Doctors hope to save Bethesda Medical Building

Although there are no immediate plans to change the 1954 structure, tenants worry redevelopment is only a matter of time

Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2006

A lot has changed since Dr. Blaine Fitzgerald first opened his practice at the Bethesda Medical Building in 1954. But the building is pretty much the same as it was more than 50 years ago.

Only six stories tall, with a plain brick façade, the building at 8218 Wisconsin Ave. is already a relic. Now some of the more than 60 physicians, dentists and other medical professionals who work in the office building are worried it could be torn down and replaced by a high-rise.

‘‘It would be a big loss for the community,” Fitzgerald said.

Tim Saunders, vice president of Aldon Management Corporation, which manages the building, said there are no immediate plans to change the building.

‘‘We are telling our tenants that we are considering our options,” he said. ‘‘The tenants have been placed on month to month leases to give us flexibility.”

No applications for redevelopment have been filed yet, said Marion Joyce, a spokeswoman for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, but some tenants worry it’s only a matter of time.

With last year’s approval of the Woodmont Triangle Amendment, which allows greater height and density in buildings in the Woodmont Triangle area of Bethesda, new developments could dwarf the Bethesda Medical Building. A plan to build a nine-story condominium building at 8400 Wisconsin Ave., currently the site of a Clarion Hotel, has already been approved.

‘‘The developments are coming,” said Dr. M. Linda M. Thompson, another physician with an office in the Bethesda Medical Building. In nearby residential neighborhoods, ‘‘within a day they’re smashing down a rambler,” she said. ‘‘There’s a psychological impact of that. It happens here, too. You lose the deli. You lose the charm of the smaller building.”

Thompson opened her practice there in January and has fallen in love with the building.

‘‘I was looking at many buildings and I liked this one for many reasons,” she said. ‘‘I like plain. I like serviceable. It’s like a European medical building. It has an atmosphere that’s beyond the shape of the walls.”

The building was built in 1954, according to the Maryland Department of Taxation and Assessment’s records.

It was designed by Bethesda architect Stanley H. Arthur, who designed numerous buildings in the county, including Winston Churchill High School and the Davis Library, according to a report published by the Maryland Historical Trust.

The building was home to radio station WHFS when it first started in 1961, according to a posting on the Web site of Washington DC & Baltimore Area Radio & Television, a nonprofit forum about radio and television in the metro area.

Out of all of the tenants in the building, Fitzgerald said he has been there the longest, moving in the same year the building first opened.

‘‘I can remember, this had to be back in ’54, we used to have one fee. Five dollars,” he said. ‘‘Five dollars for an office visit, $5 for a house call, $5 for a hospital visit.”

Fitzgerald has certainly seen medicine change since then and in some ways he’s had to change with it. But while he could have moved to a newer, more modern building, he never saw a reason to.

‘‘I like it here,” he said. ‘‘Everyone knows where the Bethesda Medical Building is. It’s convenient, it’s not far from my house, it’s on the bus route and on the Metro.”

Some of his patients have been coming there to see him for more than 30 years.

‘‘With a few patients, I took care of their parents and now their children have come to see me,” he said.

Thompson agreed that the building’s convenience — easy access to parking and public transportation, a pharmacy in the building — and its history, soothe patients who might otherwise be uncomfortable.

‘‘They may be coming for a troubling reason, but somehow, the sense of familiarity gives them comfort,” she said. ‘‘It’s not scary. It gives you a sense of peace.”