Category Archives: Signs

1986: The 99¢ Theater

Summer being the time of blockbuster movies, here’s a true Lost Laurel blockbuster: footage from 1986 leading up to the opening of the 99¢ theater at Town Center! Courtesy of the amazing Jeff Krulik and Paul Sanchez, this clip captures the Rt. 197 & Contee Road shopping center as it was in the mid-80s—including Peoples Drug, Tropical Fish City, DiGennaro’s, Church’s Fried Chicken, and more.

Much more to come—including footage from the grand opening itself (complete with performances by the legendary Sammy Ross, on loan from Delaney’s Irish Pub!) Thanks again, Jeff!!

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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.)

laurel-theatre-preview-pic1laurel-theatre-preview-pic2laurel-theatre-preview-pic3laurel-theatre-preview-pic4

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:

laurel-theatre-preview-pic11

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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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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Fair Lanes: Bowling for Patches!

I should preface this by saying that during my own tenure as a Fair Lanes youth league duckpin bowler in the early 1980s, the few awards I won looked like this:

FAIRLANES-STAR

*Yawn*

And I wasn’t that bad a bowler. In fact, I had a handful of these little patches—awarded for various league achievements. But looking at them today, they’re pretty lackluster as far as patch designs go, aren’t they? In fact, the most ornate of the ones I earned are probably these, which aren’t much better.

FAIRLANES-STAR-OF-THE-MONTH FAIRLANES-PLUS50-1980S

These were the products of the new Fair Lanes of the early 80s—the recently re-branded version of the venerable bowling alley franchise, which sought to distance itself from the stereotypical bowling alley riffraff of the 60s and 70s.

A new logo (a stylized hand releasing a bowling ball) was paired with a new bold italic typeface, creating a more modern look and feel. However, Laurel’s bowling alley (which opened in 1961) kept its original sign along Route 1 for some time afterward, before the new logo was finally applied.

Photos: John Floyd II, 1974

Photos: John Floyd II, 1974

And that was a good thing, because the original sign was about as classic as it got. It included Fair Lanes’ original logo, which was brilliantly simplistic—the name spelled out across ten frames of a perfect bowling scorecard. And the logo’s integration with the sign was equally genius—communicating who, what, and where simultaneously: “Bowl at Fair Lanes Laurel”

The sign was so well designed, it actually became as iconic as the logo itself. It was used throughout the 60s and 70s on some of the most prestigious league award patches a bowler could earn. And comparing them to the more understated versions of later years, you can really get a sense of just how strong the brand identity was.

The Fair Lanes sign evoked excitement in a Las Vegas way—big, bold, and bright. The vintage patches I’ve found that incorporated it into the design capture that spirit in an array of color combinations that, frankly, make you want to stop whatever you’re doing and just go bowling right now.

FAIRLANES-165-CLUB

FAIRLANES-200-CLUB

FAIRLANES-225-CLUB

FAIRLANES-400-CLUB

FAIRLANES-500-CLUB

FAIRLANES-600-CLUB

The League President and League Secretary patches of the time featured the sign in a more subdued, straightforward manner:

FAIRLANES-LEAGUE-PRES-SECRETARY

Many of the more minor patches didn’t use the literal sign, but still featured the original Fair Lanes logo prominently.

FAIRLANES-IYBP-JUNIOR-AWARD

FAIRLANES-IYBP-JUNIOR-AWARD-BLUE

FAIRLANES-IYBP-BANTAM-AWARD

FAIRLANES-YBP-MEMBER-BLUE

FAIRLANES-YBP-MEMBER-RED

Some manipulated the logo to fit the shape of the patch:

FAIRLANES-IYBP-GREEN

FAIRLANES-IYBP-MEMBER-BLACK

FAIRLANES-IYBP-MEMBER-RED

FAIRLANES-MIDGET-AWARD

FAIRLANES-MIDGET-AWARD-90

FAIRLANES-IYBP-SENIOR-AWARD-130CLUB

FAIRLANES-IYBP-HIGH-SET-155-CLUB

FAIRLANES-IYBP-HIGH-SET-175-CLUB

FAIRLANES-IYBP-BANTAM-AWARD-110-CLUB

FAIRLANES-IYBP-BANTAM-AWARD-300-CLUB

FAIRLANES-DUCKPINS-400

Others branched off from the logo entirely, creating their own unique look:

FAIRLANES-YBP-FUNKY

FAIRLANES-YBP-BLIND-PARTNER

These “I Beat My Coach” patches are interesting—depicting a humanoid bowling ball standing victoriously over a vanquished, dead pin. Who says bowling isn’t a violent sport?

