Architectural forensics in Takoma Park: what was the original use of that cool little corner building?

A vlog that I enjoy has the name “Retail Archaeology”.  I like the name just as much as the subject: predominantly an exploration of dead malls and nostalgia for the salad days of mall culture (mostly the 1970s and 80s).  I’ve indulged in the subject more than a few times; it has resulted in some of my most popular and enduring articles, with readers who keep coming back to provide me updates on particularly ill-fated shopping palaces, long after my final visit.  The vlog Retail Archaeology seems pretty Arizona-centric, which gives its creators plenty of fertile ground: the southwest has numerous dead and dying malls, stretching well into Nevada and southern California.

But that name is what gets me: Retail Archaeology.  Why didn’t I think of it?  Can I at least appropriate a part of it?  Another common practice I’ve explored in this blog is scouring an old building’s details for evidence of its former uses.  I could call it “architectural archaeology”, but, as fond as I am of consonance and alliteration, that name just seems clunky.  So I’ll offer an alternative name for my practice, as I engage in the topic here with this article.  I’ll call it architectural forensics, applying the use of the word “forensic” within the legal and criminological context, rather than speech and rhetoric.

And here we see the façade of an idiosyncratic building in the idiosyncratic suburb of Takoma Park, Maryland.  At first blush, it looks like a pretty run-of-the-mill bedroom community that came of age between the two world wars: still very walkable, lots of balloon-frame homes with walk-up front porches, a skinny driveway leading to a (often detached) garage in the back.  Today, it has a downtown befitting a municipality of around 17,500 people, with one unusual quirk: it’s split right down the middle across “state” lines. (I apply quotes to the “state” because the other “state” in question is District of Columbia, whose portion is really more of a neighborhood called Takoma.)  For the purposes of this article, all photos are within the municipality Takoma Park in Maryland, but to show how stark these boundaries are, if I were to pivot 90 degrees from the photo above, I’d be looking into Washington DC.  It’s there in the distance, right at the point of the first visible crosswalk stretching across Carroll Street.  Here’s another view of downtown Takoma Park, which I’ve included mostly because the sky is so dramatic.

But it also shows a main street that stretches toward the horizon, and the next block (just out of the photo’s frame to the right) is once again in Washington DC.  To further clarify, here’s a map, with the purple star representing where I stood in front of the focus building for this article.

But that’s not the point of this featurette: let’s get back to the forensic analysis of the original building.  It’s a structure I’ve walked past at least a few dozen times, certainly every time I’ve been to Takoma Park.  But this time around I noticed something new: an alarm box on the side.

It’s not the first time in recent months that I’ve spotted such a feature.  But the previous example—in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania—was an antiquated but well-maintained item, potentially still fully functional, given that the the alarm box clung to the side of a building that housed a bank.  This time?

Not a bank.  The signage indicates that the building houses a Gelateria and an Italian restaurant.  Probably not much need for an alarm box.  (At first I thought the restaurant’s name was a clever pun: Trattoria da Lina, with the “lina” strongly resembling the Italian word for “line” (linea), given the proximity to a state line. But it turns out it’s merely a reformed variant on the owner’s mother’s last name, Linna.  Perhaps an unintentional pun?)

Regardless of the naming scheme, the tenants today have nothing to do with a bank.  But that wasn’t necessarily always the case.  Continuing in the spirit of an architectural forensic analysis, a few other features to the building support my speculation that this was once a bank.

Forensic analysis: more evidence of a former bank

On the side of the building, to the left of the alarm box, a one-story protrusion accommodates Gusto Gelateria.  The shape and style of the windows allow for them to slide open easily, while the passageway leading to this window is just wide enough to accommodate cars (it hosts outdoor seating in more favorable weather).  Could it be…?  Yes, it’s almost certainly the infrastructure for drive-thru banking.  But notice that the bricks are a slightly lighter shade of brown than the building’s primary massing, suggesting that this addition came after the original construction (perhaps because the building itself predates the emergence of drive-thru banking as a trend), but also before pneumatic tubes and setbacks that adhere to modern drive-thru banking safety and security standards.

