Dozens of people showed up Thursday to take part in the continued debate over whether the Wheaton Recreation Center should be designated as historic — a designation that could halt plans to replace the building with a new, much larger one, to house both the rec center and the Wheaton Library.
The hearing before the Montgomery County Planning Board drew a range of commmunity members, who spoke either extolling the architecture or begging the board to tear down the building.
The building, at the intersection of Hermitage and Georgia avenues, has a small weight room, kitchen, art studio, gym, computer lab, and a meeting room, which on the afternoon following the hearing hosted a circle of 5-year-old girls in pale pink tutus for ballet class. But following rainstorms, the kitchen and computer lab ceiling leak, the smell of mold rises from some of the carpeting, and an approximately 30 by 11 foot lump in the corner of the basketball court swells a little higher.
Recreation Assistant Mayra Fernandez said that the lump has been fixed several times, to reappear soon after. She pointed out cracks in the wall and said that only two of the four burners on the kitchen stove worked still. The elecricity often shorts out when they use the kitchen too.
“I feel like the facility is very limited in what we can do,” she said, adding, “I think [a new building] would be more cost effective in the long run, because they’re always fixing things here.”
A number of residents emphasized the importance of having a place for kids to gather and join in activities, especially with the growing population of the area. One Wheaton resident said mockingly that the county should not preserve the building because, “there was someone who sang in that building a some point,” referencing calls to save it because several well-known bands played at the rec center in its early years, most notably, but also disputed, Led Zeppelin.
One parent, who has lived in Wheaton for 11 years, said the current location is ideal for the community, but because of the facility’s limitations, he takes his kids, ages 6 and 11, to other rec centers farther away to play sports.
Several who testified against the historic designation felt that if the building were designated as historic, it would be in service of a minority, rather than the larger community that could benefit from an improved rec center.
Monica Braden, a Wheaton resident of 13 years, said that, “far from contributing to the historic fabric of Wheaton, it’s a step back, the building is obsolete.”
Meanwhile, a woman who has been doing aerobics at the rec center several times a week for 29 years said, “I know its deficiencies very well,” and all it needs is a renovation. “I also think it’s quite beautiful,” she said.
Others hoped that both improved facilities and preservation could be achieved.
William Kirwin, chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission, said that “given creativity and commitment,” the commission believes the rec center can be incorporated into a new plan. He also said “there is no building that is greener than one that already exists.” Architects working on the plan have expressed otherwise.
Jeff Krulik, who produced “Led Zeppelin Played Here,” a documentary that makes the case for Led Zeppelin’s appearance at the rec center in 1969, expressed concerns over a lack of architectural diversity in the area. He worried that strip malls with “the same white-washed facade as the next,” will undercut the development of a distinct community.
Orginially the board had planned to make a decision on whether to recommend the building for historic designation on Thursday following the hearing, but have decided to add a second hearing date because a local organization had advertised an incorrect time for the hearing, causing confusion for some who wished to participate. Additional input will be heard at a hearing on the evening of Nov. 14.