FAIRLANES-YBP-BEAT-COACH-70S

FAIRLANES-YBP-BEAT-COACH-70S-BLACK

The leagues that I played in also never used the classic bowling shirts that you think of—we had these boring, short sleeved polos, where the most colorful feature was the small screenprinted logo itself.

1980s Fair Lanes bowling shirtFAIRLANES-STAR

You could put as many of those little stars on it as would fit, but it still didn’t have the awesomeness that any one of those vintage patches would have wielded.

That gives me an idea. Maybe I should have these all sewn onto a vintage button down bowling shirt, and then wear it into the nearest bowling alley and just watch people’s heads explode.

 

FAIRLANES-BIRTHDAY

Laurel’s bowling alley is still there, still open for business under AMF management. The duckpins are long gone, however; as is that familiar aroma of lane wax that used to hit you as soon as you entered the door. We can thank the advent of synthetic lanes for that travesty; but I can still see no reason why bowling patch designs should have ever been tamed.

 

 

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SUNDAY! SUNDAY!! SUNDAAAYYY!!!

If you were around during the era of small racetracks that regularly hosted local races, demolition derbies, and monster truck events, you undoubtedly remember the radio announcer’s rallying cry of “Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!” For Lost Laurel, tomorrow—Sunday, February 9th—is every bit as exciting. And then some.

The Lost & Found Laurel exhibit has its grand opening tomorrow at the Laurel Museum from 1:00–4:00.

lost-and-found-laurel-facebook-cover-grand-opening

The museum, located in what is believed to be the oldest house in Laurel (dating to at least the 1840s, with some estimates going back to 1802) is at the corner of 9th & Main Streets. Admission is free.

Even before it was the Laurel Museum, the oldest house in Laurel was a landmark. (Ceramic tile courtesy of Peter & Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes).

Both the Laurel Leader and The Gazette have been spreading the word this week, and the Leader will be covering the grand opening, as well! Here are a few of the media links to date:

Collectors Find Plenty of Laurel Memories  |  Laurel Leader “History Matters” column by Kevin Leonard

Amateur Historian Inspires Laurel Museum Exhibit  |  Gazette feature by Emilie Eastman

Laurel Museum Opens “Lost & Found Laurel” Exhibit Sunday  |  Laurel Leader web feature by Melanie Dzwonchyk

Laurel History Memorabilia  |  (Laurel Leader photo gallery)

Lost & Found Laurel Opens February 9  |  Eventful.com

While I did have the chance to get a few sneak peeks along the way, I’ll be experiencing the opening for the first time along with everyone else. When I was at the Museum last weekend, the exhibit panels had been printed but not yet installed, and many of the displays were only just beginning to take shape.

Laurel Museum pre-opening

I won’t even attempt to list the full variety of things you’ll discover, but yes—that is the original Hershey’s Ice Cream sign that hung from Keller’s/Knapp’s Laurel News Agency for decades. Beside it (partially hidden behind the glass showcase with the fleet of Lost Laurel toy trucks) is the cash register from Cook’s Laurel Hardware. Both of these treasures have been in the Laurel Historical Society’s archives since the businesses closed.

***

I also have an update on the Lost Laurel book, as we’re all anxiously awaiting the printed shipment.

James River Bridge cargo ship 2/7/14

The cargo ship carrying the books arrived in New York yesterday, and I was told to allow an additional 7–10 days for customs clearance and delivery; so I’m expecting to have the books in hand the week of February 17th, at which point I’ll begin mailing out the pre-ordered copies.

You can still pre-order copies right here, and I’ll also have copies available for sale at my “(Re)Collecting Laurel” presentation and book signing event on March 13th—a fun talk that I’m looking forward to as part of the Laurel Historical Society Speakers Bureau!