Do these features make sense when continuing the forensic analysis around the building’s remaining sides?  Sort of.  That façade is a tough nut to crack.

It’s not typical for a bank, particularly one in a building more than a half-century old, to offer so many generous windows.  Several months ago, I noted a century-old mansion in Malvern, Pennsylvania, which a small local bank purchased to turn into one of its three locations.  Lots of windows, but the windows needed iron bars, despite Malvern being an affluent and generally very safe suburb of Philadelphia.  This structure in Takoma Park lacks bars and offers generous fenestration—not typical of an older building.  But let’s scroll across the entire façade.

It’s redolent with zigzags and chevrons, features that somewhat unexpectedly evoke Native American imagery, which isolated instances of the Art Deco movement embraced.  (Among the most high-profile examples are the Guardian and Penobscot buildings in downtown Detroit.)  If this structure in Takoma Park originally dates from the 1920s (as it most likely does), those lintels at the cornice line (above the second-floor windows) make perfect sense.  Less logical are the transoms separating the first and second floor windows.

Forensic analysis: from a bank to an Italitan restaurant

Though the powder blue color is compatible, the vertical alignment of what appears to be wood paneling is most likely a modification from a half century later.  These first floor windows looked very different when (or if) this used to host a bank.  They may have been absent altogether.

From an architectural forensic perspective, however, the most important characteristic are the subtle differences between different sections of the façade.

Forensic analysis: a bank probably occupied the lefthand portion of this building

Returning to the photo that shows the entire south frontage along Carroll Avenue, notice that massing of the lefthand one-third of the building is bulkier than the rest: it’s a bit taller, the exterior and dividing walls are thicker, and the whole portion protrudes into the sidewalk a tiny bit more.  These beefed-up dimensions further support the notion of a bank as the original tenant; prior to the advent of motion detectors and cameras, a bank’s best means of protecting the large volumes of currency inside were an outer fortification to supplement the inner vault and safe.  So many great old banks of yesteryear continue to stand strong long after the banks have left, largely because the structures are so sturdy and impenetrable.

With the forensic analysis nearly complete, here’s my final take.  This Takoma Park structure has always been commercial, perhaps with apartments on the second floor, though just as easily offices.  A bank was the original tenant for the westernmost portion, with other office and/or retail related tenants taking the remainder of the building’s first floor.  Chances are good that a neighboring building occupied the parking lot next door, on the side wall that accommodates the alarm box and Gusto Gelateria.  Over time, that building came down, giving the owners of this Art Deco structure (potentially the bank itself) ample space to expand a narrow walkway into an alley wide enough for drive-thru banking, which also compelled the protruding addition with the sliding windows.  Meanwhile, the building’s façade curves toward the north (paralleling Carroll Avenue).  Here’s what it looks like on the east-facing portion, home to other small shops.

And here’s the alley that provides vehicular ingress toward the drive-thru bank, wrapped around the back of the building, now used as outdoor seating for restaurants.

Forensic analysis: an old bank drive thru?

From what I can tell using my best application of architectural forensics (it’s like dendrochronology, but replace the trees with buildings), it’s been many years since a bank last occupied a portion of this building in Takoma Park.  But it was most likely a fixture for many decades, dating from the original construction of the building (thus explaining the thick walls in one portion) all the way up to the point that drive-thru banking became a selling point, even in a walkable community like this one.  Then, in the decades that followed, the old bank hosted other service-oriented office uses, sat vacant or underutilized for some time, before the proprietors of Trattoria da Lina and Gusto took over several years ago.

