MoCo History: Dawn of the Automobile in Montgomery County

by MCS Staff

Information and photos from: PLACES from the PAST: The Tradition of Gardez Bien in Montgomery County, Maryland by Clare Lise Kelly M-NCPPC , courtesy of Montgomery Planning. Featured photo, courtesy of the Montgomery County Historical Society, shows an automobile in Montgomery County in 1926.

At the turn of the 20th century, the automobile was an expensive novelty for the rich. Two decades later, the availability of mass-produced automobiles led to their widespread use. From 1920 to 1930, the number of registered cars in the nation more than tripled. By the end of that decade, one of every five residents in Montgomery County owned a car. The automobile age brought a new set of building types and development patterns. Builders designed roadside architecture to be recognized from behind the windshield of a moving automobile. Developers subdivided tracts of land away from previously settled railroad and streetcar lines.


During the 1930s, Montgomery County’s population rapidly increased as the Federal work force grew under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. During this decade, the population more than doubled, growing from 34,921 to 83,912.60 High demand for housing among Washington workers coupled with increased use of the automobile led to development of new areas of the county. Much of the new development in the years before World War II was located near the District line. Single- family dwellings were the predominant housing type, yet multi-family housing complexes began to emerge.61

Garden apartments became a common multi-family housing type in the 1930s. In contrast to towering urban apartments with single entry and long hallways, garden apartments were a smaller-scale complex of 3- to 4- story structures. Several entrances in a cluster of buildings helped foster a sense of community, creating a mini-neighborhood. The first garden apartments in the county were the Falkland Apartments, built in 1936 at the intersection of 16th Street and East-West Highway in Silver Spring. Falkland Apartments marked the advent of large-scale community design and building as well as the beginning of unified site planning carefully fit- ted to the terrain. The Colonial-Revival Cupola Building is representa- tive of this apartment complex and typical in its traditional styling of the majority of garden apartments. Less common were modernistic Art Deco style apartments of which Montgomery Arms is a prime example. Designed by Washington architect George T. Santmyers, who specialized in apartment houses, Montgomery Arms showcases modern materials and techniques including glass block, corner windows, and geometric machine-influenced design. The apartments represent the development of Silver Spring as a major suburban center.

As the residential development of Silver Spring grew, the commer- cial district expanded. Throughout the 1920s, a number of substantial new commercial buildings were constructed, primarily along Georgia Avenue. By the 1930s, over sixty stores had opened in Silver Spring and formed an almost continuous ribbon of development. The southeast corner of Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road became the site of one of the most comprehensive and innovative retail developments in the region – the Silver Theatre and Shopping Center.

The Silver Theatre and Shopping Center, which opened in 1938, provides a rare example of an early planned neighborhood shopping center with parking integrated into the complex. This design exemplifies the cultural, economic and social history of Montgomery County and the Washington region in the 20th century as car-oriented shopping complexes replaced smaller-scale commercial development.



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