreading it at the same time. Worse, I feared that one day soon, I’d approach that familiar corner of Seventh Street and Talbott Avenue, and the old library would be nothing more than a pile of rubble.

Finally, I got word that NARDI Construction, Inc. was ready to start. On May 6th, 2015, I drove to the site and met foreman Chuck McNulty, who regrettably told me that the excavators they were expecting that morning hadn’t showed up after all—it looked like they wouldn’t start tearing the building down in earnest until the next day. But it was hardly a wasted trip, as Chuck asked if I’d be interested in taking a few mementos his team had salvaged. Little did I imagine these would include the original, complete set of blueprints from 1965—blueprints I remember hanging in the basement office of the late Tom Acra, the library’s beloved maintenance man.

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Chuck told me they should be good to go the following day, so on May 7th, I made the trip back. The smaller Bobcats were hard at work inside, doing some final interior gutting before they’d start knocking down the walls. While I was taking photos on the corner, Chuck appeared in what had previously been one of the windows—it was now more like an open bay door. I’ll never forget what he asked next:

“Wanna come in and see the inside one last time?”

He told me it was okay to film and photograph anything I wanted (with the exception of the workers themselves, some of whom may not want their pictures taken). I grabbed both my video camera and the still camera, stepped over the caution-taped hard hat area, and into the vacant shell of the Stanley Memorial Library one last time.

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It didn’t occur to me until I’d gone home and started sorting through my photos that the demolition came on the anniversary of the library’s official dedication. While the building had opened in 1965, the dedication didn’t actually happen until May 7, 1967.

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Forty-eight years ago to the day, future U.S. Congresswoman Gladys Noon Spellman, Laurel Mayor Merrill Harrison, and other local officials had assembled behind the original circulation desk and delivered the dedication.

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And now, there I was at the same spot, moments before the building would finally meet its end. For 50 years, this library had stood here; countless patrons milling about its shelves for bestsellers and all sorts of media… (I’ve even heard stories of an actual art collection being loaned out in the ’70s—you could borrow a new painting for your living room wall every couple of weeks!) And of course, my thoughts went to the many people who worked here, both before and after my time as a staff member. That’s when it dawned on me that of all those people, I suddenly found myself being the last one who’d ever walk through it again.

It was about a half hour later that the first of the walls started coming down—the vestibule roof that had originally covered the Seventh Street entrance, the original circulation workroom, and most recently, the quiet study room—crashed to the ground in a cloud of beige dust. After that settled, I got to witness the center wall that was the heart of the 1965 building fall:

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Chuck said that they wouldn’t likely get to the other major sections that day, but I’d seen enough. I’m not sure I wanted to see the expansion side come down—the section that was brand new in 1993, which seems like just the blink of an eye ago.

The construction crew took a brief break over the weekend (the Main Street Festival proved a welcome distraction to any other nostalgic library types like me) and was back at it on Monday, May 11th. By the end of this week, if not sooner, the rest of the library will be leveled.

You can peruse my full set of photos on Flickr, which includes several days leading up to and during the demolition. I’ll be adding to it in the weeks to come.

Many thanks again to Chuck McNulty and NARDI Construction for going above and beyond in providing me access to document the building’s demise, and for saving some one-of-a-kind historical mementos. The cornerstone and dedication plate will be preserved in the Laurel Museum.

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He also set aside several bricks for me, and even helped load them into my truck—bricks that I’ll be distributing to former library colleagues as one last little piece of this place we loved.

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The Year of Tastee-Freez

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The Nickell family celebrating 25 years of Tastee-Freez ownership in 1999. (Laurel Leader photo by Jason Lee, 8/5/99)

It was 1974 when James Nickell took over the Tastee-Freez from its original owners, Mr. & Mrs. James DeLorenzo—who’d opened the franchise in what had previously been Laurel’s first McDonald’s.

So, it’s fitting that the first and only Tastee-Freez/Big T calendar I’ve come across would be from that very year. Here it is, scanned in its entirety.

tastee-freez-calendar-front       tastee-freez-calendar-jan tastee-freez-calendar-feb-martastee-freez-calendar-apr-maytastee-freez-calendar-jun-julytastee-freez-calendar-aug-septastee-freez-calendar-oct-novtastee-freez-calendar-dec-couponstastee-freez-calendar-back

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Endangered Main Street: Laurel Theatre / Petrucci’s

The old red building at 312 Main Street has sat empty and derelict for a few years now, and according to the City of Laurel—its new owners—it’s too far gone to be salvaged.

