Category Archives: Uncategorized

Farewell, Bay ‘n Surf

While the former Bay ‘n Surf restaurant had sat vacant and crumbling since 2007, the shock of seeing it actually torn down today will undoubtedly leave a bitter taste in the mouths of many who remember it in its heyday—a time when it was the undisputed heavyweight champ of Maryland cream of crab soup.

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Photo: Sharon Nuzback

Videos courtesy of Chris Blucher

 

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Photo: Dave DeBlasis

Photo: Sharon Nuzback

Photo: Sharon Nuzback

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Photo: Sharon Nuzback

Photo: John Mewshaw

Photo: John Mewshaw

Originally opened in 1965, the restaurant closed after a refrigerator compressor fire in the early morning hours of Valentines Day, 2007. Speculation about reopening—even at another location—floated around for years, but never materialized.

The initial word on the street is that the site will soon be home to a new mini strip center, but there’s been no confirmation on potential tenants. (Sadly, I’m guessing none will offer cream of crab soup, though).

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Kickstarter.com’s PROJECT OF THE DAY!

If you happen to visit Kickstarter.com’s home page today, you’ll notice something pretty amazing… The Lost Laurel book has been named their Project of the Day, and is being featured over thousands of other active projects in 13 different genres! Less than three days into the campaign, this is a tremendously happy surprise!

As of this post, funding for the book has now topped 95%, and is less than $100 away from reaching its goal! The campaign runs for 28 more days, and can use every last bit of funding it can get. So please keep spreading the word, and if you haven’t already made your $40 level pledge to reserve your book, (or score one of the limited-edition signed copies for $55—they’re going fast!) please lock those orders in now!

 

Kickstarter project of the day

 

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Lost Laurel Book: HERE IT IS!

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I’ve just gotten the green light to launch the Kickstarter campaign for my Lost Laurel book, and it is officially live!

The campaign has 30 days (29 and counting, as we speak…) to meet its funding goal, so please reserve your copy today and help make the book a reality!

The link includes a complete overview of the project, including a cool little video that was produced for this purpose by my friends Eric Espejo and Aaron Goodmiller of 19th + Wilson.

The book itself is at the $40 level, but you’ll also find plenty of contributor reward levels available, and there will be more to come (including some original artifacts from the Lost Laurel collection, and some that are actually featured in the book)!

The Kickstarter campaign is an all-or-nothing venture, meaning that unless the project goal of $3,000 is met or exceeded, it won’t be funded; and it only lasts for 30 days. So please contribute what you can now, and spread the word! No pledges will be collected (you won’t be charged anything at all) until the campaign ends, and then only if the project is successfully funded.

So, please consider this your chance to reserve a copy of the Lost Laurel book by pledging the $40 level minimum today!

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/richardfriend/lost-laurel-the-book

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Coming soon—Lost Laurel: THE BOOK!

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Here it is—a sneak peek at what’s in the works: the very first LOST LAUREL BOOK!

Sometime in the next few weeks, I’m planning to launch a Kickstarter.com fundraiser to cover the expenses of a first-run printing of the book I’m designing myself; and I’m making sure there will be a lot of very cool Lost Laurel rewards available for everyone who contributes to the project.

The Kickstarter campaign will feature tiered contribution levels—everything from $1 and up! For example, a $5 contribution might get your name printed in the acknowledgments section; a $10 contribution might get you the acknowledgement, plus a Lost Laurel postcard in the mail, updating you on the book’s progress.

On the larger side, a $100 contribution might not only get you one of the limited-edition hardcover books, but I’ll deliver it in person, treat you to lunch at the legendary Tastee Diner, and take a group walking tour of nearby Main Street. You get the idea. But most importantly, the more I can raise through Kickstarter, the bigger, better, & more affordable the book will be.There’ll be much more info to come; but in the meantime, I’ve been getting fantastic feedback in terms of how many folks are interested in contributing—I’m happy to say that the demand is definitely there!

On a related note, now is also the time to go through your own photos and artifacts—you may have something that would be an excellent addition to the book! If so, you’ll receive a photo credit (and, of course, a free copy!) If you have any photos to share, please email me at richard_friend@mac.com with details.

As always, many thanks for your support! Stay tuned, and check the Facebook page for updates!

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A Neighbor’s In Need: Let’s Help!

Last Fall, I was researching the history of Steward Manor Apartments when I stumbled across a photo on eBay.

Photo: John Floyd II, 1974.

It was part of a set of ten original prints being offered, which documented various vehicles from the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department and Laurel Rescue Squad in the 1970s. This particular image featured Laurel Rescue 19 (also known as “The Heavy”) leaving its quarters and turning onto Lafayette Ave.; and there in the distance was the familiar southwest corner of my old neighborhood—Steward Manor Apartments. Even the old red Volkswagen Karmann Ghia I remember walking past so many times en route to 7-Eleven, Dart Drug, or the mall was captured—parked right there where I remember it always sitting.

