Sunday, August 31, 2008

A Streamlined Approach For Ralphs

After adding a flurry of new stores in the late 1920’s, Ralphs settled into a slower expansion mode, opening an average of one new store a year. By the mid-thirties, the chain was once again ready to crank up the pace. The new Ralphs stores, though very different in appearance from those that went before, were striking indeed in their own right.

Ralphs’ architect of choice, once again, was Stiles Clements. In 1937, the Morgan, Walls and Clements firm was reorganized with Clements in charge, adopting his name as well – "Stiles O. Clements Associated Architects and Engineers" as their new name henceforth.

These new stores were designed in the Streamline Moderne style, a variant of art deco, which utilized such design elements as rounded corners, curves, grilles, narrow bands of windows (often of glass blocks) and occasionally nautical elements, such as porthole windows. Structures in this style had long, clean lines, oftentimes featuring sleek pylons or other projectiles. The most typical building finish was cement with a white stucco veneer. The 1933-34 “Century of Progress” Chicago World’s Fair was largely composed of Streamline Moderne buildings, mesmerizing the throngs of folks who descended on Chicago from all over to attend the fair. It was a look that represented speed, modernity and industrial progress. I suspect that many Americans, whether or not they attended the Chicago World’s Fair, were thrilled at the first sight of a new Streamline Moderne structure in their area.

Clements was an ideal choice to implement this new look for Ralphs, as Richard Longstreth’s excellent book The Drive-In, the Supermarket, and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 1914-1941 suggests – “(Clements) proved ever adroit at perceiving shifts in taste, manifesting them in ways that made it seem as though he had precipitated the change”. High praise indeed. In 1936, the first of these stores opened, at 4641 Santa Monica Boulevard, near the Vermont Avenue intersection. More Streamline Moderne Ralphs’ followed in quick succession – Beverly Hills, North Hollywood, Santa Monica, Whittier, Burbank, Inglewood (Manchester and Crenshaw), Los Angeles (4366 S.Figueroa St. and Exposition and Crenshaw) and Sherman Oaks before the outbreak of World War II.

This expansion increased not only the chain’s footprint but its prestige as well, with the possibility that each new Ralphs store “could have a considerable impact on its environs” notes Longstreth. “Standing in sharp contrast to its older neighbors, the facilit(ies were) conceived to draw a substantial clientele away from a number of existing establishments”. Undoubtedly, they succeeded in a big way.

With the advent of World War II, Ralphs’ new construction, like that of most everyone else, ground to a halt. A relatively few Streamline Moderne stores were built afterwards, the style having fallen out of favor by that time.

The first and second photos are courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library’s Security Pacific National Bank Collection and show the Exposition and Crenshaw, Los Angeles and Third and Wilshire, Santa Monica locations respectively. The third photo, from the book Modern Super Markets and Superettes (Progressive Grocer, 1956) shows what I believe is the Third and Vermont, Los Angeles location, one of the very last streamlined stores (looking closely, it's really much more of a streamline/modern hybrid in this case), which opened in 1948. Below are two great full page Grand Opening ads from the Manchester and Crenshaw store (1939), and the Exposition and Crenshaw store (1940), from an era when grocery chains took out lavish 16-to-20 page advertising sections in papers such as the Los Angeles Times to trumpet the opening of a new store. The “free food shows” were very much the standard for gala grand openings in those days (replaced in later years by giveaways of free corsages for the ladies, free balloons for the kiddies, free donkey rides for anyone willing, and the obligatory personal appearance by Pinky Lee). The last item is a Ralphs ad from 1947 showing a veritable tower of plenty, topped by a Ralphs milk carton sporting the pylon tower from the Beverly Hills store. Kind of puts “milk carton reading” in league with cereal box reading, at least in my book.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Ralphs Westwood Through the Years

Here’s a collection of views, in reverse chronological order (more or less), of what is arguably the most famous early Ralphs store, no doubt due in part to the happy fact that the building still stands in beautiful condition. This of course is the Westwood Village Ralphs, a Russell Colllins-designed masterpiece, which opened on November 21, 1929 at the corner of Westwood Blvd. and Lindbrook Drive. Coincidentally, the (much more conventional looking) Safeway opened down the street the same week.

Westwood Village, whose origin dates to 1925, is located in west Los Angeles, adjacent to the UCLA campus. Westwood was originally developed by brothers Ed and Harold Janss, who saw the potential for developing an upscale retail “village” to augment UCLA. The Janss Investment Corporation initially mandated a Mediterranean style architectural design for all Westwood Village structures, though this seemed to quickly morph into a blend of “Mediterranean/Spanish/Art Deco/whatever you want to call it”. Westwood Village has long been a subject of enthusiastic study in the architectural community, and many developments throughout America in the decades since have tried to emulate the “Westwood feel”.

