The Life and Death of Rockville Mall (now Rockville Town Center)

Photos courtesy of Steve Michaels

We’ve all heard of Montgomery Mall, Wheaton Plaza, Lakeforest, and even White Flint, but there’s one mall that always seems to be forgotten in these discussions. It was a mall with all the potential in the world that fell flat on its face…Rockville Mall.

The high rise buildings and County offices that we currently see in Rockville didn’t exist before the 60s. It wasn’t until the city purchased 46 acres in the town center and demolished many of the existing buildings that Rockville started to take on the more modern look it has today. In 1972, about a decade after the Federal urban renewal program began, the city built a 500,000 square foot mall.

The mall had room for 55 stores, 2 of them being department stores. When the mall first opened, 40 of the 55 store fronts were occupied. The original plan was to open the mall with Sears and JC Penney as anchors, but ended up settling for Lansburgh’s, a D.C. based department store chain that didn’t even last a year before closing their store in the mall permanently. It was replaced by a branch of Philly based Lit Brothers department stores and later on a discount furniture store, but never had the anchor store the mall so desperately desired.

For the first 5 years of the mall’s existence, Wheaton Plaza and Montgomery Mall were the only mall competition. It wasn’t until 1977 that White Flint showed up a few miles down 355 and it wasn’t until 1978 that Lakeforest was built a few miles up 355. By that time the mall was renamed The Commons at the Courthouse and the mall started focusing on catering to nearby businesses and government employees. It didn’t work…as 3 year later, in 1981, it was down to just 20 of 55 occupied store fronts. The owners of the mall, Rockville Development Associates, went bankrupt and the mall closed less than 10 years after it first opened.

The mall was purchased and reopened in 1983 as Rockville Metro Center (the Rockville Metro station had recently opened on the opposite side of 355) by Eisenger and Kilbane, a company based out of Gaithersburg. Unfortunately, even after $50 million was put into redevelopment, the mall never had more than 20 tenants again.

About a decade later then-Rockville mayor, Doug Duncan (who went on to become County Executive), launched a campaign against the mall citing that it was holding back development in downtown Rockville and limiting property tax intake for the city. The mall was torn down in 1995.

in 1998 Essex Capital Partners began developing “Rockville Center,” which included the renovation and expansion of Regal movie theaters. In 2004, Rockville Town Center came to life. The mixed use center included condos/apartments, the Rockville Library, parking garages, restaurants, and many retail shops. In July of 2007, Rockville Town Square officially opened and the area looks the way we know it today (Gordon Biersch, Buffalo Wild Wings, Mellow Mushroom, and more are there today).


Information for this article comes from: You Know You Grew Up in Montgomery County Facebook page, deadmalls.com, Wikipedia, and The Washington Post

7 Comments on "The Life and Death of Rockville Mall (now Rockville Town Center)"

  1. I recall when it opened in February 1972 to some fanfare (I was then a junior at Richard Montgomery). Our family had moved to Rockville in October 1970, and my mother took a part-time job at Lansburgh’s (my father worked nearby), only to have the store close. It was taken over by Lit’s, and that went under too. We joked to Mom, “Don’t you ever get hired by General Motors!” While she never did, little did we know…

    I don’t see the movie theater, which was near the department store and may have opened later in 1972. During the holiday season, English teen actress and future Bond girl Fiona Fullerton (“A View To A Kill”) appeared there to promote her film “Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland” (she played Alice). I recall seeing a revival of “Dr. Zhivago” there — a nice little theater. The Orange Julius, Jr. Hot Shoppes and Friendly’s Ice Cream were popular places to eat.

    But I most remember the mall from 1981, in its twilight days when the place felt like a morgue, with relatively few shops. I went to work for my father and often had lunch at the Empress, which had a $1.99 special. While the Chinese cuisine was excellent, as was the price, very few others took advantage of the deal. I felt sorry for the owners.

    When we moved to Rockville, little if any of its old downtown core remained. Thankfully, you can see much of it in the 1964 film “Lilith.” I wrote about it some years back at https://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/473427.html.

  2. Oopsie — I see the movie house listed as the generic “Twin Theatres.” Not much of a successor to the fabled Milo/Villa which had shuttered and razed some years earlier.

  3. Gordon biersch is gone. As well as many other restaurants and stores. Something is just not right with this place.

    • If you watch the movie Lilth and you delve deep into the 1940s-80s history and see the very very odd occurrences that have happened in downtown Rockville. The malls utter failure would be expected. Zelda Fitzgerald’s insane soul has haunted that downtown area for an eternity… as just one of the many strange happenings. The street lights on West Montgomery Ave used to dim in the 60s as shock therapy was being administered in Chestnut Lodge. Indeed, they never promised us a Rose Garden and no every came.

  4. Wendy Bethesda | April 5, 2020 at 8:11 am | Reply

    Interesting that funding the arts revitalized the area. Same for DC’s 14th Street NW corridor, anchored by Studio Theater, and Silver Spring’s AFI.

  5. Stephanie Wilcox Merwin | April 5, 2020 at 6:42 pm | Reply

    I had my first job at the theater in 1977. It was a dangerous place for a young girl. My dad took me and picked me up. I saw the Exorcist and Jaws there. I sold tickets, candy and drinks! My parents helped me count the money and vacuum ! The mall was a fun place when it first opened but declined quickly.

  6. Chuck Yesteryear | August 9, 2020 at 6:21 pm | Reply

    Funway Freeway, Conran’s, Walden Books, Roy Rogers. Those are stores I remember. I also remember the 1972 opening where they handed out these orange plastic rubber band toy guns. Years later kids would wade in the fountain pool.

    The Rockville Mall was concrete “brutalism” architecture. Plenty of parking but a very cold appearance. The ramp off of 355 didn’t help bring in people. This thing was doomed partly because it didn’t have an anchor store – which probably meant no anchor store was ever interested in such a losing proposition. The population was smaller in Montgomery County then also which probably made things worse.

    In contrast. Montgomery Mall had a much more open plan off of 70S (270) and it also had Sears, Wards etc and not some store like Conran’s that no one knew about. The Rockville mall just wasn’t going to work because it seemed smaller and cheaper. For those that lived in this area then there was a difference of night and day between these malls. Rockville Mall was eventually cursed with broken glass and trash. Montgomery Mall was like heaven in comparison. I think residents much preferred the open strip malls like at Congressional. Why would anyone drive into the concrete parking dungeon of Rockville Mall – what stores inside were worth it?

    Eventually there was too much broken glass and a trashy appearance. Not all of the “brutalism” disappeared. Americana Center was pretty dramatic for the 70s and it’s still there with it’s original cold concrete courtyards.

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