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(Photos: Richard Friend)

(Photos: Richard Friend)

After no other buyers came forward, The city bought the building for $250,000 and plans to demolish it and resell the property. According to multiple sources, the interior has a festering mold problem that’s at least as problematic as its many structural issues, and would require in excess of $2 million to save it. And given its recent history, there’s little hope of resurrecting it. The multiple comedy clubs that inhabited it since the Petrucci family sold its popular Dinner Theatre in 1992 never lived up to expectations, despite drawing some high-profile names in the early years—including Dave Chappelle and Richard Jeni.

Before I get into that, though, let’s take a look at the deeper history of this Main Street landmark.

Laurel Theatre, 1938

A postcard image from 1938. (Laurel Historical Society archives)

To date, these are the earliest photos I’ve come across. The Leader article mentioned that it had been built in 1935, but the 1934 film named on the marquee (You Belong to Me) disproves that:

(Laurel Historical Society archives)

(Laurel Historical Society archives)

In fact, according to the Laurel, Maryland Centennial Souvenir Historical Booklet, the Laurel Theatre opened on October 16, 1929 under Sidney B. Lust, and was built by C. Ernest Nichols. The first film shown was Noah’s Ark. It briefly closed in 1948 to undergo a renovation, at which point it reopened with The Mating of Millie. (Box Office magazine, September 4, 1948).

This 1962 Laurel Leader photo literally shows ’em lined up around the block. (Notice, too, that there was a High’s Dairy where Pal Jack’s Pizza would soon be!)

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I’ve collected a few later (but still pretty darn early) programs from the theater, as has the Laurel Historical Society and collectors Peter and Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes. Here are a few:

1934 lobby card. (Peter and Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes collection)

1934 lobby card. (Peter and Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes collection)

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Program from 1939. (Lost Laurel collection)

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Program from 1941. (Lost Laurel collection)

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1942 program. (Peter and Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes collection)

1942 program. (Peter and Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes collection)

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Programs from 1959–61. (Laurel Historical Society archives)

Here, too, is an assortment of Laurel Leader newspaper ads through the years:

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And a poster:

Poster for The Omega Man, 1971. (Lost Laurel collection)

Poster for The Omega Man, 1971. (Lost Laurel collection)

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The theater was Laurel’s first and only movie house until the summer of 1966, when both Wineland’s Laurel Drive-In and Laurel Cinema opened at Laurel Shopping Center. The newer venues (and a minor fire in 1975) took their toll; and in 1976, the iconic Main Street theater called it quits.

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(Photo: Robert Marton)

(Photo: Robert Marton)

(Photo: Ralph Bull)

(Photo: Ralph Bull)

(Photo: Ralph Bull)

(Photo: Ralph Bull)

(Photo: Ralph Bull)

(Photo: Ralph Bull)

“Closed Forever” was a bold statement, and one that fortunately ended up not being entirely accurate.

That same year, Carlo Petrucci—who’d already bought the adjacent Pal Jack’s Pizza at 310 Main Street back in 1970—purchased the building. The sale was noted in the April 26, 1976 issue of Box Office magazine:

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The Petrucci family made a valiant attempt to keep the theater going, and did reopen it with the blockbuster Jaws. They announced it with this personalized ad in the Laurel Leader:

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But the family had more ambitious plans for the building, and in the spring of 1977 came the arrival of Petrucci’s restaurant.

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In less than a year, Petrucci’s was already experimenting with the idea of a full-fledged dinner theater—a concept never before tried in the area. And by the early 1980s, Petrucci’s Dinner Theatre was one of the indisputable highlights of Main Street.