The Ralphs supermarket was just one of many classic buildings in the Westwood area. Shown in a couple of the photos is the Bank of America branch, a Moroccan-domed structure which was originally the Janss office until they sold it to the bank in 1954. Also visible is the uniquely beautiful Westwood Sears, across the street from Ralphs. The changing appearance of the Standard Oil of California (Chevron) station can be clearly seen as well. Off in the distance in the second and third photos is the tower of the Fox Westwood Village theatre, which opened about a year and a half after the Ralphs store, and then as now has been an in-demand site for major Hollywood movie premieres and preview screenings. Despite the passage of time, the loss of some classic buildings, and the springing up of high-rises all around it, Westwood Village has managed to retain a considerable amount of its charm.

The Westwood Ralphs closed in the mid-1960’s and has since housed a number of different businesses, including a “Bratskeller” cafĂ©, popular with UCLA students from the late 60’s through the 80’s. The principal tenants now are Peet’s Coffee and Tea (the cylindrical portion, or “cookie jar” as referred to in a 60’s L.A. Times article) and the Mann Festival Theatre in the arcaded section to the right. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. Ralphs returned to Westwood in 2001 when it moved into another classic structure, the former Bullock’s department store which was originally opened in 1932.

The first four photos are postcard views, ranging from the mid-50’s back to the mid-30’s, and come to us courtesy of Aaron from his site Yesterday L.A., a fantastic collection of vintage postcards of the Greater Los Angeles area –well worth seeing if you haven’t already. Photos 5 through 8 are from the Los Angeles Public Library, and again I extend my thanks for their use. Photo number five is from 1940, photographer unknown. Number six, also from 1940, was taken by Herman Schultheis. The seventh photo was taken by no less than Ansel Adams, as part of a photo shoot for a 1941 Fortune magazine article. (I mean, really, why photograph mountain ranges and national parks when these great stores were available as motifs? I’m kidding.) The last photo, from the LAPL’s Security Pacific National Bank collection, photographer unknown, is in some ways the most interesting of all. Taken from a point further back than the others, looking north from south Wilshire Boulevard, you can see the Ralphs store and the tower of the A&P store to the right. The Westwood A&P was another great classic, designed by Allen Siple and opened in 1932. It was torn down in the late 60’s after A&P pulled out of the area. To the left are four magnificent 150 foot tall deco towers, from gas station competitors who were clearly not about to let themselves be outdone by the others – Richfield (predecessor to Arco), Associated (Flying A), Union 76 and Standard Oil (Chevron). These neon-glazed towers were lit at night and could be seen from many miles away. Oh, Southern California in the 1930’s! Where’s a flux capacitor when you need one?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Ralphs - Supermarkets, Spanish Style

Ralphs, a SoCal institution with roots extending to the late 19th century, certainly had one of the more interesting beginnings for a retail chain. In 1873, 23-year old San Bernardino County native George A. Ralphs was considered to be the Los Angeles area’s champion bricklayer. A freak hunting accident that year cost him his left arm, forcing Ralphs to abandon his chosen profession. He reset his sights on the grocery business, opening a store at the corner of 6th and Spring Streets. Two years later, Ralphs would be joined by his brother, Walter B. Ralphs. For the next quarter century, the brothers operated the single store, relocating it one block north in 1901 to make way for the Hayward Hotel, which still stands on the original Ralphs store site.

Interestingly, a large percentage (well over half) of Ralphs’ business in their early years consisted of mail order and home delivery of groceries. Much of their in-store trade was done via barter instead of on a cash basis.

In 1909, the company was formally incorporated as Ralphs Grocery Company, and two years afterward they finally opened a second store, located “way out in the country” (as the Los Angeles Times later put it) at the corner of Pico Boulevard and Normandie Avenue. A third store was established at 2601 Pasadena Avenue and a fourth at Vermont Avenue and 35th Street, part of Ralphs’ gradual growth over the next two decades, reaching a tally of ten units by 1928.

Ralphs scored points with customers in 1926 when it took on the Los Angeles “Bread Trust”, a local cartel of bakers who supplied the majority of area grocers. On a fateful Friday, Ralphs was informed that food retailers would be required to raise the price of a loaf of bread from five cents each to a dime. Defiant, Ralphs secured a building that very weekend and installed their own baking equipment. On the following Monday five-cent loaves bearing the Ralphs brand name appeared on the chain’s shelves.