I eagerly bought the photos; and having noticed several other sets for sale, I messaged the seller, John Floyd II, who manages a wonderfully eclectic eBay store—Blackpool Bertie’s Railway Shop. I wondered if perhaps he had any other vintage photos of Steward Manor in his collection. We chatted back and forth, as I explained the premise of my research. I learned that John was a former fireman, and over the years (both before and after his tenures with volunteer fire companies in Laurel and New Jersey) he had diligently photographed firefighting apparatus, training exercises, and countless fires and accident scenes. Aside from this one photo, he didn’t recall having any others of Steward Manor; because as he explained, the old complex was virtually fireproof. He promised to take a look through his archives, though, and would let me know if he came across anything.

In the meantime, I began to take note of some of the other photos he was selling—photos that in a roundabout way, captured images of the Laurel, MD I used to know. Behind the firetrucks were long-gone storefronts from Laurel Shopping Center… the old Fair Lanes bowling alley sign… and a number of stunning photos from the very first Main Street Festival in 1981. I eagerly bought these, as well; and in effect, they turned out to be the inspiration for starting Lost Laurel. You’ve undoubtedly seen these photos throughout the blog and Facebook page.

Over the past several months, John has not only contributed more invaluable photos and historic information, he has become a good friend.

He’s also a bit of living Laurel history, himself. As a young lad, (as he might say in his subtle British accent) he and his mother came to America in 1957, settling in Laurel in 1964. Not long thereafter, his mom met and wed Mr. Harry Fyffe, co-owner (with his brother Walter) of the legendary Fyffe’s Service Center that stood at Montgomery and 10th Streets for so many years. By his early teens, John was helping out behind the bar, eagerly pulling pints for the regulars!

Still living in Laurel, (he’s lived in the same modest home since childhood—going on 50 years) he’s an active civic booster for the community, and for the nearby Laurel Police Department in particular. He’s also a fine horn player, as well. That was him you may have seen carrying the big antique silver Sousaphone, marching along with the West Laurel Rag Tag Band in this year’s Main Street Festival parade!

John has already shared with me a wealth of knowledge and photos of vintage Laurel—the likes of which I could not possibly have come across on my own. In fact, I’ve merely scratched the surface in terms of curating his vast contributions for Lost Laurel. Wait until you get a load of some of the treasures he’s shared from the 1960s and earlier—who knew Pal Jack’s was once a Bendix and Philco radio shop?!

Main Street in the 1940s… (Photo courtesy John Floyd II, from the collection of Harry Fyffe)

…and the same spot in 2007. (Photo: John Floyd II)

I can say with certainty that without John’s help, there wouldn’t be a Lost Laurel.

Much has happened in just the eight months since I’ve started this project. I’ve been interviewed by the Laurel Leader, and I’ve seen the Lost Laurel Facebook page grow to over 1200 fans. I’ve watched the blog soar to over 24,000 views. That was the good news. The bad news is that I’ve also seen more of the old Laurel fall—literally, in the case of the recent demolition of the blue American National Bank building. Also closing for good were my beloved Laurel Art Center, and even the Laurel Mall—something I never dreamed would’ve occurred in my lifetime, having grown up in its heyday.

Coincidentally, who walked over to the mall to photograph and share with Lost Laurel the very first photos of the “permanently closed for business” signs on the locked doors? John Floyd did.

Photos: John Floyd II

Unfortunately, there’s more bad news looming. This one isn’t about a longtime business closing, or an iconic building being razed. This one affects John personally; and for him, it could certainly be the toughest loss of all. He’s at risk of losing his home.

After missing a property tax deadline, I’ve learned that John’s home was actually SOLD at the county’s annual Tax Auction in May. He now has a very small redemption window in which to pay off the tax penalty, otherwise he’ll lose everything.

John would never ask for any kind of charity himself, so I’m going to pitch in and try to help. In fact, I’ve already gotten an earful from him for simply suggesting this little benefit idea. But I have to believe that at least a few of the folks who follow Lost Laurel will sympathize, and find it in their hearts to contribute whatever they can. And this is just too important to not at least try.

Without going into too much detail, suffice it to say that John has been in a very tight financial spot for quite some time now. He has been without a car for nearly a decade, which not only limits his general mobility, but effectively ended his regular occupation as a musician with various orchestras and dance bands, jazz and ragtime bands, brass bands, and other vintage-style musical ensembles. It was a career he enjoyed for 26 years, working several thousand gigs overall. But without transportation, that work dried up years ago. Likewise, he’s been unable to sell his wares at firemen’s conventions and trade shows—something else that once regularly supplemented his pay.
His eBay sales have become his sole means of income, making him entirely dependent upon the computer for all of his meager earnings.

