Thursday, July 17, 2008

essay time: the francis s. filbey building (updated)

Update 4/4/2014: It turns out that this building was originally built in the 1960's as a factory for manufacturing robots. Check out this post about its history on the Montgomery County Planning Department's blog.

An occasional look at the overlooked artifacts of East County's past and present.

Meadow slowly takes over the parking lot of the abandoned Filbey Building on Columbia Pike.

It all started with a trip to the bank last week. In the drive-through, I saw something I'd never seen before at the edge of the parking lot. There was a building, a one-story box not unlike many other one-story boxes that dot the office parks of East County. It was unremarkable, except that the parking lot was turning to meadow before my eyes. An abandoned building? Here? I didn't believe it. The building looked like a mirage in the midday sun.

I began to explore. Around the front of the building, there were piles of rubble lined up in neat rows over spaces marked "DIRECTOR" or "SECRETARY." Definitely an office building. The sign over the front door said "THE FRANCIS S. FILBEY BUILDING." Next to it, an address: 12345 NE COLUMB A PIKE.

I couldn't find anything about New Columbia Pike, except that the road we call Columbia Pike was completed in 1964 - nearly twenty years before the building was completed - and that no other building along Route 29 uses the "New" designation. Francis Filbey, meanwhile, was a more interesting find.

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

Despite its prominent location at Route 29 and Industrial Parkway, few notice the Francis S. Filbey Building - or that it's been abandoned for years.

A Silver Spring resident, Filbey was a controversial figure, a veteran of the postal union mergers and a victim, it seems, of larger tensions within the new organization. Born in 1917, Francis Stuart Filbey grew up in Baltimore, becoming a postal clerk and quickly rising through the ranks of the National Federation of Post Office Clerks. In 1969, he was appointed president and immediately had to contend with a strike. By publicizing the federal government's role in the "low wages and intolerable conditions" postal clerks had to deal with, Filbey was able to reach a settlement with the Nixon administration that eventually yielded the U.S. Postal Service.

A series of mergers throughout the 1960's and 70's combined five national postal unions into one, the American Postal Workers Union, with over 285,000 members. Politics forbid them from kicking anyone out of a job, so the executive boards of each union were combined into one forty-nine-member mega-board. In a 1977 memo, Filbey - now president of the APWU - compared it to that of a "banana republic," complaining that the leadership was too top-heavy to be effective.

Newer development surrounds the Filbey Building on two sides, making it less conspicuous.

Filbey wasn't popular for his calls of attrition, especially at a time when postal workers' jobs were being threatened. By the time he died of cancer in May 1977, he was considered a "lame-duck president," and the union was in turmoil once again. His successor Emmet Andrews would face potential pay reductions and the possibility of cutting mail service to four days a week. Complaints - or "grievances" from union members were rising, and those in charge would be ill-equipped to address them.

The APWU moved into the building in 1981 and renamed it for Filbey The Francis S. Filbey Building was completed in 1981 as an office for the APWU's Health Plan division, though not long ago it was abandoned in favor of new offices in Glen Burnie. Much like Filbey's career, the building named for him has come to a quiet and ineffective end, less than thirty years old but already abandoned.

Other derelict buildings along Route 29 have already been bulldozed into oblivion; a warehouse directly across Industrial Parkway was razed several years ago with no plans for redevelopment, though the former printing press at Tech Road has been replaced with the WesTech Village Corner shopping center.

But the Filbey Building remains, almost invisible despite its prominent location on the Pike. Assessed at $8.7 million in 2006, it - and the six acres it sits on - would make great candidates for redevelopment, though so long as the APWU still owns it, that seems unlikely. I doubt anyone waiting for the Ride-On bus at 29 and Industrial Parkway even realizes it's abandoned. Perhaps that's the best way; a fake occupied building is better than an real empty one.


Anonymous said...

I wonder if the real reason why the Building remains abandoned was due to being part of a 1981 Controversial East County Indefinite Moratorium on high Dense Office/Retail/Residential Development in which further explains the reason why Most of the US 29 Corridor FAILS to look anything like the Highly Dense I-270, MD 355, Dulles Toll Road, and VA 7 High Tech Corridors.........

really said...

SAVE OUR FILBEY! We MUST preserve this fine example of late 70s, early 80s brutalist/federalist architecture for future generations!

Thomas Hardman said...

Clearly this building, before being razed, should be the backdrop for University of Maryland RTBF majors' inevitable class productions of home-scripted Post Apocalyptic Zombie Movies.

Seriously, abandoned quasi-governmental buildings with lawns for parking lots are few and far between. This building provides an invaluable cinematic resource for low-budget producers.

Thus it should probably be designated a Historic structure.

Anonymous said...

And their MoCo tax bill is $66,753.69 for this year. One would think that there could be a non-profit that could use this site until a better alternative is at hand.