Sunday, August 10, 2008

Ralphs - The Height of Design

Strictly my opinion, friends, but I feel that there are plenty of good examples to back it up. Ralphs Grocery Company, part of the Southern California retail scene since before the start of the last century and still going strong, was squarely out in front of a number of key 20th century architectural trends. From their ornate Spanish Revival store exteriors of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, through the magnificent Art Deco/Streamline Moderne stores that followed ten years later, to their wonderful Googie-esque (is that a word?) stores of the early 1960’s, outstandingly designed Ralphs stores abounded.

The photo above features the striking streamline moderne Beverly Hills Ralphs, which opened in 1937 at 9331 Wilshire Boulevard, at the Crescent Drive intersection. The photo appears here courtesy of Susan Silberman, and was taken by her grandfather in 1949. This classic example of 1930’s Southern California commercial architecture, featuring what author Marc Wanamaker termed as a “festoonal tower” was designed by renowned L.A. architect Stiles O. Clements (1883 - 1966). Clements would design over 30 stores (encompassing all three of the above-mentioned periods) for Ralphs, beginning in the 1920’s when he was part of the architectural firm Morgan, Walls and Clements. The Beverly Hills store was one of the first stores he designed after leaving to form his own firm, where he would later be joined by his son, Robert. Ralphs was by no means the Clements firm’s only high profile client – they would design hundreds of projects, retail and non-retail, including this beautiful store (among a host of others) for Sears, Roebuck and Co.

A large office complex now sits on this ridiculously valuable piece of property, but a similar former Ralphs store, with a somewhat different festoonal tower, still exists at 4821 Lankershim Boulevard, North Hollywood as a Blockbuster store. It’s definitely a blockbuster in my book!


  1. What an amazing photo! Even more amazing is how long ago it was taken. Beautiful store. Next to the marina style, art deco is my fav for grocery stores.

  2. This store would still be relatively large by the standards of much LA and its older burbs all the way to Long Beach and in the northern reaches of the OC. It's too bad this jewel is gone. I think it would have still been functional as a grocery store, but I'm sure the value of real estate did it in before obselesence did. The art moderne design is very similar to the much small Wink Theater in the downtown of my hometown, which had the distinction of being the first air conditioned building in my city.

    Ralphs was the first grocery west of the Rockies and quite possibly the builder of the first modern supermarkets, though many vie for that claim. Ralphs was an innovator, opening some of the first 24 hour supermarkets in the industry as a result of the industrial boom of the 1940's.

    Fortunately Ralphs has retained some individuality in the Kroger family and even influences Kroger design today, the current Kroger decor package is from Ralphs and the Fresh Fare format is a Ralphs development. Federated and Yucaipa kept the Ralphs identity intact under their ownership as well. Many Ralphs reflect the designs of its former SoCal competition as well. Hughe's, Alpha Beta, ABC, Boys and Viva were folded into the banner during the 90's and many of their stores are preserved as Ralphs.Many of Kroger's old Market Basket stores made the transition to Ralphs in the early 80's, so in many ways some of the stores came full circle. Also the Van de Kamp brand is now a Ralphs exclusive, and Ralphs inherited Alpha Beta's house brand of milk, Carnation. Kroger's Private Selection brand came to life as a Ralphs' private label.

    While Ralphs did not succeed at two ventures into Northern California, the chain is a legacy banner that has benefited from some autonomy within the Kroger hierarchy. Even without a NorCal presence, the chain is second to Safeway/Von's among market share in California while overwhelmingly the leader in LA and the OC.

  3. Didi- I agree, it's a very beautiful store. You can't go wrong with the two favorite styles you mentioned, that's for sure.

    Ken - They were definitely one of the very first modern supermarket operators. It's always hard to pin down the actual "first", of course.

    Preserving Ralphs' identity has been one of the great keys to its success. They've done very well in that extremely competitive market, despite some excellent competitors.

    It's always amazed me that Van de Kamp's partnered with so many chains in the same market for so long. I think that type of arrangement would be unheard of today. Surely one company would outbid the others for an "exclusive", or just acquire them outright.

  4. What style and grace. I truly incredible picture in all regards.

  5. One of the things that strikes me is that the Ralphs stores from the first purpose built supermarkets of the 1920's until the early 1950's appear to be constructed of far more substantial materials than subsequent supermarkets or their contemporaries, which as true supermarkets were few, and the earliest ones often occupied pre-existing structures that were spartan and warehouse like. The Ralphs were on par with department stores in quality of the construction.

  6. Richard - I'll second that!

    Ken - I completely agree, they were built to last and very much in line with department store standards of the day, which were very high. Sadly, many were replaced by newer Ralphs stores later on, but I have to say that many of the early replacements (1960's) were pretty worthy themselves.