And unfortunately, his sales have dropped dramatically (by over 60%) in the current recession. An emergency veterinary bill for one of his many cats set him back a hefty sum earlier this year, and that only added to the larger problem—trying to meet the overdue property tax bill to the tune of nearly $3,300. And if it’s not paid by June 30th, the amount will increase to over $7,000 when Prince George’s County adds the 2012 tax bill (along with interest and penalties, legal and court costs, as well as “advertising costs” for the Tax Auction that has put his home at risk). Finally, if the full amount isn’t paid by July 31st, his redemption window slams shut and the new property owners will be free to initiate foreclosure and eviction proceedings. It’s a process that’s every bit as harsh as it sounds.

There’s some irony here, too. As a homeowner, John isn’t eligible for any kind of public assistance—not that he’d willingly accept it. If he were to be evicted, however, he’d likely be free to receive any number of benefits. He doesn’t want those handouts; he simply wants to pay off his debts and remain in the only home he’s known for the past 46 years. I’m hoping we can help him do that.

Unfortunately, P.G. County isn’t flexible in the least. Nor are they interested in John’s or anyone else’s problems. There’s no negotiating with them on the amounts or the due dates. It’s literally all or nothing.

Knowing that most of us are so routinely asked to contribute to various charities—we donate to our kids’ fundraisers; we contribute to relay races for cancer research; we send money to groups who build homes for homeless families in foreign countries—I realize that the bombardment of solicitations can be draining; which is why I very rarely ask for such favors. But I’m going to ask an important favor now—on behalf of a good friend in a time of need who has done so much for Lost Laurel.

If you would, kindly donate whatever you can to John Floyd. His email address is royalbluelimited@aol.com, and it is set up to receive PayPal payments. It could be a little or a lot—every dollar adds up. Most importantly, you will know that your contribution isn’t going to some anonymous organization. It’s going directly toward helping a fellow Laurelite in need—and a genuinely good bloke, as John would say. It’ll literally help him save his home.

To help kickstart this benefit, I’m also going to be offering a few special Lost Laurel incentive prizes to those who donate the most.
• All
contributions of $25 and over will receive a full-size, double-sided reproduction of a classic Jack Delaney’s Irish Pizza Pub carryout menu from 1981.
• The first two contributions of $50 or more will receive an original 24″ x 36″ lushly illustrated poster map of Laurel from 1993.
• The first contribution of $100 or more will receive a limited edition Marian Quinn print of the iconic Cook’s Hardware building, matted and framed by the Laurel Art Center.
• And the first contribution of $250 or more will receive a framed 23″ x 30″ vintage 1990s illustration of Main Street businesses—which hung hidden for years in the Laurel Art Center.

These are but a few things that I can offer for what I would consider substantial donations, but I would strongly encourage everyone who reads this to consider sending any amount they can, no matter how small. It truly will help. Imagine if each one of our 1200+ Lost Laurel Facebook friends sent just a dollar or two—John’s crisis could be averted.

There are other ways that you can help, as well. Please visit John’s eBay shop (http://stores.ebay.com/blackpoolbertiesrailwayshop) and buy his stuff! If it’s not your proverbial cup of tea, perhaps you know someone who is a railroad buff, a firefighting enthusiast, and/or a brass band, vintage jazz, and big band music connoisseur—trust me, you’ll find something they’ll appreciate! It goes without saying that John’s eBay record is a spotless one—100% with over 4,350 positive feedbacks. He takes great pride and care in shipping his items quickly and securely, too, as I can attest.

Conversely, perhaps you have some items that you could donate to John’s store that HE may sell. That would also be a major help. Please message me, or feel free to contact John directly (royalbluelimited@aol.com) to make arrangements. Those who donate the amounts listed above can also request that I give their award items to John instead, so that he may sell them.

We’ve all come to accept that Laurel is an ever-changing landscape, and a far cry from the town we once knew. Businesses and residents alike have come and gone—some of their own accord, and others due to various hardships. This, however, is a uniquely tragic situation that I believe we can actually help prevent. Please join me and pitch in what you can. Let’s make sure Laurel doesn’t lose one of its truest citizens.

John Floyd II outside the Laurel Art Center in April, where he also went to photograph the closing of another Laurel icon.

Please donate via PayPal directly to royalbluelimited@aol.com

Many thanks!!

~ ®

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Hecht’s, version 2.0: Laurel Centre

Thirty-one years ago this week, the Laurel Leader noted the opening of the brand new Hecht’s at Laurel Centre—completing the relocation from its original building in the open Laurel Shopping Center, where it had been since the early 1960s. It would go on to be the sole occupant of the new building until Hecht’s eventually folded, and became Macy’s.