(Laurel Leader ad)

(Laurel Leader ad)

Laurel Leader ad, July 27, 1978. (Lost Laurel colletion)

Laurel Leader ad, July 27, 1978. (Lost Laurel colletion)

1984 program. (Peter and Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes collection)

1984 program. (Peter and Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes collection)

Circa 1989. (Laurel Historical Society archives)

Circa 1989. (Laurel Historical Society archives)

But even for the successful Petrucci family, the good times only lasted for about 15 years. Shortly after closing, this quote appeared in the July 25, 1992 Washington Post:

“We realized that to stay open through the summer would have been an exercise in futility,” explains David Petrucci, the sole member of this family-owned operation who has not yet given up on the business.

Thus began the series of hybrid comedy clubs, including Art’s, the Comedy Connection, the Laurel Cinema Cafe, and most recently, The Jokes on Us (aptly named, perhaps).

A 1996 Comedy Connection window display. (Lost Laurel collection)

A 1996 Comedy Connection window display. (Lost Laurel collection)

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Comedy Connection payment folder, c.1990s. (Lost Laurel collection)

There’s a stunning series of photos on Flickr that show the interior of the building in 2011. While the photographer has given it a different name, this is definitely the interior of 312 Main Street. (It may have been an urban exploration shoot—at any rate, the shots are eerily fantastic).

(Photos: Flickr user tmdtheue)

(Photos: Flickr user tmdtheue)

So that brings us to today, where the old building stands—but likely for not much longer.

There’s already been some discussion on the Lost Laurel Facebook page, as well as other local social media sites about the future of the old theater. Complicating the matter is the fact that it sits right in the heart of the city’s own designated “Arts District”—which took another blow in 2012 with the closing of the Laurel Art Center (another building that remains vacant as of this writing).

Many have called upon the Laurel Historical Society to intervene and protect the building, and discussions are underway about possible options other than the inevitable empty lot if it is indeed demolished.

I’ve mentioned that it’s not at all uncommon in cases like this to salvage the façade of the building—just the recognizable front of it—restore it and incorporate that into a brand new, mixed-use building that pays homage to the past. But truth be told, the façade of the old Laurel Theatre was never particularly remarkable, unfortunately, despite its great sentimental value. This would also place significant limits on whatever is constructed behind it.

I have a better idea, albeit probably a farfetched one. Imagine for a moment that it was possible to completely rebuild the Laurel Theatre, just as it was when it first opened in 1929. Now, imagine if it was possible for the city to do it without incurring any cost to itself. (I told you it was farfetched, but bear with me…)

I see this as a chance for the city of Laurel to up their game and create something truly special; and if done properly, I think there’s actually a very good chance that people would help. Lots of people—and not just from Laurel.

They could create an online fundraiser via Kickstarter and/or Indiegogo, where they present the opportunity to not only save the town’s original theater, but to create a genuine, functional showpiece in the heart of the Arts District: a completely rebuilt Laurel Theatre in the 1929 style, but with modern amenities—which could also serve as a type of cultural center for any number of events. Frankly, I can’t think of a more effective way to revitalize Main Street as a whole.

Since it wouldn’t be a privately owned venture, something like this could also likely qualify for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, or similar organizations.

Clearly, the city doesn’t have $2 million to spend on remodeling the theater—even if they wanted to. The $250,000 purchase was an investment toward something—anything–other than the decaying structure that’s been sitting dormant all this time. But if they at least explored the possibility that a national/international fundraiser (plus grants) could actually yield a significant amount of money to do something really special, that’s worth talking about.

Just for comparison’s sake, let’s look at a more famous (or should I say, infamous) theater: Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC.

When you visit Ford’s Theatre today, you probably assume it’s maintained its original appearance all these years, right? Not at all. With the exception of its outside walls, the entire theater is a complete reconstruction.

After the 1865 assassination of President Lincoln, the building understandably closed as a functioning theater. The government purchased it from John T. Ford, and promptly converted it into a three-story office building for the War Department, primarily. In 1893, the unthinkable happened: another tragedy. Load-bearing beams in the basement gave way under the excess weight, causing sections of all three floors above to completely collapse. In what must have been a horrific moment, 22 government employees were killed and at least another 65 were seriously injured.

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(Photo: NPS)

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(Photo: NPS)

The building languished until the 1930s, when it was briefly used as a warehouse for the Department of the Interior before being turned over to the National Park Service as “The Lincoln Museum”—where only the first floor was open to the public. Then, in the 1950s, Congress approved a bill that would fund a complete restoration of Ford’s Theatre to its 1865 appearance. And in 1968, the famous theater opened once again as a historic landmark. These dramatic photos (found on the blog, BoothieBarn) show just how gutted it actually was.

