Bethesda Historical Society

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Bethesda-Chevy Chase Shopping Center aka Sacks Row

1949 advertisement

Opened in the late 1930’s, Sacks Row was a pioneering Bethesda “strip” shopping center that played a key role in the growth of retail shopping in downtown Bethesda.

Although you would never know it to look at its remnants today, Sacks Row — better known as the old Bethesda-Chevy Chase Shopping Center — was revolutionary in its time and key to the transformation of Bethesda from a sleepy farming community to a modern American suburb.

In the mid-1930s, local developer George P. Sacks purchased a substantial portion of the old Offutt farmland in Bethesda near Wisconsin Ave and Leland St.  His idea — to build suburban housing near Leland, adjacent to a new, modern shopping center built to be convenient for automobiles — was on the cutting edge of early midcentury retail thinking.  

Modeled on the art deco Park & Shop that had recently been built on Connecticut Ave near Cleveland Park, Sachs worked with architects Porter and Locktie to design a streamlined center with a mix of retail tenants and convenient pull-in parking right in front. 

Rather than “going downtown” to shop, searching for a space, and strolling, the suburbanite could simply pull his or her automobile up and be back home in a flash.  Sachs contracted with Shannon & Luchs, who had pioneered the “shopping center” concept in DC and handled the Park & Shop, to lease and manage the center. 

The center was built in an L shape on the east side of Wisconsin Ave at the intersection with Leland, with parking in front and apartments on the second level.  When it opened in the late 1930s tenants included Lakeview Market, a Sanitary grocery story, Whittlesey’s Drug Store, People’s Hardware store, Rosalind’s beauty Salon, the Florence Ann dress shop, and a bakery.

Whittlesey’s pharmacy was a mainstay, remaining in its pivotal spot throughout the center’s life.  “Doc” Whittlesey was well known to Bethesda locals, who relied on the neighborhood pharmacist for their medications, and to neighborhood kids and teens like Bill Offutt, who swung by after school to hang out at the popular soda fountain and keep up with the action.,

The center acted almost as a small-town community center as well as a shopping destination, hosting political rallies and BCC fundraisers.

Later tenants included the chic Jean Matou dress shop, Eleanore’s Gift Shop, Sieberts Yard Goods, Mrs. Roberts book shop and Sherman Williams paints.  

In in the 1960’sThe Montgomery County Thrift shop moved from its original Hampden Ln location to its long term spot at the north end of the center at 7125 Wisconsin Ave.

By the 1960’s, as hairlines got longer and skirts got shorter, the center was showing its age. As Rockville Pike became more developed to the north and Friendship Heights became more developed to the south, drive up shopping centers were no longer an exciting new concept. 

Ever the optimist, Edward Sacks, grandson of George, oversaw an overhaul of the center, hiring architect John Henry Sullivan, Jr. to update and unify the facade, and requiring tenants to modernize signage and lighting for an upscale uncluttered look. Despite these efforts, by the early 70s six of the storefronts were vacant and it was clear that the center had come to the end of its useful life. 

That created an opportunity for the Ford Motor Co, which had lost its Elm St showroom to fire in 1968.  Sadly for the neighbors, Ford’s vision involved largely demolishing the center and building a new 14 story high rise building with a Ford showroom on the ground level.  Despite protests, ostensibly due to demands on an overtaxed water/sewage system, the Ford building, (known as One Bethesda Plaza) was completed in 1975. It replaced the storefront parking concept with 3 levels of underground parking, along with several above-ground floors of parking to house new cars.

Today Bethesda’s retail hub has largely moved to the Woodmont Triangle and Bethesda Row on the west side of Wisconsin Ave.  Besides memories of its early glory, what remains of Sachs row is short leg of the L at what used to be its North end.  Until 2020 this housed the Montgomery County Thrift Store, but it has closed and the future of the space is uncertain.

by Stephanie Rigaux