For some people, scooping ice cream or frozen custard for Washington’s sweltering denizens and visitors might be no more than a summer job. For Simon Sherman (1916-1993), however, it was a stepping stone that led the Washington area’s first shopping mall, Wheaton Plaza.

A native Washingtonian, Simon Sherman came from a family of entrepreneurs. His father, Benjamin (1881-1957), owned New England Furriers (717 12th Street, NW), and his grandfather Nathan and uncle Simon Krupsaw owned a well-known antique store at 817 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. Sherman graduated from Wilson High School and the National University Law School, now part of George Washington University. He served in the Army Corps of Engineers and married Rose Bernard Sherman in 1946.

Sherman employed both white and African Americans at a time when many white business owners, including many in Washington, DC, refused to employ, let alone serve, African Americans. Protests, demonstrations and sit-ins across the District throughout the 1940s convinced some business owners to abolish those discriminatory practices. (Sherman with employees of Williams Frozen Custard, ca. 1940s, JHSGW, Gift of Douglas Sherman.)

Sherman employed both white and African Americans at a time when many white business owners, including many in Washington, DC, refused to employ, let alone serve, African Americans. Protests, demonstrations and sit-ins across the District throughout the 1940s convinced some business owners to abolish those discriminatory practices. (Sherman with employees of Williams Frozen Custard, ca. 1940s, JHSGW, Gift of Douglas Sherman.)

Sherman and business partner, Seymour Weinreb, owned Williams Frozen Custard at 816 Florida Avenue, NW. Sherman was involved in the business in the mid-1940s, between returning from military service in Europe and being called back to serve in the Korean War.

Visitors to Williams Frozen Custard could purchase as little as a cone or as a much as a quart of fresh frozen custard. Even today, most frozen custard is available only at shops that produce it on-site. Less common than traditional ice cream, frozen custard is a smoother and richer version made by adding egg yolks to ice cream. In shops like Williams Frozen Custard, ingredients are combined through a process similar to whisking and then frozen in and served from a refrigerated tube, similar to soft-serve ice cream. The extra fat in the yolks helps the dessert remain solid for a longer period of time than ice cream.

Sherman’s interest in slinging custard did not last long, and by the end of the 1940s, he sold Williams Frozen Custard and founded a real-estate investment and construction company. The spread of Washington, DC’s population into the suburbs was picking up steam, and Sherman moved to join the building boom in Montgomery County, MD. He set his sights on the fledgling commercial district in Wheaton.

Sherman joined forces with a team of investors, including the Gudelsky family of Contee Sand & Gravel, Co., Theodore N. Lerner and H. Max Ammerman, and in 1954, they purchased 80 acres of farmland at the corner of Veirs Mill Road and University Boulevard. They intended to erect a large, welcoming shopping mall that would be the anchor for a new retail district serving the growing neighborhoods nearby.

Sherman in front of the Wheaton Plaza development office, ca. 1950s, JHSGW Collections, Gift of Douglas Sherman.

Sherman in front of the Wheaton Plaza development office, ca. 1950s, JHSGW Collections, Gift of Douglas Sherman.

In February 1960, Wheaton Plaza opened. It was the first shopping mall in the Washington area. Sherman was a driving force behind publicity for the mall. His desk was deluged with telegrams and letters of interest from retailers as far away as the Midwest. The mall’s stores—many established by local Jewish entrepreneurs—surrounded a central, outdoor plaza, which soon became a popular gathering place. Over the next three decades, Sherman developed additional retail and housing throughout Montgomery County, including in Wheaton, Silver Spring and Gaithersburg.

Wheaton Plaza fell on hard times in the 1990s as several of its long-time anchor stores went out of business. More recently, population growth and investment in Wheaton and Silver Spring has improved the venerable mall’s fortunes. New retailers and renovations have once again made Wheaton Plaza a hub of communal and social life.

And it all started with a frozen custard shop.

Top photo: Williams Store Frozen Custard, ca. 1940s, JHSGW Collections, Gift of Douglas Sherman.