The new store had upper and lower levels, and included the popular Edgar’s Restaurant and an in-house beauty salon. As the above photo will attest, it also featured a small but beguiling kids’ section called the “Land of Ahhs”, where stuffed animals and board games filled whimsical display cases, including the locomotive and Snoopy’s doghouse seen here.

A clipping from October 1980 (seven months earlier) showed the building still under construction just beyond the Laurel Shopping Center:

What I remember most about the store wasn’t so much the displays or the wares themselves, but the floors. Weird, I know.

But the distinctive parquet flooring was something new to me as a child; something I’d probably only seen on TV during Boston Celtics games before. And the flooring layout in the new Hecht’s wasn’t traditional, either. Other department stores had rudimentary walkways; typically around the perimeter of the store and intersecting at central points throughout. The new Hecht’s, however, utilized these new parquet pathways differently—weaving throughout the store in short straight lines and 45-degree angles. In a video posted on YouTube in late March of this year, (shortly after Macy’s closed) I was surprised to see that the flooring was, in fact, still there. You can also get a sense of how these angling pathways once encouraged shoppers to explore the countless nooks and crannies the store had to offer.


Screenshots from “Tour of the Dead Laurel Centre Mall”, by CaltecCenter (YouTube)

Apparently, Macy’s didn’t do a whole lot of upkeep over the years after inheriting the building.

And driving past the old mall last week—just days after its official May 1st closing—the building looked essentially as it has since that upper parking deck spectacularly collapsed back in July 2005. Empty.


(6 digital images by John Floyd II, 2005)

Now that mall has been formally closed, (and just as ominously, a double-wide construction crew trailer set up in the parking lot) the building that once housed both Hecht’s and Macy’s will probably be disappearing soon. More likely, what’s left of those fragile parking decks surrounding it will be the first to go.

But oddly enough, one Hecht’s-related item that never seems to completely disappear are those cardboard gift boxes, especially at Christmas. I’m kind of glad for that. It’s like seeing an old friend.

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Herb’s Carry-Out

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Five-dollar footlong, you say? Herb’s Carry-Out wasn’t *quite* as expensive as Subway, back in the day.

The vintage (and greasy) Laurel icon, brilliantly captured here in watercolors by artist Cathy Emery, was a longtime, late night staple just a block south of Main Street at 126 Washington Blvd.

The sight of its unique facade brought back a flood of food memories on Facebook, as Laurelites recalled their favorite dishes—and memories—from Herb’s. Several mentioned the shrimp and gizzard boxes, while others cited the cheesesteaks, footlong hot dogs, and soft shell crab sandwiches—often after a night out at the nearby B & E Tavern.

Others recalled even simpler fare, like Michelle Atkins:

“My father used to take me here when I was a little girl, i would get a grilled cheese & donald duck orange juice!”

And Richard Pierce, who hailed Herb’s shrimp and gizzard boxes, also pointed out another ever-present feature of the establishment:

“Remember all the empty carryout boxes stacked up in the front widows?”

Cathy Emery apparently remembered them, too, as they appear to be lovingly included in the painting.

The Laurel Centennial Souvenir Historical Booklet has a small photo of Herb’s from circa 1970, and includes an interesting background on the building before all the gizzard boxes and cheesesteaks came.

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The Maryland Drug Company was a long-time tenant before Herb’s occupied the street level store. (The upper floors were converted into apartments at some point.) But its history goes back much further. In fact, according to the Maryland State Archives (who produced a fairly extensive capsule summary sheet on it in 1998), The Free Quill Building, as it was originally known, was constructed circa 1885 on land owned by James A. Clark, the editor of the Free Quill—Laurel’s first long-term weekly newspaper.

The Laurel Centennial booklet includes an 1887 illustration that was used in the Free Quill’s masthead. And while there aren’t any storefront windows with stacks of carryout boxes visible, the building is still recognizable as Herb’s:

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From the capsule summary sheet, a more detailed history of the structure:

The upper floor of the building was an open hall which was used for public meetings and dances (Centennial Booklet 1970: 54). The Free Quill eventually became the Laurel News Leader, but it is unknown where the paper was produced after Clark sold the property. The property was conveyed to Charles Shaffer in 1895, and was sold to Edmund Hill in 1898.Edmund Hill ran a butcher shop out of the building, and continued to use the upper hall as a public meeting space. The heirs of Edmund Hill sold the property in 1919 to Ormand Phair. Ormand Phair had purchased the adjoining residential property in 1910 from Charles Shaffer. Trustees for Ormand Phair sold both properties to the Maryland Drug Company in 1958. The current owners purchased the property in 1973.

Also included in the summary is a series of elevation photos taken in May 1998—when the street level storefront bore the rather generic name, “Laurel Convenient Mart”. At the time, fittingly, the building was vacant.