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Granted, I’m not suggesting that the old Laurel Theatre is on par with a national treasure; but I wanted to show that it’s entirely possible to gut the interior of a historic building—or level it completely, if need be—and rebuild it to its original specifications. That’s something that should indeed be considered by the city of Laurel before deciding to sell the property—particularly if they can receive funds to do so.

On the much smaller end of the spectrum, take a look at some of the “save our theater” campaigns that actually are on Kickstarter at the moment. I recently pitched in for one near me in Fairfax, VA. The University Mall Theatres is in dire need of new seats, and has raised over $111,000 in a matter of days with their grassroots campaign. That’s a private business, too—the city of Laurel stands to qualify for considerably more if it goes the non-profit route. And as far as non-profit models go, there’s none better than Silver Spring’s AFI Silver Theatre.

The Silver Theatre in 1938 and 2003 (http://silverspringhistory.homestead.com/theatre.html)

The Silver Theatre in 1938 and 2003 (http://silverspringhistory.homestead.com/theatre.html)

It, too, was dangerously close to meeting the wrecking ball when both citizens and politicians stepped in and capitalized on the opportunity to create something remarkable. The non-profit theater and cultural center now hosts films, film festivals, musical events, and much more. It’s also available for private rentals, further increasing its revenue.

The dedication plaque that hangs in the lobby of the AFI Silver says it all—and could easily be applied to Laurel if you think about the similarities:

THROUGH THE TIRELESS EFFORTS OF
THE SILVER SPRING COMMUNITY, INCLUDING
ITS ELECTED OFFICIALS AND APPOINTED LEADERS,
THE PAST HAS BEEN PRESERVED FOR THE BENEFIT
OF THE FUTURE. AS A CORNERSTONE OF
A REVITALIZED DOWNTOWN, THE AFI SILVER
IS A CENTER OF CULTURAL AND EDUCATIONAL
EXPLORATION, UNITING THOSE WHO VISIT
THROUGH THE POWER OF THE MOVING IMAGE
 
APRIL 4, 2003
 
DOUGLAS M. DUNCAN
MONTGOMERY COUNTY EXECUTIVE
 
JEAN PICKER FIRSTENBERG
DIRECTOR AND CEO, AFI

***

So, the city of Laurel now owns the building at 312 Main Street, and has a very big decision to make in the coming weeks. Much like the doomed Laurel Centre Mall, anything they do with it will likely be an improvement over the past decade. But I hope the city planners will at least take a very careful look at this opportunity before selling the property outright. The elusive key to revitalizing Main Street and creating a legitimate Arts District centerpiece may actually be sitting in their hands as we speak.

IMG_9415

Matchbook, c.1950s. (Lost Laurel collection)

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Driving Through Laurel, 1973

Finding photos of vintage Laurel is tough enough, so you can imagine how special it is to find actual film footage. This wonderful clip was shared by Gary M. Smith, and it provides us with an all-too-brief glimpse of a decent portion of Laurel—captured on 8mm film from the passenger seat of a car driven by Milton J. Smith, Sr. in 1973.

It’s a classic 3-minute reel with some interruptions and jumpiness, but there are plenty of unmistakable landmarks throughout the drive. Now that I have the privilege of being your tour guide, here are a few sites to watch for:

  • We start out in North Laurel at the Beech Crest Estates Mobile Home park—the sign for which can be seen at 0:07. Several of the trailers and residents can be seen over the next 30 seconds.
  • At the 0:35 mark, we’re driving driving southbound on Washington Boulevard (Rt. 1), and we pass the California Inn, just north of Whiskey Bottom Rd.
  • Continuing southbound on Rt. 1, we see Sam & Elsie’s Bar at the 0:46 mark.
  • A billboard advertising the nearby Valencia Apartments appears at 0:53.
  • At 0:57, we cross the oft-flooded bridge over the Patuxent and see the Homoco gas station—the remnants of which were only recently torn down on the Fred Frederick automotive property.
  • At 1:02 (just after a bus—probably a Trailways—unfortunately blocks our view of Main Street) we pass White’s Texaco Station, and get just the faintest glimpse of the Little Tavern beside it.
  • The film skips forward a bit at 1:08, where we find ourselves at the intersection of Rt. 1 and Montgomery Street, and Floyd Lilly’s Laurel Amoco Super Service Station, which won a Chamber of Commerce award “for excellence in design, planning, and beautification”. (Imagine a gas station doing that…)
  • I’m not entirely sure, but at 1:16, we seem to be heading west on Talbott Avenue/Rt. 198 beside Donaldson Funeral Home.

