News & Politics

A Cesar Pelli Building in Clarksburg Could Get Torn Down

“Historic preservation is a major third rail in Montgomery County real estate."

The former COMSAT building in Clarksburg. Photograph of COMSAT building by Isabelle Gournay/Mary Corbin Sies.

Viewed from I-270, the COMSAT building in Clarks-burg seems to float like a silver spaceship, befitting its origin in 1969 as the home of the US’s fledgling communications-satellite network. Designed by Modernist Cesar Pelli, the building’s cylindrical corridors and gleaming aluminum shell foreshadowed Pelli’s later plan for Reagan National Airport. More than 300 patents were filed from research conducted by COMSAT, founded by Congress in 1962. But COMSAT’s distinctive looks and history may not be enough to save it.

Or rather, to save it again: In 2007, after threatening to knock the building down, its owner, Pennsylvania developer LCOR, agreed to include it in a proposed retail, housing, and commercial complex. But the 2008 economic downturn appears to have foiled those plans, and now LCOR wants out. The public sales listing makes no mention of the site’s significance. LCOR executive vice president Bill Hard declined to comment.

“Historic preservation is a major third rail in Montgomery County real estate,” says historian David Rotenstein, who was on the county’s Historic Preservation Commission when it pushed to protect the building.

Isabelle Gournay, a University of Maryland architecture professor who nominated COMSAT in 2005 for historic designation, calls it an elegant example of “machine in the garden,” a 19th-century idea blending the modern with the pastoral: “I don’t understand why people are so adamant about demolishing it. There are very few buildings like this in the United States.”

And fewer in Maryland. A 2005 Montgomery County report pointed to only five buildings in the state comparable in stature to COMSAT: two Frank Lloyd Wright houses, in Bethesda and Baltimore; Richard Neutra’s Mellon Hall at St. John’s College in Annapolis; and two Ludwig Mies van der Rohe structures in Baltimore. “Those four architects, and their limited buildings, are all the state of Maryland has with regard to world-class Modern architecture,” the report noted. (Recently, a home designed by Marcel Breuer in Bethesda was granted historic status.)

The 88-year-old Pelli, who helped in the fight to save the building nine years ago, says it represents “what was best of a period,” adding: “I will be very sad, of course, if that building is torn down.”

This article appears in our March 2015 issue of Washingtonian.