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The old turreted building still stands, albeit empty once again, since its last incarnation as Dingle’s Printing.

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I remember thinking it was odd to see a printing company in the space I always associated with Herb’s Carry-Out, but as it turns out, the building was originally used for printing purposes. In addition to the Free Quill, the Illustrated Residence and Business Directory of 1894 (only two complete copies of which are still known to exist), was also printed in this building. That directory, another Laurel first, was thankfully reprinted in the Centennial booklet for posterity.

As for the building itself, it unfortunately isn’t eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. According to a Maryland Historical Trust State Historic Sites Inventory Form,

The property is not eligible under Criterion A, as research conducted indicates no association with any historic events or trends significant in the development of national, state, or local history. Historic research indicates that the property has no association with persons who have made specific contributions to history, and therefore, it does not meet Criterion B. It is not eligible under Criterion C, as it is a highly altered example of an late-nineteenth century commercial building in Laurel. The first floor facade has been greatly altered with a modern storefront, and all the windows have been replaced and the larger openings filled in. The upper story which once served as a meeting hall has been converted into apartments. The building no longer retains its integrity of materials, design, workmanship, feeling, or association. Finally, the structure has no known potential to yield important information, and therefore, is not eligible under Criterion D.

Ouch. That’s some tough criteria.

Historical significance has a funny way of recording itself, doesn’t it? This odd, old building may or may not have a long-term future. It’s not likely ever going to be protected by any preservationists. And its only noted contributions to the community occurred over 120 years ago. But if you talk to the people who knew Laurel in the gritty 1970s and early 80s, they remember it for something else entirely—Criterion E, if you will. That’s “E” for Eat at Herb’s.

And as for “specific contributions to history”, etc., I offer this: in 125 years, nobody cared enough to paint a portrait of that building in any incarnation other than Herb’s Carry-Out. And I’d venture to say that there are at least a few buildings on historic preservation lists that haven’t been as lovingly painted, or painted at all. But then again, nobody ever bought a shrimp and gizzard box from their establishment.

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Laurel Plaza: Equitable Trust Bank

Question: “What was originally in the building that currently houses Carol’s Western Wear?”
Answer: A lot of money.

According to this article in the June 19, 1966 Baltimore Sun, it was Equitable Trust Bank.

Photo (bottom): carolswesternwear.com
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Laurel’s Lost Movie Theaters

Growing up in Laurel throughout the 70s and 80s, there was never a shortage of places to catch the latest films.

I lived at Steward Manor for most of this period, and while my parents and I did occasionally venture out to Greenbelt and New Carrollton, it was rare. Because right at home, technically within walking distance, were three theaters: Laurel Twin Cinema, tucked away in the northwest corner of Laurel Shopping Center; Laurel Town Center, at the corner of Rt. 197 and Contee Rd.; and arguably best of all, a drive-in—Wineland’s Laurel Drive-In on Rt. 1, directly across from the Shopping Center and mall.

While the drive-in unfortunately shut down not long after I had the unique chance to watch E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial there (Wineland’s closed in October, 1984), Laurel made up for it the following year with the addition of its biggest theater yet, the brand new Laurel Lakes Cinemas 8—a venue that would eventually expand to 12 theaters (Hoyt’s Laurel Lakes 12).

There were some changes over the years, particularly with Laurel Town Center. The 700-seat twin theaters (where I’m not the least bit ashamed to admit having watched Rocky III half a dozen times when it came out—it was that awesome) were acquired by Paul Sanchez—”a local moviehouse operator (who) made great gains in attracting crowds to his growing empire with a maverick 99-cent admission policy.” (Film Talk by Jeffrey Yorke; The Washington Post; Dec 19, 1986; WK37.) In the late 80s and early 90s, Laurel Town Center became known as the place to watch movies for 99 cents—the only catch being that the movies weren’t brand new releases, but rather, films that had been out for several weeks. But hey—99 cents! I’m also not ashamed to admit that I saw Roadhouse there at least twice during that period, but I digress.

Yes, Laurel had the movie market pretty well covered, back in the day.

But incredibly, not a single one of these movie houses survives as a functioning theater today. Ironically, the newest of them—the massive Hoyt’s Laurel Lakes 12—barely lasted 15 years. The entire Laurel Lakes Centre was bulldozed in favor of the Lowe’s Home Improvement Center that occupies the space today.

I’m trying to contact various property managers to inquire about any possible photos of Laurel’s old theaters in their heyday; likewise, if you have any snapshots you’d be willing to scan and share, kindly let me know; or post them on the Lost Laurel Facebook page.

