The Queen's Giant
An aging supermarket closed in 2013 was once the subject of a royal visit
Last week I had a really fun piece in Greater Greater Washington. I’d had this idea sitting in my drafts bucket since February or March, when I came across an old news article about Queen Elizabeth II’s 1957 visit to Washington, D.C.
During that visit, she had apparently asked to tour an American supermarket, and after watching a football game at the University of Maryland in College Park, the Queen and her entourage arrived at a strip plaza in suburban Prince George’s County anchored by a Giant supermarket.
The article did not identify which exact supermarket this was, but I had the idea to track it down, drive there, photograph it, and write a neat little local history piece. But I never got to it, because it wasn’t time-sensitive and because the drive was a little long.
Unfortunately, on September 8, the story suddenly had a news hook.
That isn’t the news hook I would have chosen, but I hopped on the internet and found every article I could that referenced the Queen’s visit. There were only a handful, and it required some work to track down the location. First I wondered if the store was still open; sadly, one article covered its closure in 2013. Then I really hoped the building was still there, which I couldn’t determine until I had an address. No article gave one, and even the shopping center had changed names.
But one article said that directly behind the Giant, there was a newer, larger Shoppers Food Warehouse—presumably part of why the older, smaller Giant closed down. Great, just search for Shoppers! Well, in the intervening years the Shoppers had also gone out of business. But the internet remembers this stuff. I was able to find an old page for the Shoppers that gave an address; it’s now a Megamart, a Latino supermarket, but once I mapped it, there, in the adjacent shopping center, was the building that once housed the Giant and welcomed the Queen.
Here it is, today operating as a Price Rite discount supermarket.
There’s no marker or anything, in the lot, on the sign, or in the store, to commemorate the Queen’s visit. But the shopping center is (today) called The Shops at Queens, and the street is named Queens Chapel Road. Maybe that’s why Her Majesty chose this location! (I note in the piece that the road name long pre-exists the visit.)
Now, the fact that this location is operating as a discount, no-frills supermarket is its own story, which I use to tell the larger story about supermarket evolution. I go over that in the piece; read the whole thing! And if that subject interests you, check out this piece too.
But here, I’m going to tell you more about searching for these kinds of things.
Writing about this sort of local commercial and land-use history, I come across information-breakdown issues frequently, trying to track down what seems like simple information. (For a much longer example, check out my piece earlier this year on the very quirky history of a Pizza Hut in the Landover area, not too far from this old Giant.)
I almost felt like I was reading about some ancient tale while researching this Giant. The story itself—Queen once visited suburban supermarket in Maryland—is fairly well known. But the details are already lost, in the sense that, as far as I was able to tell, nobody on the internet has pieced them back together in one place, as I did for my Greater Greater Washington piece.
Here’s another example of information breakdown: according to someone familiar with the store, it actually used to be larger, and at some point the adjacent storefront that’s there now was part of the supermarket. He initially remembered that the Price Rite had downsized the space when it took over, but when I replied that a news article said the Giant had been on the small side, he vaguely recalled that Giant, not Price Rite, had done the downsizing!
Based on historic imagery and on whatever other scarce information exists, I can’t confirm when, or whether, this happened. I have seen so many incorrect memories about what a building used to be or where a store was that I always try to prove these things before repeating them. It looks like in 2007, the supermarket was the same size as today. It also looks like either the supermarket or the shopping center was expanded, a few years after being built. Which gave me a huge scare.
I was curious when the shopping center was built. In 1957, in a dense inner-ring suburb, it might have already been there awhile. (There are very early strip malls in Arlington, Virginia that go back to the 1930s.) So I went to Maryland’s property lookup page. I tried the supermarket’s address specifically, but the only address kept for tax purposes is that for the shopping center overall. So I punched that in and went to the “primary structure built” field and oh no.
Did the Queen visit an old supermarket that was torn down two years later? Did I base a whole story on the wrong building?
That meant going to the Prince George’s County map viewer, which includes reams of historic aerial imagery. If they had the right years, it would be easy to tell if the property looked the same before and after 1959. But, of course, that would be too easy. They had 1938 and 1965. Nothing was there in 1938, but that didn’t help me.
I had one more option: Historic Aerials, a free imagery-viewing service provided by Nationwide Environmental Title Research. And their database had imagery from 1957 and 1963. Perfect! I clicked 1957, and waited anxiously for the imagery to load. Please let there be the same strip mall on that property, I thought.
And there it was. With one difference. Here’s the 1957 snapshot, with the Giant at the far left.
And here is the 1963 imagery:
The left-hand side of the plaza has been expanded (To add extra storefronts? To enlarge the Giant? I don’t know)
The expansion must have been done in 1959
The actual build date for the shopping center has been lost, in the official property record
It might or might not surprise you, but this is actually the third time I’ve been able to prove that a build year in an official property record is in error. The first time was that Pizza Hut linked to above, which was substantially rebuilt after a fire, but not completely demolished. Yet the build year given in the record is actually the year of the renovation. And the second was this historic firehouse in Chantilly, Virginia.
Is there a more official paper record somewhere? Maybe. Is there a newspaper clipping in a database announcing the shopping center’s opening? Probably. But piecing that all together is more than doing a Google search. It’s actually, truly, doing history: finding sources; figuring out how actually or seemingly contradictory bits of information piece together; making your best educated guess when the information just isn’t there. It’s absolutely fascinating to me.
That’s a lot of words for what’s now a garden-variety mid-sized supermarket. But I look at this and I see so many stories about the history of how we build places, and how we remember them. And all because the Queen wanted to see how Americans bought their groceries well over half a century ago.
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