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Selling Laurel, the perpetual boomtown

All the daily newspapers from Baltimore and Washington ran numerous articles about Laurel’s boom, including this one from the Evening Sun in 1963.
All the daily newspapers from Baltimore and Washington ran numerous articles about Laurel’s boom, including this one from the Evening Sun in 1963.

For more than a century, Laurel has been prominently featured in newspapers as a "boomtown." The city itself has helped with this image with effective marketing, especially beginning in the 1950s. But while there's no denying Laurel experienced a boom in the second half of the last century, it never lived up to the population predictions.

In 1903, former Mayor Edward Phelps, who had just left office after serving seven terms, wrote an article in the Baltimore Sun about the advantages of living and working in Laurel: "Property here in Laurel is reasonable in price, living is cheap and transportation facilities unexcelled. The town is an ideal location for the manufacturer, and, moreover, it is a town of comfortable homes and cultivated people, and it has all city conveniences."

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Addressing business owners who might consider Laurel, Phelps listed the prominent businesses in town: "The largest industry of Laurel is the Laurel Mills … [which] employs 325 men, women, and children. … The large shirt factory of E. Rosenfeld & Co., at the corner of Park Ave. and Sixth St. … [employs] about 125, principally women." He also mentioned the Schooley Milling Company, the Avondale Mills and the Laurel Iron Foundry.

Phelps' long, detailed marketing pitch for Laurel closed with a curious claim: "The people of Laurel are intelligent and industrious; so intelligent, in fact, that she can furnish candidates for the office of Mayor of Baltimore or for the high and exalted position of President of the United States." It's unclear who these candidates were.

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A few years later, in 1906, an organization called the Improvement Association of Laurel was created with the sole purpose to "carry out … all such measures … [that] will promote the health, safety and general welfare of the residents and property holders of the City of Laurel … and also to obtain such needful legislation as will promote this subject." It wasted no time and, a few months later, distributed a 20-page booklet that extolled the advantages of living and working in Laurel.

The Boom Begins

Similar marketing efforts popped up over the next decades and Laurel grew at a slow, consistent rate. But the 1950s saw Laurel live up to the name boomtown. From the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun ran frequent articles about Laurel's explosion in growth with headlines like "Booming Suburb - That's Laurel"; "A Fabulous Area Where There Will Never Be A Depression"; and "Half-Way City of Tomorrow." The Post, in 1957, stated "These days the once torpid town is booming."

This same period, starting in the mid-50s, saw Laurel experience an extraordinary housing boom with the development of the Fairlawn district, West Laurel, the Route 197 corridor and Maryland City. The housing boom coincided with numerous new employment opportunities and roads that made Laurel more accessible to the north and south.

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The new National Security Agency headquarters added to Fort Meade's population of workers, and Route 602 between Fort Meade and Laurel was improved and renamed Route 198. NASA's Goddard Space Center opened in 1959 in Greenbelt. The Baltimore Washington Parkway was built, adding another major artery to the area. Other places of employment frequently cited as adding to Laurel's growth during this period included the Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in White Oak and Westinghouse at Friendship Airport (later renamed BWI Airport). The Baltimore Beltway opened in 1962, the Washington Beltway was under construction and I-95 was scheduled to open in the mid-60s. All roads led to Laurel.

Not everyone thought Laurel could withstand the "boom." In 1954 both G. Bowie McCeney, the co-owner of the Laurel News Leader, and then-Mayor Merrill L. Harrison told the Sun that they "think Laurel will stay about as is." In 1957, Mayor Harry Hardingham was quoted in the Post as saying, "I'm not sure Laurel is ready for all these people." The Post stated that "Hardingham and many others fear that in time the unzoned and unplanned Laurel area may become a blighted, backwash, hodgepodge of cheap housing developments and businesses. 'A sort of dumping ground,' the Mayor says, between planned areas."

Nine years later, the Sun quoted from a booklet distributed by the city in the 1920s that claimed when Washington Avenue (Route 1) was completed "it will be a great thoroughfare." The Sun's sarcastic response in 1963 was: "If 'great' meant the existence of used car lots, automotive showrooms, service stations, a trailer court, heavy traffic and a complicated maze of commercial signs, Washington Ave. has lived up to its greatness."

The Master Plan

Planning for growth became a priority for the city starting in 1960. The median age of residents had dropped from 29.5 years to 25.9 since 1950, and the number of children under 15 had increased substantially. It was around that time that the idea of a "mega-city" incorporating everything in-between Baltimore and Washington began to circulate. Laurel was always mentioned in these discussions due to its location.