In the meantime, here’s a quick look at some movie memories, Laurel-style.

photo: apricotX (Flickr)

Despite the dysfunctional selections on the marquee, the 2007 photo above does a great job of capturing the essence of the iconic Laurel Twin Cinema sign. This was taken during a brief reopening, but the theater closed once again shortly thereafter. The marquee, which still stands at the entrance to the Shopping Center, has lost its “CINEMA” neon, and the rusting hulk is likely on borrowed time. When I stopped by and snapped the photo below just before Christmas 2011, it was advertising the new L.A. Fitness center (albeit in a rather dyslexic manner) currently being built in the former Hecht Co. building nearby.

Especially at night, this sign was typically the first and last thing you’d see when passing by Laurel Shopping Center. For some reason, I’ll always picture it with The Breakfast Club on the marquee… probably because that’s where I first saw it, and I’ve loved it ever since.

If you click on the fascinating photo below from 1975 (and look beyond the spectacle of the parachutist landing not far from where Gov. George Wallace was shot just three years earlier) you’ll get a glimpse of the theater itself off in the distance. If I had to guess, I’d bet that Dog Day Afternoon and The Apple Dumpling Gang were playing at the time. Laurel was always pretty good about ensuring film fare for both adults and kids.

photo: Capt. John Floyd

 

A Laurel Leader front page from 1984

Speaking of iconic signs and iconic movies, here are some rare shots of Wineland’s Laurel Drive-In, where I (and apparently every other kid in Laurel) saw E.T. for the very first time. According to sources, the drive-in had a capacity for a staggering 800 cars, and a 250-seat patio viewing area for walk-in customers. It was also it cost a whopping $650,000 to build, including a 10,000 square-foot concession/projection building. The drive-in originally offered motorized golf carts (the “special shuttle service” described on the opening night advert below) to transport walk-ins to their patio seats. (driveins.org)

photo: drive-ins.com

Opening night ad for Wineland's Laurel Drive-In, June 16, 1966. (photo: driveins.org)

photo: Washington Post, July 1977 (drive-ins.com)

Box office at Wineland's Laurel Drive-In, 1966 (photo: drive-ins.com)

The photo below shows the empty drive-in grounds in October 1984, shortly after it closed down. As some have remembered, there was indeed a small playground directly below the screen—you can see it in this stunning shot.

photo: Ed Bunyan. © 1984 The Laurel Leader (driveins.org)

I actually only went to the drive-in for that one movie; probably because it was a double-feature, and my parents were wary of ever getting stuck in the car for that long again. Strangely enough, however, I have an equally strong memory of the back of the drive-in screen. It was a common vantage point from my Steward Manor neighborhood, as my friend Jeanette’s photo from her apartment in the early 80s clearly reflects.

photo: Jeanette Blume-Straley

Others have fondly recalled watching movies (sans sound) from the vantage points of the Laurel Centre Mall upper-level parking garage, Burger King, and Pappy’s, all of which provided an unimpeded view of whatever happened to be playing that particular night.

Below is an aerial comparison (which I highly recommend exploring for yourself at historicaerials.com) showing the drive-in complex as it appeared in 1980, and in 2006 (which is essentially how it remains today).

It’s safe to say that I might never have the chance to watch another movie in Laurel, even if the plans for this new Laurel Town Centre (or whatever they’re ultimately calling the new shopping center that’s scheduled to replace the old Laurel Mall) do include the state-of-the-art theater that’s promised. Regardless, I’ll always associate memorable films with Laurel. My very first movie date was at Laurel Lakes Cinemas. The last movie I saw in Laurel was there, as well—Twister, in 1996, with my future wife.

It’s kind of fitting, Twister being the last film. Every one of those theaters have been swept right away…

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Last Call: Laurel Mall

For the past several years, I’d been hearing about how Laurel Mall had gone drastically downhill. Literally—as parts of the upper level parking decks had famously collapsed.

Admittedly, I hadn’t visited the mall in probably more than a decade, since I began residing in Northern Virginia. But even friends who still live in Laurel would tell me not to waste my time there, as virtually everything we once knew had long-since vanished. Truth be told, there wasn’t much other than Time-Out that I missed significantly. But until I pressed for further information, I didn’t really comprehend just how far gone Laurel Mall actually was.

I read various blog articles about the mall’s current condition; and by “current condition”, I mean the steady and shocking exodus of nearly all retailers that began as long ago as 2001. I learned about multiple failed renovation plans, multiple ownership bankruptcies, and other sordid details. I heard stories about crime and violence at the mall. Even the mall’s own website shut down at some point. Yet, all the while, the structure remained—and remained open. Occasionally driving past on Route 1, Cherry Lane, or through Laurel Shopping Center, you could see the occasional shopper emerging from Burlington Coat Factory; or a car entering the lower level parking area. Signs of retail life, albeit faint.