  • At 1:47, we’re now on Main Street—heading west beside the infamous Laurel Hotel, with its distinctive stone facade and wooden porch.
  • Bob’s Cab appears just before we see the wooden front of Gayer’s Saddlery at 1:55.
  • The drive continues up to the end of Main Street, where we turn left onto 7th Street at (fittingly) the 2:16 mark. Here we pass St. Mary of the Mills church and cemetery.
  • At 2:37, there’s a brief glimpse of what is likely Laurel Municipal Swimming Pool, before the geography skips over to northbound Rt. 1 at the 2:38 mark—where we can clearly see the old 7-Eleven and Village Inn Pizza Parlor along Bowie Road.
  • Continuing northbound along Rt. 1, we pass the Exxon and Plain ‘n Fancy Donuts before getting a nice view of Safeway and Dart Drug, which sat just beside the railroad tracks and my old neighborhood of Steward Manor.

And that’s about where our drive through 1973 comes to an end, sadly. But any chance to step back in time—especially in a moving vehicle like this—is pretty amazing. I’ve found myself comparing the footage with Google Street Views of the same stretches of road today, just to see how much has changed… and how much has surprisingly stayed the same.

Many thanks again to Gary for sharing this footage! It’s also a reminder to everyone to check their own old home movies and family photo albums, as you never know what might turn up.

 

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Margaret Edmonston Yearbook, 1977

If you went to Laurel High School in the mid-1980s or beyond, you undoubtedly remember the building known simply as “The Annex”.

The Annex was, in fact, the former Margaret A. Edmonston Elementary—connected to Laurel High with a non-insulated blue corrugated steel walkway that was both sweltering in the summer and freezing in winter. Annexed in 1983, it served LHS for the next 25 years.

The old building is now gone, replaced in 2010 by a $28-million state of the art facility containing an 800-seat auditorium, a black-box theater, rehearsal rooms for band, a chorus room, a dance room, as well as several classrooms and offices. It’s also a dramatic architectural upgrade that the school sorely needed.

But before all of that, it was indeed an elementary school—one in which thousands of young Laurelites began their academic careers. Dave Baker, who now lives in Tennessee, was one of them. And he was kind enough to scan and send me this wonderful set of images from something I never realized even existed: a Margaret Edmonston yearbook from 1977.

As Dave says:

“Sadly, most little yearbooks like this were discarded by most of the kids that bought them. My 80-year-old mother had the foresight to keep this in her cedar chest.”

There are likely several Lost Laurel readers who will find themselves, their friends, family members, and favorite teachers within these pages. (Click on each image to view at full size). The book also includes at least one youngster you might’ve seen on TV in more recent years—actor Mike Shaffrey was in Mrs. Edwards’ 6th grade class.

Edmonston Page 1Edmonston Page 2Edmonston Page 3Edmonston Page 4Edmonston Page 5Edmonston Page 6 Edmonston Page 7Edmonston Page 8Edmonston Page 9 Edmonston Page 10Edmonston Page 11Edmonston Page 12 Edmonston Page 13Edmonston Page 14Edmonston Page 15

Scans courtesy of Dave Baker

 

 

 

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Stanley Memorial Library: What’s In a Name?

UPDATE: 3/8/14

Shortly after stories were published about opposition to the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System’s plan to drop the “Stanley Memorial” name from the new library, Laurel resident Maureen Johnson wrote a letter to the editor of the Laurel Leader, in favor of changing the name. She brought to light an important historical detail that had been readily available in Charles H. Stanley’s online biography, but until now, hadn’t so much as raised an eyebrow: he fought for the Confederacy.

