By Teresa B. Lachin, Ph.D.
1959 is not a year usually associated with events that transformed modern American history, but, in retrospect, it helped shape our world as we know it today, both on the national and local levels. Invention of the integrated circuit and IBM’s sale of the first business computers marked the advent of the information age. Alaska and Hawaii were admitted to the Union and JFK launched his presidential candidacy. Castro’s takeover of Cuba heightened cold war tensions, the first American soldiers were killed in Vietnam, and the Civil Rights Commission issued its first report on racial discrimination—to name only a few of the historic events of this unheralded year.
Closer to home, Rockville in 1959 was in the process of transformation from a small town to a modern suburban city. Twin-Brook and Hungerford were thriving communities and the number of churches had more than doubled. Rockmont Chevrolet touted the “Slimline Design” of its 1959 models with aerodynamic tail fins and “Full Coil Suspension.” Goodyear Tires sold at Montgomery Tire Service for $15.95—installation free. Ice cream was 79 cents a gallon at the A&P; fresh crab meat a mere 95 cents per pound. On average, a Rockville family earned $7,400 and 76 percent were homeowners. Sewerage and water fees, however, were scheduled for a rate increase. An estimated crowd of 10,000 turned out to enjoy Rockville’s Memorial Day Parade in “perfect weather.” The debate team at Richard Montgomery argued the pros and cons of extracurricular activities and the Rockville Post Office was reported to be the third largest facility in Montgomery County and the sixth largest in Maryland.
1959 saw the opening of Congressional Plaza and the Smith Teen Center and the City was finalizing its first master plan, the first local government in Maryland to do so. The new City Hall was under construction as residents awaited completion of Civic Center Auditorium —a much needed facility. City officials were also planning for urban renewal, having published a report in August citing the critical need for parking and redevelopment. For their part, downtown merchants competed for shopping center customers by offering “Sidewalk Sales” during midtown’s “Old Fashioned Days.” Signs of modernization, however, were everywhere evident, with a record-number of new buildings underway or completed. The IBM, Brown, and Jefferson buildings opened in 1959, and the Rockville Motor Hotel was under construction. On Commerce Lane, an office building for County Federal was in the planning stages; Wolfson Properties completed the Abby Building on North Perry Street. In September, the Sentinel reported $1 million of new construction during the year.
In Rockville, as throughout the nation, 1959 was a watershed year. Fueled by the dynamics of postwar prosperity and cold war politics, 1959 brought bold leadership, vision, and creative energies into the public arena and private enterprise. Honored as an “All America City” in 1954, Rockville met the challenges of an era that we continue to explore and document today.