This past summer, I decided to see just how bad it was for myself. In late July 2011, I drove to Laurel Mall—or what I used to know as Laurel Centre. I would have loved to walk through the skyway between the Shopping Center and (what used to be) J.C. Penney, but I knew that was also long-gone. Driving between the buildings, you can see where it once was.

The upper-level parking areas had all been blocked off.

I parked in the east side lower-level garage, and entered the mall next to what I recall being a Fujifilm 1-hour photo place in the early 1990s. Now, of course, it’s just an empty, shuttered space—much like the rest of the mall’s interior. That day, I found myself eerily alone in what was essentially a vacant Laurel Mall; literally a shell of the vibrant, bustling little shopping center I fondly remember from my youth.

I had been here in 1979, when the mall first opened. The following year, I won a Halloween costume contest right in the center of the mall. (In fact, I was being introduced the very moment that guest judge Congresswoman Gladys Noon Spellman suffered a heart attack and slipped into an 8-year coma just a few feet away).

Now, even in spite of the sealed doors, the darkened windows, and the emptiness, the mall still maintained a familiarity. Scenes such as this from an October 1979 issue of the Baltimore Sun were still palpable.

I walked through the mall that day by myself, trying to recall which empty spaces once held stores that I’d frequented. Somewhere downstairs was Spencers and Kay-Bee Toys; somewhere upstairs was Waldenbooks. Aside from Payless Shoe Source (the only remaining original tenant, to my knowledge), there were only a few generic shops open for business; places that, sadly, would probably be better suited selling their wares on eBay than paying rent at a place like this. Most of these were on the lower level. Amazingly, the entire north upper level (the former J.C. Penney side) was closed completely.

I took a number of photos that day, not knowing if it would be the last time I’d ever see Laurel Mall or not.

A few months went by, and I read that yet another plan to replace the mall had apparently been approved, this time with demolition permits already secured. According to the Mayor’s office, demolition (at least to the parking garages) was actually going to begin by the end of the year, but was delayed until after the holidays per Mayor Craig Moe’s request. According to the official release, within 45 days, (meaning by February 2012, supposedly) Greenberg Gibbons plans to submit to the City its full demolition plans to the Mall; and also will update its plans for the “Laurel Town Center” development project. So, yes—despite earlier talk of “Laurel Commons”, the name of the new mall appears to be Laurel Town Center. Or might I suggest “Centre”, in a nod to the original name. At any rate, they don’t seem to mind the fact that nearly anyone who knows Laurel will forever associate the name “Town Center” with the existing strip mall at the corner of Rt. 197 and Contee Rd., but I digress.

The new Laurel Town Center as proposed. Photo: Martin Architectural Group

The new Laurel Town Center as proposed. Photo: Martin Architectural Group

The new Laurel Town Center as proposed. Photo: Martin Architectural Group

As the end of the year approached, I had an idea. I wanted to visit the empty mall at least one more time—this time with old friends and other like-minded Laurel nostalgia buffs. More than a few people had mentioned being wary of walking through the mall alone, which was part of the reason they hadn’t gone in years. (The other part being the fact that there were no longer any actual stores in the mall). So in December, I posted an event invitation on the Lost Laurel Facebook page, announcing the chance to join a small group of curious ex-mall rats, as we walked through the vacant mall to take photos and reminisce. To make it “official”, I designed a flyer:

At the same time, I’d been trying to contact mall management—to both inquire about the vague demolition schedule and to let them know about the plan to tour and photograph the property before it’s gone for good. I’ve also been curious to find any early mall directories, advertisements, etc., which one would assume any mall management would have archived somewhere. (If you happen to have any, please let me know!)

Unfortunately, the phones weren’t being answered at the main information number. No voicemail, no nothing. A second number I tracked down (for the non-existent “Laurel Commons”, interestingly enough) yielded a voicemail message from a barely intelligible Indian woman, thanking the caller for phoning Laurel Commons (whatever that is) before degenerating into an incomprehensible listing of other numbers. Again, there was no option to leave a message of my own.

I did the next best thing—I called two stores that I knew were still open—Burlington Coat Factory and Payless Shoe Source—to ask if they knew when demolition would start. The clerk at Burlington did not, and ironically suggested that I call mall management. The clerk at Payless also wasn’t aware of the pending schedule, but was able to answer my main question about whether or not the mall would be open and “walkable” on December 31st. She believed that it would be.

So on New Years Eve, I picked up two of my oldest friends in Laurel—the twins, Rodney and Ronald Pressley—and we did something we hadn’t done in years. We drove to the mall.

Within minutes of parking in the lower level garage area, we heard a familiar roar. Thankfully, it wasn’t the upper level collapsing; it was another old friend arriving. Jimmy Smith, driving a custom pickup truck that holds the engine from his old Chevy Camaro—the car in which he used to cruise this very parking lot in the 1980s.