She raised the point that it’s not necessarily the fact that a library is named after a Confederate veteran that troubles her; it’s the location of the library that is going to undoubtedly rub many residents the wrong way—Laurel’s historically African-American neighborhood, The Grove. Moreover, the new building will occupy an even larger portion of Emancipation Park than the current building does.

Maureen gave an interview with NBC4’s Tracee Wilkins last night that explained her position well:

NBC4 News screenshot

Click image for link to video and story on NBCWashington.com

It’s crucial that I include this update, because much has changed over the last few days—and it’s in the interest of fairness that I add Maureen’s voice to the story.

When I wrote the original post below—and subsequently launched a petition urging the Library Board to keep the Stanley name, it was solely in response to the news that the PGCMLS was planning to drop the name “in order to make the library easier to find”—which I think we can all agree was a universally absurd reason.

As far as I was concerned at the time, the only issue at hand was the library’s potential breach of contract with the Stanley family—the descendants of Charles Stanley, who generously donated the land for which a library in his honor was constructed.

For whatever reason, it seems that the idea of actually researching the complete life history of Mr. Stanley himself has just never manifested until now. And in the heat of the moment, reading what little information was posted about him, the innocuous mention that he served as a private in the Confederate army admittedly didn’t have anywhere near the emotional effect on me as it did Ms. Johnson; and that resulted in some spirited back-and-forth on Facebook earlier this week.

I’m happy to report that I had the chance to meet Maureen in person yesterday, and found her to be a wonderful, engaging lady who’s clearly passionate about her hometown. She’s also acutely aware of the sensitivity of this entire situation, and acknowledges that it’s complicated on so many levels.

We discussed my concern that Stanley’s legacy of extensive service to Laurel shouldn’t be tarnished outright without significantly more research. There are snippets emerging of other potentially important and redeeming deeds that Stanley may have done in his lifetime that specifically benefited the African-American community, too—if verifiable, those types of things would certainly have to be taken into consideration, as well. By the same token, should more troubling details surface about his Civil War experience, it needs to come to light for history’s sake, and particularly for the sake of the surrounding community in which his namesake library has stood for nearly half a century.

The PGCMLS has a difficult task ahead, and I hope they’ll reach out to the Stanley family—or vice versa—and work together to reach a solution that’s in Laurel’s best interest.

We’ve hardly heard the last of this story. In the meantime, the Laurel Leader‘s Luke Lavoie has written the first extensive piece on it, which you can read here. There are plenty of good points within.

And if all that isn’t enough library action for you, don’t forget that today, March 8th, is actually the last day that the old building will be open to the public. Stop by and soak it all in, one last time.

 

***

The original post appears below.

***

(Laurel Historical Society collection)

(Laurel Historical Society collection)

The final week of Laurel’s Stanley Memorial Library is nearly upon us, as the building that opened in 1967 is scheduled to close on March 10th. After next Saturday, March 8th, patrons will have to wait until March 31st for the opening of a temporary facility behind the Municipal Center—as the old building will be demolished and construction set to begin on the town’s brand new facility.

The new library will be on the same site, situated at the corner of 7th & Talbott. So while Laurel isn’t technically losing its library, it will be losing the recognizable building that so many have utilized in its nearly 47 years. And that’s the toughest part for me, personally—having worked there as a clerical aide from 1987–97, I’m just not looking forward to seeing the place I knew so well torn down. I was part of the staff who, way back in 1993, physically moved every book, shelf, and table around during the expansion.

(Richard Friend/Lost Laurel collection)

(Richard Friend/Lost Laurel collection)

Make no mistake, getting a new library is a very big deal. And it’s good for Laurel. The branch desperately needed the expansion 21 years ago, and has since outgrown that, as well. And this year is shaping up to be one of a renaissance for the town, what with the opening of the new Town Centre at Laurel this Fall, and the library construction.

But one of the issues recently being brought to light is the name of the library itself—something that has been a bit blurred over the decades, and something which the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System has done little to clarify.

Most of us—myself included, as well as the very librarians and staff who’ve worked there for years—have always referred to the building as “the Laurel Library”. It’s how they answer the phones there, and it’s simply an accepted informal name. In fact, most people don’t even use “Laurel” when referring to it; because if you’re in Laurel and you’re going to “the library”, there’s only one you’re going to.

