The Mary Kay Harper Center for Suburban Studies was established as a legacy project to honor Executive Director Mary Kay Harper as she retired in spring of 2008. Mary Kay served the Montgomery County Historical Society for over a quarter century, including 18 years as Executive Director.
Although emphasis is normally placed on Montgomery County’s more distant past – its early settlers, founding families, and tobacco culture – Mary Kay’s focus has always on the County’s suburban development. Our proximity to Washington, D.C. has been, and continues to be, a major force behind the development of Montgomery County. As the county has grown into a thriving suburban region, the area has struggled to find a balance between meeting the needs of a booming population without completely losing its rural heritage. In some ways this has shaped Montgomery County into an area full of contradictions. From urban Bethesda to rural Hyattstown, the Technology Corridor to the Agricultural Reserve – it is contrasts like these that make Montgomery County a fascinating case study in 20th century suburban development.
Montgomery County has long been a national leader in land use, planning and development of suburbia. Planners and scholars still hold up as a model the development plan called “Wedges and Corridors” that focused growth along major roadways. The plan preserved sections of green space and allowed for the establishment of the Agricultural Reserve in the 1960’s. Montgomery County’s unique history as an early suburban enclave makes it an ideal place to house a center for the study of suburbia. From the deeding of its only port to the new Nation’s Capital in 1791 to the establishment of summer retreats, away from the swampy environment of D.C. in the Victorian era; from the growth of “trolley suburbs” in the early 1900’s to the explosive populations growth of the second half of the 20th century, Montgomery County is a microcosm of suburbia, showcasing the positive and negative effects of development on people, institutions and the land itself.
In recent years the Montgomery County Historical Society has emphasized the need to preserve and interpret the region’s suburban history – the Mary Kay Harper Center for Suburban Studies brings a scholarly focus to this important area of study.