Thursday, August 31, 2023

Fairchild Apartments in Germantown recall the golden age of Montgomery County (Photos)

Montgomery County was once the economic engine of the Washington, D.C. suburbs. Today, it's recognized as economically-moribund by everyone from The Washington Post to Maryland Governor Wes Moore, and has ceded the spotlight to Fairfax County and other booming job centers in Northern Virginia. To see how far Montgomery County has fallen, one only has to look back at its golden age, which lasted roughly from 1960 to 2000. Lockheed Martin and Marriott International are among the few remaining vestiges of that boomtime, a time when a big player like IBM had not just one, but three sites in the county. A new apartment building in Germantown pays elaborate tribute to one of the brightest jewels in Montgomery County's golden age crown, Fairchild Aircraft.

Fairchild was a major aerospace design and manufacturing firm. Its presence in Maryland included a corporate and R&D campus at 20301 Century Boulevard in Germantown, and an aircraft manufacturing plant in Hagerstown. A short runway outside the Germantown site was used by corporate executives to travel between the company's two Maryland campuses aboard a Short Takeoff and Landing (STOL) turboprop airplane. Curiously, the STOL runway bore a large Iron Cross insignia - - even more curious given the background of the firm's most famous executive, one who is excluded from the tribute.

It's almost hard to believe today, but during the 1970s, the father of spaceflight had an office overlooking I-270. Wernher von Braun served as Fairchild's Vice-President of Engineering and Development from 1972 until his retirement in 1976. A brilliant and complicated man with an equally-complicated history, von Braun was a German pioneer in rocketry. He was also was a member of the Nazi Party and the SS, and fully aware of the use of slave labor that was utilized at the underground Mittelwerk V-2 rocket assembly plant, labor that was drawn from the adjacent Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp.

The U.S. government looked the other way at the questionable parts of von Braun's resume following World War II, as it did with so many former Nazis it brought to America through the controversial Operation Paperclip, ostensibly to ensure these scientific and engineering wizards didn't end up working for the Soviets. Only through dogged investigation by journalists did the wartime actions of many of these men sooner or later come to public light. Von Braun, through his work for the Department of Defense and NASA, was largely responsible for the United States winning the race to the moon in 1969. He died from cancer shortly after his retirement from Fairchild.

Fairchild Aircraft logo "easter egg"
on the Fairchild Apartments facade

The 1980s brought great changes to Fairchild. Its Hagerstown plant closed in 1984. The end of the Cold War hit the company hard. Orbital Sciences Corporation acquired the Germantown division of the firm, now known as Fairchild Space and Defense Corp., in 1994. Orbital sold FS&D Corp. to the Smiths Group in 2000. Five years later, Smiths announced it would be closing the Germantown campus, which once employed over 1000 people.

Since then, the old Fairchild campus area has slowly begun to redevelop. The latest addition is the Fairchild Apartments development at 20013 Century Boulevard. While many new apartment buildings offer little more than a gimmicky brand name and cookie-cutter design, the Fairchild Apartments development displays great thought and effort in memorializing its namesake company.

A Fairchild Aircraft logo is sculpted right into the facade of the building, for starters. One museum-quality display provides information about the history of the Germantown Fairchild campus, noting that the A-10 Thunderbolt and the landing gear for the space shuttle were both designed there. The Iron Cross runway and campus layout are depicted. It even features a photograph of the Fairchild Porter turboprop lifting off from the Germantown runway!

Another display pays tribute to the founder of Fairchild Industries, Sherman Mills Fairchild. It notes his memorial foundation in Chevy Chase, Maryland "distributes more than $35 million annually to support higher education, fine arts and cultural institutions." There's no display for von Braun.

Fairchild campus layout, including the 
runway with Iron Cross at right

Other displays feature the A-10 Thunderbolt "Warthog," also known as the "Tank Killer," and the Germantown facility's last major project, the Topex/Poseidon satellite. Designed with a NATO-Soviet European ground war in mind, the A-10 instead ended up as the most-feared nemesis of tank crews in the third-world nations America invaded in the post-Soviet era. The Topex/Poseidon mapped the topography and circulation of Earth's oceans as they had never been seen before, from its launch in August 1992 until its mission-ending malfunction in 2008. It's still up there somewhere, circling the Earth.

Down on Earth, part of the Fairchild campus is still here, as well - - albeit reclaimed by nature. Street names at a townhome development further up Century Boulevard recall Fairchild, and some of its famous products, like the C-119 "Flying Boxcar." One street there, Stol Run, is a nod to Fairchild's iconic STOL runway. More developments, especially those built on or near historic sites, should incorporate those past landmarks and associated individuals to the same degree that the Fairchild Apartments have here in Germantown.


  1. Oh, please. A corporate office of a defunct company that was located 20 miles from civilization when it was built, because of fears that Washington DC would be wiped out by an H-bomb, is some kind of "Golden Age" to you?

    1. Look back at the jobs and employers we had in the previous century vs. our moribund County economy today. It was indeed a golden age.

  2. Going north on 270 from Rockville to Clarksburg in 1985 you had Gillete, EG&G, NUS, Kodak, Bechtel, IBM, Fairchild, ComSat. The largest enclosed mall in America. A Golden Age indeed.

    1. All dying industries left to rot by the side of the road.

  3. All of these corporations created a middle class in the county back in the day that has gone missing today. You could have a good career as a middle manager at IBM, own your home nearby and a pension.

  4. Montgomery County was such a wonderful place in 1970s and 1980s,even into the 1990s. I had no idea that Von Braun was living in Montgomery County. Good article.

  5. And don't forget the fabulous Shady Grove Music Fair presenting world-class entertainment to the area. Right across from the Desert Inn-style Washingtonian Country Club with their Nicklaus-designed 36-hole golf course. A golden age indeed.

  6. MoCo peaked 20 years ago, hasn't been the same since.