I’ve often asserted (as one of my instructors did before me) that “function follows form” when it comes to architecture: that is, a building is likely to sit idle while awaiting a complementary use—one that can best harness its unique features.  But “form follows function” when it comes to historic banks: the banks constructed their own buildings most of the time, and a bank’s proprietors knew it needed a higher investment in impenetrability than the average commercial structure.  If I haven’t yet made my case, take a look at a much more conventional bank just a block away (and thus even closer to the Washington DC boundary).

Forensic analysis of old bank building in Takoma Park, MD

A massive, bulky limestone structure with big prominent windows (may not have always been there, or at least designed with extreme caution to preclude easy breaking-and-entering).  It has thick walls, a vaulted ceiling, and a patched-over spot below the corner window where an ATM used to be.  That’s right: it’s vacant.  Until very recently it was a Bank of America.  But basic forensic understanding should tell anyone that BoA clearly that wasn’t the original tenant.

The owner (and presumed developer) of this fiduciary fortress was Takoma Park Bank.  But Bank of America concealed part of that engraved lettering for as long as it was a tenant; as archived Google Street View indicates (the most superficial forensic analysis), it just said “Takoma”.

I wonder what this hulking limestone building’s next tenant will be?  A Middle Eastern restaurant?  A distillery?  Probably not a bank—it doesn’t have a drive-thru option.  And probably not a gelateria.  Maybe an Amazon bookstore, like they have just a few miles away? Probably time for another architectural forensic analysis; get out the crime scene tape and be ready to make some chalk lines

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13 thoughts on “Architectural forensics in Takoma Park: what was the original use of that cool little corner building?

  1. treasurehuntingvaughn

    It was a Citizens bank. Where the “gelato” window is today was the bank window. Built in the 1930s ai believe. The upstairs tennant’s are businesses. A church occupied the parking lot behind. There is a cool photo from the 1920s looking down that intersection of Willow & Carroll, which @historictakoma has a few posts back on their profile. It predates the building that was Takoma Bank then Bank of America. The rumored new tenant may be a brewery.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for the update. Glad to know I was largely on-target in my speculations. It’s interesting and a bit surprising to me that it was a bank that’s still fully operative, since I imagine it hasn’t been a Citizens bank for a very long time. But apparently Citizens Financial Group Inc (a nearly 200-year old company) no longer has any locations in Maryland, aside from a few nestled within Giant Eagle supermarkets. Glad to know the Takoma Bank building is likely to turn into a brewery; it’s a predictable but still smart repurposing.

      Reply
  2. Chris B

    I love your forensic architecture analysis, Eric. I often look at buildings in the same way. (As you have often pointed out, the easiest ones are the chain stores and restaurants where the building itself is a significant component of branding, a la Pizza Hut, original-style Mickey D’s, and of course modern Walgreens and CVS.)

    Reply
    1. Chris B

      Oops, hit send too soon.

      With this building, the spandrel panels between 1st and 2nd floor are definitely incongruity. They are most certainly not original, and for the style of the building I would have expected limestone there.

      The windows look like modern replacements of (probably) old operable iron casement.

      And those chevrons. They complement the windows and facade design but they seem modern to me also. Again, I would have expected limestone spandrel panels, perhaps with some vertical flutes or bas-relief carving.

      The whole look (including the light sconces) seems to say “modern interpretation of Art Deco/Art Nouveau”, playing off the strong vertical features.

      Reply
      1. AmericanDirt Post author

        I suspect you’re right about those blue-and-white chevron features. The clearly incongruous panels match too well with the lintels, suggesting they were all added on at around the same time. And this could just as easily include those sconces, perhaps all part of an effort to soften it, make it less bank-like, and thus easier to lease to a broader variety of tenants, including conventional retail (which occupies the majority of the rest of the building). If you’ll check one of my other commenters, he noted that my speculation about it being a bank building was in fact correct. As for the photo he’s referencing, I think it’s this one: https://www.instagram.com/p/B04DHd9hfRb/

        At any rate, the Art Deco additions are at least 15 years old, as evidenced by archived Google Photos. The best evidence that the upgrades to this building are Art Deco on Steroids is, in fact, those limestone “crowns” at the cornice line, which probably have a name but exhaust my own knowledge of architectural terminology.