But remember, you can also win one of the very first copies of the book at the grand opening tomorrow! I donated the two advance copies I’d received (one paperback and one hard cover edition) to the Museum for this purpose, so be sure to come out and take a chance! I look forward to seeing many of you there and hearing what you think about the exhibit!

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Hobby House

Perhaps more than any store, restaurant, or other business in Laurel’s retail past, the one place that I’ve consistently heard the most about is a little shop that opened in (and along with) Laurel Plaza Shopping Center in October 1965. It was at least a decade before pinball and video game arcades became the rage; and by all accounts, Hobby House may have topped them all in terms of sheer awesomeness.

Throughout the summer of ’65, Hobby House advertised heavily in the Laurel News Leader—bold, exciting ads that showcased the store’s massive tabletop slot car racing tracks. As if that wasn’t enough to draw you in, they also carried a full line of all things hobby: coins, stamps, model airplanes, model ships, model trains, and more. It was essentially Laurel’s precursor to HobbyWorks—which, coincidentally, remains open in Laurel Shopping Center to this day.

While Hobby House was part of the new Laurel Plaza Shopping Center, it wasn’t actually a brand new store. It had previously been located at 342 Main Street—current location of the Laurel Board of Trade—for five years. The Main Street location, however, didn’t have the slot car racing tracks; and its new store was the first of its kind in the Laurel area. In fact, owner Bill Bromley proclaimed his three new championship-approved tabletop tracks “the finest facilities available in the state”.

The new store also boasted some impressive hours for its era, open daily from 10AM to 11PM, and noon to 11PM on Sundays. Customers were encouraged to bring their own slot cars to race, and there were plenty available to buy or rent for a nominal fee.

I’ve also heard nothing but great things about the store’s staff, including owner Bill Bromley, and his brother, Dick—who served as assistant manager. I was glad to unearth a couple of photos of these gentlemen from September 1965 issues of the News Leader as well:

 

And a May 1966 full page ad captured a number of Laurel Plaza store entrances, including Hobby House.

Unfortunately for me, Hobby House had apparently already closed by the time my family arrived at Steward Manor in the late 70s, and I never did get to experience it. (You don’t have to pity me too much—I did get to surf the wave of awesomeness that was Time-Out and Showbiz Pizza Place in their respective heydays).

But I wanted to share a wonderful Hobby House recollection from our good friend John Floyd II—a lifelong train buff who remembers a special day and the equally special customer service that went along with it:

Hobby House was wicked! Those large racing tracks were cool and it was always fun to see them in action, but electric model trains were my thing and Hobby House had plenty of them in the new “N scale” whose compact size appealed to me. Mr Dick Bromley was either owner or manager of HH and he was ever so accommodating. In 1968, the ill-fated Penn Central merger between Pennsylvania RR and New York Central System endeared me to that poorly-conceived, behemoth railway company, not to mention being amongst a thousand spectators who gathered at Odenton to see the solemn and dignified funeral train PC ran for RFK in June of ’68. So, for my 11th birthday that year, Mum took me to Hobby House to select a train set. Alas, there were none to be had in Penn Central colours, but Mr Bromley soon sorted that out by combining an individual locomotive, passenger cars, freight cars, and a caboose into a splendid custom Penn Central train set!

Eventually, he would be involved with the operation of Laurel Shopping Center and Laurel Centre Mall (Rich, I’ve got one of his business cards for you!) as well as the Chamber of Commerce. I believe one of Laurel’s Fourth of July Parade trophy awards is also named in Mr Bromley’s honour. When Hobby House closed (late ’70s or early ’80s?), it left a void not filled until Hobby Works (for general hobby interests) and Peach Creek Shops (for hard-core railway modellers) came along in the 1990s.

John did indeed have a business card for me, from Dick Bromley’s term as Promotion Director at Laurel Centre—complete with its original logo before the ill-advised April 1998 “Laurel Mall” rebrand!

I’m looking forward to digging further into the 1970s archives, to hopefully determine when Hobby House closed and for what reasons; and for more information about the Bromley brothers. But in the meantime, I’ll just have to imagine what it must’ve been like, racing slot cars against Laurel’s fast and furious. I have to believe that I’d be the only one who’d show up with a custom Bob’s Cab racer, though.