Jimmy also came dressed for the occasion, literally. His black leather motorcycle jacket was purchased at Wilson’s Leather—here in the mall—back in the 80s. He also brought his old mall rat jean jacket, a relic from his high school days.

You may have noticed something in that photo of Jimmy’s Steelers truck—a mall security vehicle in the distance. As you’re probably guessing, it was a harbinger of things to come.

Jimmy, the twins, and I entered the mall together—easily the first time we’d done so in nearly 25 years. At least one of the escalators still worked, and after riding it the way some of us occasionally used to, the realization of what the mall had become slowly began to settle in.

We’d been in the mall for only a matter of minutes, when a lone security guard—sitting in the empty Food Court—politely summoned our small group. Having noticed my camera, he informed us that he’d gotten a call from mall management (the apparently ubiquitous yet unreachable mall management). They were concerned about reports of “people taking photos in the mall”. I introduced myself and explained our reason for visiting and taking the photos, and the guard was sympathetic. He seemed genuinely impressed that we cared enough about the deserted mall to organize a group tour, if you will, and explained that management was mainly concerned about us taking any “structural photos”. He clarified that it would be okay to take a photo of someone—but no photos specifically of the mall structure itself. We both laughed at the irony of this, given that the mall structure was slated for demolition any day now.

While we chatted, I could hear his walkie-talkie reporting a number of other people taking pictures in the mall. It had begun.

Other old friends began filtering in: Kevin Buter, whom I’ve known since kindergarten, arrived sporting a Galaga t-shirt—a tribute to the countless video games we’d played at Time-Out, just around the corner.

Soon, a number of others gathered between the old Time-Out and Hair Cuttery. Some I recognized, others I had never met. But they’d all heard about the “Last Call: Laurel Mall” event, from a variety of sources, and were compelled to visit. Memories were shared about old jobs in the mall, and pinpointing the location of certain long-lost stores proved easier said than done. But just milling about the area, nearly everyone could recall specific sensory details from decades ago—the smell of peanuts roasting at The Peanut Shack, and cookies baking at The Great Cookie; the sounds of Donkey Kong, Asteroids, and countless quarters being changed by Time-Out manager Jeff Perlin.

All said, approximately 40–50 people showed up for the impromptu event, reminiscing and somewhat nervously noting the fact that this many people probably hadn’t assembled in the mall in years—a concern about whether or not the upper level would even support us all. Thankfully, it did.

In the hour or so we spent walking through the mall, the group I was with (most people broke off into smaller groups to tour at their own pace) was approached by security guards two more times. Each time, the concern was again voiced about people photographing the structural aspects of the mall. It was also suggested, albeit not very strongly, that we leave. Again, I asked about speaking to the mysterious mall management personally—as I’d tried to do from the start. Since they weren’t available (still), I explained that I’d do my best to remind the others not to specifically photograph anything that could be construed as “structural detail”. The understanding was that as long as a person was in the photo, we could take it.

There were a couple of “structural details” that I felt compelled to photograph, one way or another. These were remnants of the original Laurel Centre Mall that I once knew—remnants that existed before the mall’s inexplicable makeover in 1991 (when the mall was only 12 years old) that saw the complete removal of the beautiful, polished brown tile floors, wooden handrails, and wooden storefront frames in favor of white formica flooring and blue-painted metal rails. Hiding beside the old J.C. Penney was one of the original benches, and just outside the closed gate of the former Spencer’s Gifts was a row of the original brown floor tiles.

It was also suggested by security that we “buy something” at the mall during our visit. But the inherent problem with the current mall is that there isn’t anything really worth buying there. So some of us did the next best thing—we bought gumballs (which may very well have been from the 1990s) and rode the kiddie rides.

The kiddie rides, coincidentally, were once featured on Laurel Mall’s now defunct website—as an attraction to lure potential shoppers. Is it any real wonder why the mall is about to be torn down?

We walked the length of the mall a couple of times, pausing to reflect at nearly every empty storefront. You’d be amazed at just how many memories can come flooding back in a place like this, especially when you’re surrounded by old friends. I think the most common sentiment, aside from the general sadness of the mall’s fate, was surprise at just how well-kept the place actually is—despite it’s emptiness. Many were expecting a truly derelict mall, full of broken glass and crumbling walls, and that really wasn’t the case. In fact, someone remarked that it almost felt freshly painted. When I’d visited over the summer, the floor had apparently just been waxed as well. Why, I have no idea.

I always enjoyed this mall as a kid and as a teenager. And strangely enough, I enjoyed revisiting it in its final days, both alone and with just a few of the many visitors for whom it will always be a special place. If this really is the end of Laurel Mall as we knew it, hopefully its next life will be one that successfully revitalizes the area that we once called home.

For more photos, check out the full set from Last Call: Laurel Mall on Flickr.

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