Nostalgia Buffs Can't Stomach Cafe's Planned Sale
Silver Spring's Little Tavern Offered Up on eBay

By Susan Levine
The Washington Post 
March 19, 2003
Page B03

Fifteen feet, eight inches of Silver Spring's past is on the market on eBay.

Corner to corner, that's the breadth of item No. 2312358066, a "charming cafe, originally built for the sale of little hamburgers," that suddenly appeared last week on the online auction site. The description didn't specify, but an accompanying photo confirmed what local history and nostalgia buffs immediately feared:

Up for grabs is their own Little Tavern, the pitched-roof miniature that has fronted Georgia Avenue since at least the mid-1930s, serving to generations the diminutive patties for which the Little Tavern restaurant chain was once known.

"Buyer must move to their own land. . . . All reasonable offers considered."

After protracted fits and starts, revitalization is transforming downtown Silver Spring. Discovery Communication's towering new headquarters is about to open at Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road. Construction of restaurants and stores continues apace. Several blocks south, the Pyramid Atlantic arts organization has planned a new home. It will convert an old multistory warehouse for its papermaking, printmaking and bookbinding facilities while building a lecture hall, sculpture garden and art gallery at the corner anchored by the Little Tavern.

Which leaves no room for a former hamburger stand. Not even one that, in all of 672 square feet, so endearingly -- or audaciously -- mixes Tudor styling with wraparound pinstriping and other art deco touches.

The Little Taverns were "a wonderful part of mid-20th-century culture," said Gwen Wright, historic preservation coordinator for the Montgomery County Department of Park and Planning. "I can't say they were great architectural edifices, and they may not even have historical significance, but they have a great deal of cultural importance for people interested in life in mid-20th-century American suburbs."

Therein lies the problem. Without historic-status protection, these distinctive relics have been slowly but surely disappearing from the landscape. The chain, which was founded in Louisville and transplanted to Washington in 1928, once boasted dozens of locations in this area. Few remain today -- the one on Veirs Mill Road in Wheaton was removed last year -- and even fewer still serve burgers. Alexandria's, for instance, is now a submarine sandwich shop. (A notable exception is the Little Tavern on Route 1 in Laurel, which still uses the company's original pitch line: "Buy 'em by the bag.")

The former Little Tavern on Georgia Avenue hasn't flipped a patty since the late 1990s. And at least twice the county has rejected it for designation as historically noteworthy. Yet, as Jerry A. McCoy of the Silver Spring Historical Society maintains, the building has been "part of the fabric of the community, part of people's lives for 70 years." The recent television documentary "Silver Spring: Story of an American Suburb" featured it repeatedly, and producer and director Walter J. Gottlieb has fond memories of stopping by as a teenager in the early 1970s.

"Though it seems small and insignificant, even these pop culture places are valuable," Gottlieb said.

McCoy and numerous members of the society have appealed to Pyramid Atlantic asking it to reverse course. "Silver Spring has lost too much of its heritage to allow another landmark to disappear," one man wrote. They wonder why an arts group wouldn't treasure the inherent funkiness of the structure and want to keep it.

Two reasons, according to Pyramid Atlantic: Too tiny and too outdated.

"We did look at it early on as part of our design process," said Cheryl Derricotte, the organization's financial and facility project manager. "But the building is very small and not in any way code compliant."

So who might want it? Executive Artistic Director Helen Frederick sees a collector of Americana as the perfect buyer, "someone who would want to move it and keep it the way it is." Maybe, she added, that someone will purchase it and keep it in the immediate vicinity. "That is our hope."

The reality so far, however: Despite two years of conversation off-line, the group has had few nibbles. "We cannot even list the number of people we have tried to get interested," Frederick said. It turned to eBay as a "very contemporary solution to putting the word out" and took "the high road," listing the property for sale, not auction. The list price: $89,000.

These days, the erstwhile Little Tavern sits between a CD exchange store and a vacated pawn shop. There's no outside sign of its past -- those have been covered up -- but peer inside, imagine a whiff of burgers on the grill. The 21st century fades far away.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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