        As for another time-honored chain with a signature architecture feature that comprises a big part of its brand, look no further than the increasingly difficult to find Bob Evans. The defunct location on the south side of Indianapolis will soon be home to an Indian restaurant, but I suspect they’ll retain the gable with the teardrop cut out of it…meaning that, unless the new owners paint over it with the archetypal color signifying Indian food (orange), it’ll always be a dead giveaway that it once was a Bob Evans Restaurant.

        Reply
        1. Chris B

          That building has been vacant for years, nearly as long as I’ve lived south (7+ years now) and I just noticed the reuse activity last week. I’ll try to remember to stop and take a picture or two for you.

          Reply
  3. Jeffrey Jakucyk

    Late to the game I know, but I actually wouldn’t be surprised if that facade is entirely original, with the possible exception of the paint color on the chevrons. The windows look very much like 1930s aluminum commercial and industrial sashes. 1920s steel could be a possibility too but the exposed rivets and the fact that they’ve been kept silver all these years (even if we’re just seeing silver paint now) suggests aluminum to me. The vertical paneling between the first and second floors doesn’t seem particularly incongruous. I suspect the architect may not have been fully versed on proper technique of the style. It’s pretty clumsy and would’ve perhaps been better as more of a streamline moderne interpretation. I do wonder what the materials for the chevrons and panels are. Possibly enameled or pressed metal? In either case they must have been more recently painted since even enameled metals starts to corrode or crack eventually.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      You make a good case, Jeffrey. You could be right. Either way, I’d imagine the façade underwent a pretty significant reinvention between 15 and 25 years ago, since the paint definitely involves a color gradient that I can’t imagine being original, even if the owners apply a fresh new coat every few years. What are your thoughts on the width of the chevrons? I think it’s weird that (at least in the old bank building) they’re essentially the same interval to the “sine curve”, stretched widely in the large middle panel, rather than being of equal sizes so that the middle panel simply has more iterations. I prefer it, since it makes it less repetitive looking. I’m also curious about the radically different color of brick for the façade versus the side of the building that faces the alley (visible in the last few photos). There may be a good construction-based explanation to this that has nothing to do with redevelopment, but I’m not aware of what that is.

      Reply
      1. Jeffrey Jakucyk

        The change in brick color just looks like the usual case of more expensive face brick on the exposed facade and less expensive local common brick on the sides that are/were supposed to be covered by the buildings next door. Chicago has its distinctive buff colored brick that in many cases is tinged with pink and red, along with black soot stains from decades past. Cincinnati has very soft but strikingly orange common brick that in many cases needs to be painted over because of just how porous it is. St. Louis is famous for its red bricks, to the point where abandoned buildings are targeted by brick thieves. At least in this Takoma Park example the designer was aware enough that the alley would remain somewhat exposed so they ran the face brick back a good ten feet or so to make it not as obvious. What’s more curious is the side with the drive-thru teller window. That brick gradually fades from one to the other, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen that done deliberately in the time period.

        Reply
  4. Rich Fay

    That part of the building was a bank where I had my first savings account, and kept the money I earned from delivering newspapers. The drive-in window was added later. The front door looks very much like the one I went through. There were inner doors as well, so that the weather did not blow through easily.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for the confirmation, Rich. Yes, the drive-in window definitely looks like an add-on. The original bank dated from a time when drive-in banking was not yet in fashion…probably not much drive-in anything in the 1930s, given that cars, though pretty ubiquitous (let’s remember that even the Joad family of “Grapes of Wrath” still had money for a car), were not yet locked into place as a facet of American life. IOW, there was a lag of 25 years or so between when the average citizen owned a car and when the built environment (including banks) reorganized itself to accommodate the car.

      Reply

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