Early Cesar Pelli Building Threatened with Demolition

Early Cesar Pelli Building Threatened with Demolition

Readers seek help for preservation emergencies / June 21, 2005

COMSAT Laboratories
COMSAT Laboratories occupies 150 acres in Clarksburg, Md.
Dear Preservation 911,

The COMSAT Laboratories Building at 22300 Comsat Drive, visible from the I-270 "high-technology" corridor in Clarksburg, Md., and 34 miles northwest of downtown Washington, D.C., is threatened with demolition. The roughly 150-acre site has been sold to a developer who plans to file for a mixed-use rezoning permit to construct townhouses, offices, retail, and light industry on the pastoral site.

Cesar Pelli, while director of design for Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall, designed the 1969 building for COMSAT's research and development laboratories, which were working under a mandate from President Kennedy to create a global communications satellite industry for commercial purposes. More than 300 patents were filed based on the research and technology pioneered at the building in the area of commercial satellite communication.

Not only does the building have extraordinary significance in the scientific and technological arena, but it was one of the first in the Washington area to fully capitalize on the "high-tech" esthetic. Pelli drew inspiration from the sleek exteriors of airplanes as evidenced in the building's prefabricated aluminum paneled walls and softly rounded flush glass windows. These materials are coordinated into a seamless, futuristic building that has become an icon in the Washington metropolitan landscape. It is the most familiar building on the Interstate-270 corridor, the gateway to the county's high-technology "main street." The quintessential "machine in the garden," COMSAT Laboratories is an early Pelli masterpiece sitting currently on a pastoral setting. It is a building and site that the architect himself has gone on record as saying deserves protection.

Although the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission approved the preservation of the building and a 33-acre environmental setting in April 2005, the building is still extremely threatened. On May 26, the case was heard before the Montgomery County Planning Board. Testimony was taken from the Historic Preservation Staff in support of designation. The building owners, LCOR, Inc., a Berwyn, Pennsylvania-based development company, claim that Pelli's credit for the building remains in question, that designation will threaten all potential business interests in the county, and that the scientific accomplishments of the laboratories are just "window dressing" for Park and Planning's desire to designate a Pelli building.

Regarding the attribution of the building, Pelli himself has written three communications to the Planning Board and/or Historic Preservation staff supporting designation. The nomination for historic designation was prepared in November 2004 by Professors Isabelle Gournay and Mary Corbin Sies, both faculty at the University of Maryland (Schools of Architecture and Historic Preservation Faculty). It is a thoroughly researched work (both professors are considered the experts in modern architecture in Maryland) that places equal emphasis on the historical/scientific and architectural significance of the building.

The Planning Board did not vote in May because the Chairman was absent. The Planning Board work session and a vote will be taken up on July 7, 2005. The case moves on to the Montgomery County Council in the fall.

For more information, contact: Gwen Wright, Historic Preservation Supervisor
Montgomery County Department of Park and Planning Historic Preservation Section
(301) 563-3413


Ms. Joey Lampl
Architectural Historian/Preservation Planner

Preservation 911 is a message board open to all readers. While National Trust staff will respond to the extent feasible, this will not be possible in all cases. We encourage other readers involved in state or local preservation to respond with advice or assistance. To contact either a regional office of the National Trust, a statewide or local nonprofit organization, or your state's historic preservation office,

The National Trust's regional and field offices bring the programs and tools of the Trust to communities across the country. They offer technical assistance through consultations and field visits and financial help through small grants. They hold educational programs for professional preservationists and work to foster policies that help historic places. They also provide leadership on issues that concern entire regions, such as saving historic schools, fighting sprawl, and revitalizing cities.