Comsat Laboratories: It may not be old, but it’s historic

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

by David S. Rotenstein, Ph.D., Silver Spring

The writer is commissioner of the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission.

The Comsat Laboratories building occupies some valuable real estate in Montgomery County’s Interstate 270 corridor near Clarksburg. Its owners, Pennsylvania-based LCOR Inc., are in the real estate development business and they paid approximately $45 million for the property. To its owners, the Comsat property represents an investment from which it hopes to profit by building a dense, mixed commercial and residential development.

Comsat is also a familiar icon to I-270 commuters and a shiny metallic curiosity to drivers seeing it for the first time. Completed in 1969, the building was designed early in the career of master architect Cesar Pelli. His portfolio covers more than four decades and spans the globe. He has designed the world’s tallest office building (Malaysia’s Petronas Towers) and some of the world’s cutting edge cultural arts buildings, among them The National Museum of Contemporary Art in Osaka, Japan, and California’s Pacific Design Center. Locally, his masterpieces include the terminal at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and a private residence in Bethesda for which the drawings are archived in the Library of Congress’s Prints & Photographs Division.

Originally conceived at the height of the Cold War, the Comsat Corp. was chartered by Congress in 1962 to be America’s commercial satellite presence in the world market and in orbit. In 2004, when local historic preservation interests began the process to have Comsat designated a Montgomery County historic site, a war of a different sort began.

Preservationists argued that the building is a national treasure and it should remain essentially unaltered in its pastoral landscape along the interstate. LCOR, however, envisions a dense, planned community of offices and residences that it sees as an essential element of Montgomery County’s growth and a return on its investment.

In 2005, the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission voted unanimously to add the property to the county’s Master Plan for Historic Preservation and the recommendation was forwarded to the Planning Board, which voted against designation.

Earlier this year the Planning Board forwarded its recommendations to the County Council. No date has been set for the council to vote on Comsat’s designation.

The issues here are complex. LCOR has an inherent right to develop property it lawfully purchased as it sees fit. County, state and federal historic preservation laws also assert that the public has an interest in properties like Comsat that contribute to our understanding of the past and reinforce our local, regional and national identities as enduring landmarks. This ideal is cornerstone of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act: ‘‘The historical and cultural foundations of the nation should be preserved as a living part of our community life and development in order to give a sense of orientation to the American people.”

It’s easy to convince people that buildings like the Capitol or Mount Vernon are historic because they are old, their antiquity is measured in centuries not decades. Old, however, is not synonymous with historic.

A few years ago, I was doing a historical survey in St. Mary’s County, and the owner of a late 19th century tobacco farm with all of its original buildings still standing and still in agriculture remarked to me, ‘‘It’s old but it will never go historical.” Well, she was right about the former and wrong about the latter. Comsat’s not old — at 42, I’m older than Comsat — but it is historic if by using that term we mean that something important happened there and that someone famous designed it and if it is unique. Comsat is all of those and more but it is a challenge to historians and preservationists to defend calling something so young ‘‘historic.”

The National Register of Historic Places, our nation’s compendium of buildings, sites and objects significant to American heritage, has among the nearly 79,000 listings approximately 2,300 properties that are 50 years old or less. They include Nike missile defense sites, Elvis Presley’s Graceland, and quirky metal Lustron houses from the 1950s. Even the World Trade Center site, completed in the early 1970s and destroyed by the 9⁄11 terrorists in 2001, has been determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Age is not an impediment to historical significance.

I recently heard Cesar Pelli speak about the influence that designing Comsat has had on his career. He spoke passionately about this early masterpiece he conceived and he placed it in a historical context that few of us in the history field get to experience because so often the builders of great places and the people who used them are long dead and gone.

Pelli recounted working with Montgomery County preservationists in a charrette designed to germinate new ideas for use of the Comsat property that preserves the property owner’s interests and the public interests in a mutually beneficial way. I think that the alternatives suggested by the county Planning Board staff and the many volunteers who participated in the charrette go a long way toward demonstrating the site’s future viability with a little of its past still in place.

Let’s hope that Cesar Pelli’s 1960s futuristic architectural vision remains part of Montgomery County’s future for others to enjoy and learn from.