Get ready to pay the meter, kids. Next stop, Hobby House.

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Laurel’s Safeway(s)

While I was growing up at Steward Manor during the late 1970s and early 80s, grocery shopping was never really a problem. In just a matter of minutes, if my mom and I were so inclined, we could walk to and from Safeway—which, at the time, was just around the corner from us on Bowie Road. In fact, during the one year that we lived at 2 Woodland Court, it was literally just across the railroad tracks. For more extensive shopping, of course, my dad would drive us there (or more likely, to one of the bigger and/or cheaper stores in the area: Giant, Pantry Pride, or Basics). But on any given day, my mom might have decided to bake a cake or something; and needing only a few select items, she and I would take a quick walk over to Safeway.

Until this past weekend, I hadn’t been able to find a single photo of the Safeway that I so vividly remember from childhood—before it relocated to a new and larger space at Laurel Lakes in 1985 (where it remains today).

For me, the old Safeway was the real Safeway; and when it left, it was like losing an old friend. To this day, I occasionally have dreams in which I’m back in that store—perusing the Cragmont soda aisle and noting the vintage cash registers at the checkout counter, amongst orderly stacks of weekly magazines featuring the likes of Diff’rent Strokes and President Reagan on their covers.

So in the course of my research, when I turned the page in the April 21, 1966 issue of the Laurel News Leader and came to this photo—I smiled at an old friend.

There it was, just as I remembered it. But even newer, because it had just opened. From this angle, (taken from the adjacent shopping center, which had also just opened) you can even see that awesome roller track/conveyor belt thing, which transported your groceries from the checkout counter, outside, around a hairpin curve, and to your awaiting vehicle beneath that covered driveway. (This, of course, was the only downside to walking over to Safeway with my mom—I didn’t get to use that thing nearly as often as I would have liked, but I digress).

Admittedly, I suspected that I might actually find a photo of the store; in an earlier newspaper, I had come across this bold announcement, which included a stock illustration of a similar Safeway store (but without the aforementioned awesome roller track/conveyor belt thing).

Laurel Leader, January 27, 1966.

So, a question I’d often wondered about was finally answered. The Safeway on Bowie Road first opened its doors in January 1966. The adjacent shopping center, which included Market Tire, Arundel Furniture, and Chicken Roost, among others—also another story for another time—opened in April.

But the photo also raised an interesting question, because conspicuously absent in all this was my other beloved store—Dart Drug. I had always assumed that Dart Drug was the original tenant beside Safeway; that they had been built together. Evidently, that wasn’t the case at all.

As I continued through the 1966 newspapers, I spotted the following ad in an August issue—which references the mysterious “Super S” store noted in the photo caption above.

Safeway Super S? I’d never heard of or seen such a thing, but there it was, in the proverbial black and white.

It also immediately struck me as rather ironic that Safeway had actually occupied this entire, massive structure—yet would ultimately move to Laurel Lakes nearly 20 years later in need of more space. What happened there? What exactly was Super S, and how (and when) did it eventually become the Dart Drug that we all knew and loved?

The Super S story turns out to be a super-short one, actually. By April 1967—a mere eight months after its grand opening, ribbon-cutting ceremony with then-Mayor Merrill Harrison, the store was closed.

Laurel Leader, April 20, 1967

Super S, according to the fantastic vintage retail blog, Pleasant Family Shopping, was an early (and ultimately unsuccessful) attempt by the supermarket to parlay its brand into an ancillary store; one which offered the types of non-food items you wouldn’t find in the Safeway proper: small appliances, sporting goods, toys, outdoor accessories, and more. Basically, like what Dart Drug would become. In retrospect, it’s a bold idea that, frankly, seems ahead of its time. Who knows.. with a little tweaking of the Super S business model here and there, Safeway could’ve very easily hit the jackpot. (Not that they haven’t been successful enough on their own, but again I digress).

It’s not yet clear if the old Super S building hosted any interim tenants, (my guess is no) but in February 1969, Dart Drug officially took up residence. It would remain there until the company went bankrupt nearly 20 years later.

Laurel Leader, February 6, 1969.

