A Little Taste of History in Silver Spring
Preservationists Hope to Save Burger Joint That Stands in Arts Group's Way
By Garance Burke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 27, 2003; Page B04
The tiny kitchen can't take orders over the phone anymore, let alone flip a burger. Its gas line has been cut, its electricity shut off, and yellow crime tape now seals the entrance to Georgia Avenue's most diminutive house of hamburgers, the green-tiled, faux-Tudor Little Tavern.
But when construction teams started taking down the signature striped panels this week, the demolition of the Little Tavern quickly became a source of contention.
Pyramid Atlantic, the arts organization that bought the lot behind the building in 2001, applied for a demolition permit in May after its attempts to sell the building on eBay fizzled.
Once work started at the site, though, Montgomery County officials received a rash of phone calls from local residents and ordered the nonprofit group to stop work on the property, since county regulations specify that a permit can't be granted unless the public has been given a 30-day notice.
Now, the fate of the Little Tavern hangs on a decision by the county Planning Board, which next month will host a hearing on whether the hamburger stand should be declared a historic landmark.
"I'd like to chain myself to that building until the bulldozers came, but I don't know if my wife would be happy about that," said Silver Spring Historical Society President Jerry McCoy, who is leading efforts to get the tavern's 672 square feet listed as a historic landmark. "We were so traumatized when we saw those enameled panels go. We're not very optimistic that we can save it, to be quite frank, but we're giving it the old college try."
Built in 1935, the Little Tavern became a favorite among generations of hungry teenagers and late-night revelers with its 24-hour service and teeny, onion-soaked burgers. While the Georgia Avenue location has not sold a hamburger in years, its peaked roof and green-and-white striped enameled panels still stand out among the new high-rise buildings going up in downtown Silver Spring.
Now the question is whether Montgomery County should make a concerted effort to preserve not one, but two historic hamburger stands.
A few years ago, Clare Cavicchi, a historic preservation planner for the county, recommended that a former Little Tavern in Bethesda be deemed a designated historic site, since it was both historically and architecturally significant.
"It reflected the auto era in Bethesda, and it's culturally significant because it represents a type of restaurant that was symbolic of the American lifestyle in that time period that came to typify the 20th century," said Cavicchi, who is now investigating whether the Georgia Avenue location could qualify for a similar designation.
Little Tavern, a national chain that used to have dozens of locations in the Washington region, moved its headquarters to Georgia Avenue in 1928. Today only four Little Taverns are still flipping burgers (two in Baltimore, one in Laurel and a seasonal burger shack in Ocean City), but several former stands have had surprising reincarnations. One on Capitol Hill made a comeback as the L'il Pub, while Bethesda's historic tavern now serves Chinese food.
Pyramid Atlantic's $4.8 million project for the site includes an ambitious community arts space and gallery where children and adults could take classes in papermaking and bookbinding. One original idea was to preserve the building -- in 2001, Pyramid Atlantic Executive Director Helen Frederick told The Washington Post that the "intention [was] never to tear it down, but to move it."
In March, Pyramid tried to sell the Little Tavern building on the online auction site eBay, hoping a buyer would move the property elsewhere. There were no takers for the asking price of $89,000, and 2,892 hits later, eBay removed the offer from its site. Now, demolition seems like the most likely outcome, unless the Planning Board votes to preserve the structure.
"The property has never been designated as historic," said Cheryl Derricotte, Pyramid Atlantic's financial and project manager. "We hope to have a cafe on that site that is up to code, but right now what we have is a former Little Tavern that is not up to code."
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