There was also a more sophisticated marketing effort, published in the New York Times. In May 1960, the Times included a 30-page pull-out advertisement produced by the state of Maryland, a slick appeal to potential businesses and residents. Included was a half-page advertisement for the City of Laurel, calling it the "Gateway to Two of the Nation's Leading Cities." The ad claimed "Laurel is alive with opportunity … an expanding economy … skilled and loyal workers … good plant sites ... ideal business facilities … beautiful residential and recreational areas … a sound and friendly local government. Discover Laurel … the city with a future."

On Sept. 5, 1960, under the headline "Laurel Prepares for its New Era," the Post described then-Mayor Hiram J. Soper's efforts to control the city's inevitable growth. An organization called the Planning Council was contracted to deliver an urban renewal plan to the city.

The resulting "Comprehensive Master Plan" pulled no punches about what was required: "Laurel has no choice between growth and non-growth. It does have a choice, an important choice, between planned and unplanned development. But the cycle of accelerated population increase is already upon the community. The choice must be made now. The Comprehensive Master Plan offers one alternative. No choice is really a choice for unplanned sprawl-scattered subdivisions, badly located streets, inadequate recreation facilities. … The plan can be filed in a drawer or it can become the guide to building a New City of Laurel. … The ultimate decision on what kind of city Laurel will make of itself, or allow outside forces to make of it, rests with the people of the community. … The people of Laurel will ultimately make the decision whether they want a planned community or, through apathy, choose to allow urban sprawl to engulf them."

The plan even mentioned the "mega-city" concept: "Laurel is in the middle — in the very geographic center of an emerging urban region some have called Chesapeake-Potomac City."

The plan contained some ambitious ideas, almost all of which never materialized. The core of the plan called for the creation of a Regional Center extending from Main Street southward to what is today Laurel Lakes shopping area (in 1960 the majority of the land south of the Laurel Shopping Center was undeveloped). From Main Street to the existing shopping center the plan recommended creating the "commercial core of the future Laurel .… Concentrated here in one place one could find banks, offices, professional services of all sorts, civic and governmental buildings, entertainment and cultural facilities, a transportation terminal for possible rapid transit service to Washington and intercity buses, as well as shops and stores to satisfy every taste and pocketbook."

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The area south of the shopping center was proposed to be "a completely planned, new core area of office and civic uses … Included in the core would be administrative offices of both Federal and local governments."

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The authors of the plan claimed that the Regional Center would "be a sharp reversal in the pattern of scatteration that typifies urban sprawl."

The plan discussed many other issues that affected Laurel's growth, such as annexation, roads, water supply, zoning, etc., and it also offered some eye-catching artist's renditions of the proposed Regional Center and Main Street areas.

Mega-city

Plan or no plan, Laurel was indeed a boomtown. The 1960 population was up to almost 9,000 and it was predicted to rise to 125,000 by 1990. In 1963 the Sun quoted a developer as saying, "This is a fabulous area. With all the Government industry here, there'll never be a depression." The Washington Star said Laurel "is fast becoming the half-way city of the future" and "Laurel is an extreme case of bursting at the seams."

The Star also kept the "mega-city" concept alive. Comparing this region to Minneapolis/St. Paul, the Star claimed that the DC/Baltimore suburbs "are melding into a twin metro complex … a single urbanized area." The Sun was even more specific: "Laurel is squarely in the middle of what regional planners sometimes call the Chesapeake-Potomac City, the name given to the urban sprawl spreading north from Washington and south from Baltimore."

A 1963 advertisement produced by the James L. Dixon & Co. real estate firm took advantage of the idea with the title "A Tale of Three Cities — Laurel Ties Together the Baltimore-Washington Beltways."

By the late 1960s, however, the "mega-city" concept gave way to a more realistic idea. As reported in the News Leader in 1969, "Laurel was seen as the future hub city in the [DC-Baltimore] corridor."

The 1990 Census showed that the population had swelled to almost 20,000, which gave Laurel the largest percentage increase of Maryland's top 24 municipalities, but far short of the 125,000 predicted in the 1960 Master Plan.

The latest "boom" was supposed to be from the Base Realignment and Closure Act, but plans for many new housing developments went by the wayside when the recession hit the economy in 2007.

The latest figures show Laurel's population around 26,000, still far short of the 1960 predictions. It's interesting that, despite the publicity and support for the 1960 Comprehensive Master Plan, so few of its recommendations were implemented. How different would Laurel be today if they were put in place?

Richard Friend and Pete Lewnes contributed to this story. History Matters is a monthly column rediscovering Laurel's past. Information for this story was found at the Laurel Historical Society. Do you have old pictures or stories to share about a historic event in Laurel? Contact Kevin Leonard at info@theleonardgroupinc.com or 301-776-9260.

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