 

Here’s another view of the Safeway Shopping Center (as it came to be known) from across Route 1, in what was at that time the Food Fair parking lot. Food Fair, of course, would eventually become Frank’s Hardware, which in turn would eventually become Frank’s Nursery and Crafts—but that’s yet another story or two, as well.


Coincidentally, just a few miles west along Route 198, another Safeway opened in mid-February 1966. With a Peoples Drug at the opposite end of the Burtonsville Shopping Center, I guess the builders wisely saw no need for a Super S.

Last, but not least, I’d heard many a story about Laurel’s original Safeway—a location just off Main Street that, like its successor, was eventually deemed too small. That store was located on C Street, in the little building that would actually become City Hall and the Laurel Police Headquarters in 1972. Apparently, it continued to briefly do business even after the larger, new store opened on Bowie Road. In fact, according to this amusing snippet from September 1969, customers were still showing up even after it had closed.

Laurel Leader, September 25, 1969.

I can relate. They, too, must’ve felt like they’d lost an old friend.

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Above Laurel Shopping Center, 1971

If you’re like me, you’ve often wondered what it would be like to fly over Laurel Shopping Center… in July 1971. Thanks to John Floyd II, who shared this fantastic print of a Kodachrome 64 slide from the collection of Laurel Rescue Squad, now we know!

Some eight years before Laurel Centre Mall would be built, the Hecht Co. building dominates the ample parking lot.

Directly behind Hecht’s, along Marshall Avenue, is an odd sight for those familiar with the area today—single family houses—the few remaining dwellings before the Arbitron Building would arrive in January 1979.

Further down Marshall Avenue, we see the 150-car parking deck for the new Georgetown Alley shops—15 stores which opened in April of that year. Marshall Avenue passed directly below the parking deck, in what was easily the darkest, creepiest corner of the shopping center.

In the foreground of the picture, along Route 1, we see the familiar blue gabled roof of the original International House of Pancakes. To its right, just across Marshall Avenue, we see just a sliver of the parking lot of Laurel’s original McDonald’s drive-thru—the building which would soon become the Big T/Tastee Freez.

And speaking of colorful roofs, note the tiny yellow speck just below the Giant Food neon sign near the shopping center’s entrance. Yep, it’s the Fotomat, where countless photos were processed over the years—although probably not very many from this perspective.

Be sure to click the photo for a larger view.
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Anticipating Laurel Malls, Past and Present

Photo: Brian Krista

By now, you’ve probably heard that there was a ceremonial groundbreaking for the long-awaited, still-cryptic Town Centre at Laurel project Tuesday morning. It took place along the southeast corner of the Laurel Mall site, near one of the many parking decks that had long sat closed—even before the mall itself closed.

Besides the ceremonial shoveling of dirt, (by a number of “official” folks who, quite probably, have never actually used a shovel—but I digress…) the large, orange and blue “Laurel Mall” sign at the corner of Route 1 and Cherry Lane—erected sometime after 1991, when Laurel Centre changed its name and continued its downward spiral—was also ceremonially lowered to the pavement; as if to emphasize that, this time, it’s really going to happen. After years of talk, rumors, deals, and nixed plans by a seemingly endless list of owners, developer Greenberg Gibbons seems finally poised to reinvent the space in a positive way.

The only–er, main problem seems to be the continued lack of high-end prospective tenants—something the developers have been maddeningly coy about since the project was first announced in March 2011. As of this writing, only Burlington Coat Factory, (the lone-surviving tenant of Laurel Mall) Harris Teeter, and Regal Cinemas are the proposed anchor stores. Proposed—meaning that even they’re not finalized yet.

A public announcement last week about the “invitation-only” groundbreaking event also didn’t exactly ingratiate the developers with, well, those of us who weren’t invited. In their defense, however, until those decrepit parking decks are actually brought down, I’m sure the prospect of having even one person get injured on the property is enough to give their legal department a nervous breakdown. I was told that as the project progresses, there will indeed be public events.