But at the same time, most of us who use these abbreviated names are still conscious of the fact that the building does have a proper name gracing its exterior—the Stanley Memorial Library. And now, for whatever reason, the Prince George’s County Board of Library Trustees is planning to formally drop Stanley’s name from the new building entirely. And they’re doing so under the auspices of “helping the public find the library”—as if A) people in Laurel have forgotten that there’s been a library at this location for nearly half a century, and B) you couldn’t Google directions in a matter of seconds—in this Internet age that has, in effect, almost made libraries obsolete.

(Wikipedia)

Charles H. Stanley (1842–1913) was the second mayor of Laurel, as well as the founder and president of Citizens National Bank on Main Street. A quick perusal of his biography at the Maryland State Archives will show that he was much more—not only in the Laurel community, but to Prince George’s County and the state of Maryland itself.

(Maryland State Archives)

(Maryland State Archives)

(Maryland State Archives)

(Maryland State Archives)

He lived and died in Laurel, and is buried at Ivy Hill Cemetery—where he could soon be spinning in his grave, should his name be unceremoniously dropped from the library that was always intended to bear his name.

stanley-grave

According to Sylvia Bolivar, president of the Prince George’s County Board of Library Trustees:

“The Board believes that naming a branch library according to its location helps the public to find libraries close to their neighborhoods, whereas a building named after a person, tends to render a library harder to find.”

She wrote this in a January 22nd response to Laurel Mayor Craig Moe, who had respectfully contested the change. PGCMLS director Kathleen Teaze supported her position in the name of “…(keeping) consistency among the system”—the system, of course, being a simple naming convention based on the branch location.

The Laurel Historical Society also supports keeping the name intact, and Executive Director Lindsey Baker not only submitted an editorial letter in this week’s Laurel Leader, but wisely pointed out this important tidbit:

In the 1963 deed transferring the land where the library currently sits, it specifically states that the Board of County Commissioners for Prince George’s County will erect “a Public Library Building to be known as ‘The Stanley Memorial Library’ ” on the land deeded from the Stanley family.

That fact alone should be legally ironclad, for as long as any library sits on the parcel of land at the corner of 7th and Talbott. And the Board of Library Trustees’ plan to “commemorate Stanley with a photo and memorial in the library lobby” is an embarrassingly poor compromise, when the man’s name was always intended to be much more prominently associated.

I know what some of you are probably thinking. “Who cares, right? It’s just a library.” I’m sure the Stanley family cares, having deeded the land for the library in the first place. Clearly Mayor Moe and the Laurel Historical Society care. I care, and you should care. Most of all, the Prince George’s County Board of Library Trustees had better start caring.

What I find most ironic in this is the complete lack of recognition of their own name, the Prince George’s County MEMORIAL Library System. Maybe they should consider changing that, if they’re no longer concerned with memorializing those who made the branches possible.

In fairness, I understand to some degree what they’re trying to do. Naming the libraries by location makes perfect sense; and again, people are inherently going to revert to calling them that anyway. It happens with many building dedications, including schools and government facilities. How many DC tourists do you think ask for directions to the “J. Edgar Hoover Building”? They don’t. They say, “Where’s the FBI building?” And that’s fine, because Mr. Hoover’s name is still on it, regardless.

If PGCMLS wishes to refer to the new building as the “Laurel Library”, I see no reason why they shouldn’t. The public can refer to it that way, as well. But the new building should nonetheless still prominently bear the name “Stanley Memorial Library”, as its original land deed intended. That part is non-negotiable. And ultimately, it would be no different than it’s always been.

(Laurel Leader, May 14, 1981)

(Laurel Leader, May 14, 1981)

(Photo: PGCMLS)

(Photo: PGCMLS)

***

I’d like to get back to the Board of Library Trustees’ idea of commemorating Mr. Stanley with a photo and memorial in the lobby for a moment, though. Because while it isn’t appropriate for Mr. Stanley himself in this circumstance, I certainly don’t mean to belittle a lobby tribute—to the right person. In fact, it might be unconventional, but there’s someone in particular I’d really like to see receive that honor.

