Renovations uncover Gaithersburg's history

By Patricia M. Murret
The Gazette
Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Olde Towne attorney James Clifford knew he would uncover Gaithersburg history when he and his law partners decided to renovate a building on the corner of Summit and Diamond avenues.

But he had no idea he would find reams of historic bank documents in the building's rafters, some of which to date to 1895.

The names of "Old Gaithersburg" families — Belt, Darby, Diamond, Waters, King and Tschiffely — are penned in loopy curves on bank ledger documents, receipts, post cards and other correspondence and transactional documents that Clifford found at 300 E. Diamond Ave., which was built in 1891 as the First Bank of Gaithersburg.

"I love the history and I know most of the families," said Clifford, 58, who is picking through the documents with plans to give some to signatories' descendants and the rest to the Gaithersburg Community Museum and towns of Damascus, Boyds and Poolesville.

Clifford, his law partner John Debelius and Jim Debelius have owned the building for more than 30 years. They are planning to build a café with outdoor seating there in collaboration with Eddie Velasquez, the former owner of DeJaBel Café in Wheaton.

"You can still smell the smoke from the fire," said Gaithersburg Community Museum Director Wendy Woodland, referring to a fire that destroyed the building's roof in the 1930s. "The wonderful thing is the ledgers date back to the 1890s and anytime anyone makes a find like this, it gives us an opportunity to fill a hole in a family genealogy."

Clifford said the documents are a window to Gaithersburg's agrarian history, with documents tallying family debts to a pulverizing plant that made fertilizer, bank notes for farms and ticket receipts from the B&O Railroad, which operated a train station across the street.

Woodland pointed to postcards with postmarks dated 1898 bearing one-cent stamps and addressed to the late Robert B. Moore of Rockville, a head cashier at the First National Bank. The community museum already has documents signed by and written to Moore, she said.

"It's so nice to authenticate the signatures."

A bank stood on the site for at least 70 years. In the 1970s, the building housed Pim's Art Store and, later, Fraser's Art Store. Until a year ago, the historic brick building, which today has a moss green stucco façade, housed the Christian Science Reading Room.

Velasquez closed his Wheaton shop on University Boulevard in March, unable to pay his rent, he said. Clifford, who had eaten at the Wheaton coffeehouse, lured Velasquez to Gaithersburg with promises of lower rent.

The men have high hopes for the spot, which sits two blocks from City Hall.

Velasquez envisions a coffeehouse and bar serving 60 to 80 with gourmet sandwiches, wraps, smoothies, espresso-based drinks, gourmet hamburgers and horchata, a cinnamon-flavored Spanish drink that can be served hot or cold.

"We should have music playing almost every night of the week," Velasquez said. "Live music, that is. It's going to be more like jazz, pop, guitar soloists."

He said he hopes to open in July.

This past week, Clifford and his son Barry pointed out original pine and oak floors, a brick fireplace, windows and brick walls uncovered in recent renovations. They have removed a second story to give the venue a 20-foot-ceiling and envision a horseshoe-shaped "fire-escape style" balcony with seating that overlooks a small stage, where three or four musicians could play, Clifford said.

"We didn't know what we were going to find, but it's exactly what we hoped for," Clifford said. "We don't have many opportunities like this in Gaithersburg.


jim clifford and wendy woodland