While I do believe that Town Centre at Laurel has the potential to be a very well-designed and positive change for the community, the contrast between the anticipation of this major development and its predecessors is enormous. Granted, the developers of Laurel Shopping Center and Laurel Centre Mall didn’t have the years of mismanagement and failed promises to deal with. But the communication they shared with the public from the very beginning played a key role in generating the interest and excitement that’s still palpable in the old newspapers that covered their grand openings. Not to mention, nearly all of the stores were leased before construction even began.

As we look back at its predecessors, let’s hope that the grand opening of Town Centre at Laurel—whenever it may be, and with whomever actually occupies it—turns out to be even half as exciting.

1979

1956

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Laurel Shopping Center/Cinema Sign Replaced

Technically, I haven’t lived in Laurel for about 15 years. But being just around the Beltway in Northern Virginia, I do enjoy coming back for frequent visits; and for photographs and research for Lost Laurel. Maintaining that close proximity to my old hometown is particularly important to me when things happen—like when buildings are torn down, or when malls are closing their doors.

While I enjoy a west coast vacation as much as the next guy, I was sad to learn that the old Laurel Shopping Center Cinema sign was quickly (and apparently without much advanced notice) dismantled last week while I was in Los Angeles. Had I known, I would’ve hopped onto said Beltway in a heartbeat to get as many photos of the process as possible. Fortunately, there were some like-minded readers who happened to be nearby, who did just that—a big thanks to those who posted them and tipped me off to the impending changes!

There were also a few surprises to be found as the old sign was pulled apart… but more on that in a moment. First, let’s take a look at a few photos I’ve found of the sign from the past decade or so—a decade which saw a rapid deterioration of one of the most prominent signs along the Route 1 corridor.

Photo: Kingkongphoto & http://www.celebrity-photos.com (Flickr)

The above photo brings back vivid memories of dusk at Laurel Shopping Center, despite the unusual selection of films. These are the same neon hues that I recall when The Breakfast Club was highlighting the marquee in 1985. But by March 2010—and after at least one period of closure—the Cinema had reopened with an apparent emphasis on Bollywood films.

Photo: Kingkongphoto & http://www.celebrity-photos.com (Flickr)

Admittedly, I haven’t seen a film in that theater since 1995’s Braveheart, when the sign was already showing its age badly. Over the next few years, the neon lights that comprised the word “CINEMA” gradually blew out and/or broke, and weren’t replaced. Equally visually-crippling, sometime after Laurel Centre officially rebranded itself as “Laurel Mall” in April 1998, the sign lost its oval Laurel Centre logo which co-branded it with Laurel Shopping Center. The result was a blank white, functionless oval that projected off the sign like a tumor.

 

And when the Cinema finally closed again, the sign sat unused at all, simply gathering rust. I’d actually been wondering if there were going to be any plans to tear it down… before it eventually fell down on its own.

(Photo: Dan Gross, MD Gazette)

(Photo: Dan Gross, MD Gazette)

Fast-forward to just a couple of weeks ago, when a whimsical message appeared on the old marquee:

Photo: Federal Realty

Sure enough, within days—and despite the vicious DC heatwave I managed to avoid while in LA—friends were posting photos on Facebook of the sign coming down. And it was in this first one, by Joe Leizear, that something caught my eye:

Photo: Joe Leizear

Do you see it, too? Red lettering.

The word “LAUREL”in large, red block letters—not something that I had ever seen on the Cinema sign. In fact, it had been hidden beneath the Cinema marquee all along. I realized that the Cinema sign had merely covered the original Laurel Shopping Center sign, which I never had the chance to see before in person. In fact, it was only while recently digging through old directories that I came across a logo representation of it—this one from 1976:

 

 

Subsequent photos, such as the one below, showed the additional elements of the original sign, including the end of the arrow—which had been obscured all this time by the clumsy “Laurel Shopping Center” top band and aforementioned oval protrusion which covered/replaced the arrowhead:

(Photo: Federal Realty, via Laurel Patch)

Facebook user Spleenless Jen shared some fantastic images of what was left of the original panels before they were dismantled, shedding even more light on the faded red typography that had been hidden for over three decades:

(Photo: Spleenless Jen)

(Photo: Spleenless Jen)

(Photo: Spleenless Jen)

That brings us to the new sign.

I’ve seen a few photos floating around, including an early artist’s rendering (the signature type of which has been modified in the final product, apparently).

