At one minute past midnight on Sept. 16, a state landmark known by millions of motorists will go dark.
Employees will say their goodbyes before the doors and off-ramps are barricaded at Maryland House, the Interstate 95 travel plaza in Harford County that opened in 1963. Within weeks, wrecking crews will level the neo-Georgian brick structure to make way for a new building, the flagship of an ambitious public-private partnership valued at a half-billion dollars.
The same night, the smaller Chesapeake House in Cecil County will change as new vendors replace old ones. In a year, it too will come down to make way for a modern structure.
For the 2.8 million travelers who annually use Maryland House — believed to be the nation's busiest travel plaza —and the 2.1 million Chesapeake House visitors, the change in scenery may come as a shock, state officials acknowledge.
"But we're getting two new facilities without spending state money. There are very few opportunities for state government like this," said Harold Bartlett, executive director of the Maryland Transportation Authority, which owns the sites.
Replacement of the two plazas began in 2006 when state officials concluded the stops were "well beyond their useful life." After the initial bidding failed to generate much enthusiasm, the state decided to restructure the deal as a partnership.
Areas USA, a newcomer to the U.S. highway service industry, beat out Bethesda-based HMS Host, the operator for 25 years. The Miami-based company presented a more enticing package to state officials, promising to spend $56 million to replace both plazas and return as much as $488 million to the state over 35 years.
HMS Host has sued the state and Areas, claiming improper bidding procedures. The case is pending in Baltimore City Circuit Court.
Meanwhile, there is no mistaking the final-days gloom at Maryland House. On Friday, the convenience store shelves held only a few dozen Snickers bars, several bags of M&Ms and a handful of two-packs of hard-boiled eggs stamped with a Tuesday expiration date. Cinnabon only sold its $4.89 classic bun. A sign at Starbucks warned that it will pull up stakes early — this Thursday — and the closest superhighway latte is over the state line in Delaware.
Restaurant and housekeeping staff, many of whom have never worked anywhere else, choked up when they started talking about the end. About 250 people work there.
"I cried when we got the word," said Michelle Gentry of Bel Air, the manager at the Phillips Seafood restaurant. "I've been here 24 years. My kids worked here. My nieces and nephews worked here. They earned tuition. Both my kids are managers — one at Wegmans and one at CarMax — and they both learned about working and business here."
Gentry has lined up a new job at the Delaware Travel Plaza on I-95. Areas hired most of the others, but some are looking for work or taking the closing as a sign to retire.
"I've been here since Day 1. I'm sad to see the old building go," said Gloria Ames, 72, as she served the lunch crowd at Sbarro. "So many of my friends are gone already. I guess I'm the only one left, and now it's time for me to go, too."
Ames started as a waitress in 1963, when the Maryland House dining room sported white linen tablecloths and food was served on china.
"Those were good times. We were family. We went out for a drink after work. We all had Christmas dinner together," Ames said. "Times change."
Erik Bellsolell, vice president of highway operations for Areas, said the company held a job fair for Maryland House employees and hired about 175, who will work at Chesapeake House during construction.
"We do not have the ability to hire everyone," he said.
Areas will keep one travel plaza open throughout the redevelopment project. The new Maryland House will built on the same footprint and reopen in December of next year. Then Chesapeake House will close for demolition; it will be rebuilt on an adjacent site and reopen in September 2014, Bellsolell said.
At Chesapeake House, the winding down of one operation and the start of a new one will have all the uncertainty of a relay race baton exchange.
Motorists will not be able to gas up while pumps and equipment are exchanged in the early hours of Sept. 16. Food offerings will be limited while vendors such as Wendy's install equipment.
"It's impossible to open all six food vendors at once," Bellsolell said. "We'll open the marketplace first and then phase in the other vendors as quickly as we can."
The Evening Sun
Once everything is in place, Chesapeake House will offer Dunkin' Donuts, Cinnabon, Nathan's Famous, Freshens, KFC, Earl of Sandwich, Pizza Hut and Wendy's.
Bartlett said highway signs and social media will be used to alert the public to the changes. State police and Maryland Transportation Authority Police will be assigned to the plaza for the first few days to act as "goodwill ambassadors," he said.
The new plazas will be very different. Maryland House will include lots of glass panels and an M-shaped roofline. Outside, groves of trees will shelter picnic seating for 160 to supplement the 750 seats in the food court.
The partial glass walls of the smaller, more contemporary Chesapeake House will curve like the letter "C" and be topped with a sail-shaped roof. A trail from the parking lot to a small hilltop will offer visitors a view of the Chesapeake Bay.
But Maryland House will reopen without Marilyn McAllister, who started there as a waitress 25 years ago and became a manager before taking a job in the second-floor administrative offices. She was not hired by Areas.
"It's half your life," she said, her eyes growing moist. "And now it's gone."