The History of Bethesda MD From The 1920s ThroughToday

Life was bustling for residents of Bethesda MD in the 1920s… and so was the traffic — thanks to the invention of the automobile, the amount of disposable income in Bethesda, and the first village traffic signal (installed at the intersection of Wisconsin, Old Georgetown and the East West Highway).  By 1930, 6,000 vehicles passed down the East / West highway and 8,000 vehicles drove down Old Georgetown during a 10-hour period, making this the busiest intersection in Montgomery County. Today, Wisconsin sees a good 62,000 cars in 10 hours, so you have an idea of how much we’ve grown and prospered!

Local residents made a pretty penny off stock and land speculation during the Roaring 20s and came to settle down in nice suburban communities. From 1920 to 1930, our population skyrocketed from 4,800 to 12,000. Even the Great Depression couldn’t slow us down. Most of our workers were paid by the government, which took care of local banks and businesses as well.

Later, stimulus money from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” programs brought upgrades to our streets and city infrastructure. Perhaps what had the biggest impact on how our community was formed, however, was the construction of the National Institutes of Health research complex in 1938. Soon the Naval Medical Hospital opened and brought thousands of new workers to the community. The expansion of our commercial district was then inevitable.

Prestige came to Bethesda MD with the addition of the Silver Spring Theatre, which is now home to the American Film Institute. This lovely art deco building was hailed as “a triumph in modern theatre construction” and attracted Hollywood stars from Clark Gable and Gary Cooper to W.C. Fields and Shirley Temple. Not only was this the largest place to see regional acts in any suburb, but it was also the first business in town to offer central air conditioning.

A popular restaurant of the era included the Little Tavern, a hamburger chain with “Cold Drinks, Good Coffee,” according to their ad. Despite competitors like White Castle, the “Old English” pitched-roof style eatery utilized more sanitary building materials and brought the quaint roadside diner to America.

Local residents enjoyed all these modern amenities, but they feared that the doubling of their population would have dire consequences. For instance, the community began to take on a fragmented “patchwork” appearance due to the hodgepodge of old and new buildings. Stone, stucco, brick and wood buildings were all jumbled together. Civic leaders had little control over how the commercial district expanded.

After World War II, the residential / commercial areas of Bethesda MD began to skyrocket again. This time, many of the older buildings were in a state of disrepair and were torn down to accommodate new structures. Stable residential communities, federally-owned land and country clubs encircled the business district. So, rather than spreading out, Bethesda began to spread upward with eight, nine and ten-story buildings in the 1960s. Wheaton Plaza offered a premium shopping experience with covered walkways, department store anchors and rows of boutiques. By 1963, the regional mall was the fourth largest in the U.S. In 1968, Montgomery Mall became the first fully enclosed, all-weather mall, which lured big retailers away from downtown Bethesda.

Developers lamented the lack of charm and character in downtown Bethesda for years. Finally, an urban design committee was formed in the 1970s. Along with the proposed Bethesda Metro subway station, came a government master plan. The tallest buildings would be structured in a pyramid nearest to the new Metro station core.  Height limits would b reduced moving away from the town center, with buffers of parks, playgrounds and public spaces between commercial and residential areas. The Metro station opened in 1984 to much fanfare and the redevelopment package added another 13,000 to 15,000 employees. Today, Bethesda MD is an eclectic community with many places to live, work and shop

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