A lot of wonderful people have worked at the Laurel branch since 1967, and sadly, some of them are no longer with us. One such person I’ll forever associate with the library is a gentleman named Tom Acra.

Tom Acra, January 1993. (Photo: Richard Friend)

Tom Acra, January 1993. (Photo: Richard Friend)

Tom Acra and librarian Brenda Hill, January 1993. (Photo: Richard Friend)

Tom and librarian Brenda Hill, January 1993. (Photo: Richard Friend)

Tom was the quintessential jack of all trades. Admittedly, I don’t recall what his official job title was—whether it was “maintenance supervisor” or “building superintendent” or something along those lines; one thing was clear—Tom took care of the Laurel Library like it was his home, and the employees and patrons like they were his family. He was the first person to open the building each morning and the last to lock up and leave; and from his modest workshop in the basement, he had the tools and skills necessary to handle any task at hand. A pipe burst? Tom could fix it. He was always there for any such maintenance emergency, but more routinely, he handled custodial duties: buffing the tiles, vacuuming the carpets, washing the windows, dusting and wiping down the shelves, and more. In the winter, there were no snow plow teams to clear the parking lot—there was only Tom, with a single shovel, a bucket of ice melt, and that familiar, friendly voice of his, cautioning everyone who approached to be careful not to slip. “Aww yeeeaah… watch your step, there…”

Tom was one of the first friends I made when I started working at the library, and no matter how busy he was, he always had time to chat about the Redskins, an upcoming election, the weather, or a particular history book that had caught his eye over in section 973. (Yes, after all these years, I still can’t shake the Dewey Decimal System…)

Tom had started working at the library straight out of high school himself, and simply kept at it year after year—learning the nuances of the building and caring for it like no one else. He’d been part of the first massive rearrangement of books in 1977, and spearheaded the laborious task again in 1993 when the library expanded.

(Laurel Leader, August 4, 1977)

(Laurel Leader, August 4, 1977)

As the years went on and the PGCMLS budget tightened, Tom was utilized even more. I can recall clerical aide hiring freezes that lasted for a year or longer; during which time Tom would help our depleted team by reshelving books and stamping date due cards. More often than not, we never even had to go out to unload the book drop, because Tom had beaten us to it.

Before long, he’d even been recruited to man the circulation desk, and seemed to relish the time spent helping patrons check out their books and other materials. His was a familiar face at checkout time on Sundays, especially—when most staff members opted for Sundays off. (Yes, the library was actually open on Sundays back then—during the school year, at least.)

And it was with the patrons that Tom really connected, ironically. He wasn’t a librarian, or someone you’d expect to be a “people person”, but that’s precisely what he was. In fact, he was a natural at it—and he connected with people of all ages. Kids from the neighboring Grove would occasionally come into the library for a drink from the water fountain and a brief respite from the outside heat, and their voices would inevitably get louder—a bit too loud for a library. Whereas most adults would blow a gasket, Tom had a gentle way of approaching the kids; for one thing, he knew them all by name, and they knew him. And in a matter of seconds, he’d have them quietly perusing a book or magazine, and then happily on their way.

Yes, Tom Acra was much more to the Stanley Memorial Library than just a maintenance man. Taking care of the building and its denizens was more than just a job to him.

Tom passed away unexpectedly in February 2003 at the age of 50. And when his beloved old library is torn down in the next few weeks, I’m kind of grateful he won’t have to be here to witness it.

tom-acra-grave

But in closing, I would like to offer these simple suggestions to the Prince George’s County Board of Library Trustees:

  • Continue to honor the legacy of Charles H. Stanley by placing the rightful name, “Stanley Memorial Library” on the new building. If you wish to refer to it within the system as the “Laurel Library”, by all means do so—just as you always have. But please don’t try to remove or relegate his name and think people won’t notice… or mind.
  • If you’re considering honoring someone from the community with a small memorial plaque in the lobby, honor someone who truly did give their all to the library. Tom Acra wasn’t a wealthy benefactor or politician, and you won’t readily find his name in books or newspapers; but he certainly invested a lifetime of care and stewardship into our library, and I have no doubt he’d do the same for the new building.
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