Illustration: Federal Realty

Photo: Lisa Geiger

What to make of this more modernized and functional signage, which includes a digital screen and a colorful, decorative motif? Is it an improvement? Over a rusted, misused sign that was likely beyond repair—yes, absolutely. As a promising retail beacon that will draw shoppers for decades to come? Frankly, I’m not that optimistic.

For starters, nothing about the new sign is unique or differentiates it from countless other shopping centers. It’s not necessarily the sign’s fault, mind you—it takes more than just a sign to successfully brand a franchise. Unless someone is planning to update the entire shopping center and integrate the new motif—or at least the colors, to some degree—they’re stuck with a new sign that simply doesn’t fit the shopping center it’s intended to represent.

Worse, from a functionality standpoint, I would be deeply concerned about the feasibility of maintaining that video screen. Not to be a downer, but how long before a vandal (pedestrian or motorist) decides to shatter or otherwise deface it? Let’s be honest—Laurel has always had its share of ne’er-do-wells; and such fancy new devices—literally within arm’s reach—might as well include a sign with a bright red target that says “please vandalize me”. And historically, the shopping center and mall both have not exactly been great about maintaining features that require, well, maintenance. Remember the unique revolving carousel platform in the mall’s center court that eventually stopped revolving? And the very sign that we’re now discussing? My point exactly. If and when these types of things break repeatedly, shopping center management is likely to simply stop fixing it. And when it’s literally the face of the shopping center, such as this sign will be—the first thing visitors see upon approaching—that’s not good.

Granted, I’ve never bought a giant neon sign for a shopping center before, nor have I designed one (yet). But as a designer, my priority would always be to ensure that whatever sign I implemented was relevant and suited its environment. I wouldn’t include decorative elements that weren’t reflective of the larger shopping center itself. If the surrounding area was prone to or accessible to vandals, I wouldn’t position expensive components like digital screens close to street/sidewalk level. Moreover, I’d want to know all I could about the shopping center and its origins, and design a complete brand that highlighted its best features and spoke to its historical significance—and have the sign be the linchpin of that brand. Consider a book cover design; it needs to properly represent the story within—and it needs to attract readers. A shopping center sign isn’t much different in that regard.

Laurel Shopping Center opened in 1956, and arguably saw its best days in the 1960s. (I wasn’t born yet, so I can’t attest to that). But by most accounts, the shopping center was profitable and ever-expanding—a growth that continued well into the 70s with the addition of Georgetown Alley. There have been some aesthetic modifications over the years, for better or worse: awnings and storefronts have evolved, most notably. But the core design has remained the same. It’s still fundamentally a 1960s open-air shopping center; something that could’ve been embraced in the design of the new sign rather than mocked. “The 60s called and they want this sign back”. Really? I think the 60s called and expressed their hope that somebody would’ve had the foresight to restore the shopping center’s original sign, rather than replace it with a generic model that most likely won’t survive a third of the time that its predecessor did.

Even that fleeting glimpse of the old sign’s red lettering and bold arrow reveals a timeless typography that could’ve been resurrected and repurposed into a more suitable, modern sign; a melding of past and present that suggests a long-standing shopping center that the community is proud of. The new sign just doesn’t accomplish that.

Our friend John Floyd II supplied the following photos today, showing the base portion of the new sign already in place. Because the top piece had not yet been attached, he was able to point out something interesting: once again, part of the original sign is still being used—those two vertical I-beams. That original sign simply won’t die, it seems. He also astutely noted the issue with the decorative motif—even more bluntly than I had.

“That funky orange-and-brown block design on the sign’s plinth looks like the 1960s got traded in favour of the 1970s! Very disco and Brady Bunch-esque!”

Photo: John Floyd II

Photo: John Floyd II

Photo: John Floyd II

Photo: John Floyd II

Coincidentally, the Laurel Centre/Mall notoriously replaced all of its original brown floor tile and wooden accents in 1991—less than 12 years after the mall opened—because management felt that it was “too 1970s”. Ironic that a 1970s pattern would now emerge on the brand new sign for Laurel Shopping Center.

Vintage 1970s drapes. Photo: monkeysox (Flickr)

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