In 1928, the already innovative Ralphs vaulted into the forefront of the industry with the introduction of self-service, a revolutionary development at the time, in its stores. The stores were rearranged and checkstands were installed near the front entrances. Home and mail delivery, longtime staples of Ralphs’ business, were dropped. Most significantly, the company launched a major expansion drive, opening six new, large, beautifully designed stores within a 13-month period. Twelve more stores would follow over the next decade.

To design these stores, Ralphs engaged Los Angeles’ premier architectural firms, including Morgan, Walls and Clements, with the design effort led by Stiles Clements. Russell Collins and W. Horace Austin designed several as well. The stores were built in the Spanish Colonial Revival (or Churrigueresque for you enthusiasts) style, a very popular look for Southern California at the time (and certainly to some extent still). To me, these stores’ amazingly elaborate, exquisite facades are without equal and are of a quality that is typically reserved for buildings of a greater stature than “mere” supermarkets. The sheer expense of the late 20’s/early 30’s Ralphs stores mandated that the design of future stores be simplified, which they of course were. (The Streamline Moderne facades that came a few years later proved to be far more economical.) Sadly, nearly all of the Spanish Revival Ralphs stores are long gone, many torn down in the 1950’s or 60’s to make way for larger, more modern Ralphs units. I’m confident that if these stores still stood today, they would have long since been accorded architectural landmark status.

I would like to extend my very special thanks to the Los Angeles Public Library for the use of these superb photographs, most of which are from their Security Pacific National Bank Collection . The first photo shows the Ralphs store at 6121 W. Pico Blvd in Los Angeles, designed by Russell Collins and opened in fall 1931. The photo itself was taken in 1945. The large rectangular sign atop the store is typical of those added to many Ralphs stores in the late 30’s. The second photo shows the Long Beach Ralphs, 2024 E. 19th Street, opened in 1931. This store was designed by W. Horace Austin. The third photo shows the 5711 Hollywood Blvd. store in a photo taken by Moss Photo shortly after its 1929 opening. The fourth photo, taken by Herman Schultheis, shows the same Hollywood Blvd. store, equipped with a larger sign and two new neighbors, including a new A&P store (!) directly to the left. Without knowing better, I think it’s safe to say that this particular A&P must have struggled to compete with its much more attractive next door neighbor. The fifth photo, taken by Luckhaus Studio, shows the 5615-23 Wilshire Blvd. Ralphs, designed by Morgan, Walls and Clements just after its 1929 opening. It’s amazing to see the open space around this store, which in time would find itself in the thick of one of the most fashionable, prosperous and densely built-up strips (Wilshire Boulevard) to be found anywhere. And how about those oil wells in the background! The sixth photo, photographer unknown, shows the same store from another angle. The seventh photo, from 1929, shows the new Chapman Park Market at 3465 W. Sixth Street. In 1933, The Market would be taken over and operated by Ralphs, whose signs would then grace the smaller tower to the right. This gem, also designed in the Spanish Revival style by Morgan, Walls and Clements, still stands. The final photo, from 1886 and photographer unknown, shows Ralphs brand new store, replacing the original 1873 store on the same site. George Ralphs stands out front leaning on a stack of boxes and his brother Walter can be seen in his shirtsleeves.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Ralphs' Remarkable Roster, 1940

I've been out of town on business, followed by a few days off to visit friends and family and take a long overdue hike in the Western N.C. mountains. Looking forward to digging deeper into the history of Ralphs, that Southern California grocery gem, in the next few days. In the meantime, here's a 1940 advertising spread showing the wonderful mix of Spanish Colonial Revival and Art Deco stores (with a Victorian thrown in for good measure) that the chain was operating at the time.

Thanks to Jeff for bringing us up to date on the current status of the pictured stores, which can be seen in the comments section of this post.

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!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Twilight of the Grand Union

The two photographs above show The Grand Union Company’s office tower and flagship store on the very last day of the store’s operation in March 2001. These photos come to us courtesy of John, an Elmwood Park native, who worked at the store during the last 14 years of its existence. The tower and flagship store were featured prominently in a series of posts on Grand Union’s early and mid-period history that appeared on this site late last year.

Opened as part of Elmwood Park (known as East Paterson until 1973) , New Jersey’s Elmwood Shopping Center in 1951, the structure was unique in that it combined a corporate headquarters with a full-blown retail supermarket on the first floor. The store served as a proving ground for the innovative chain and was a source of immense pride for Grand Union. The facility received a number of accolades and awards from the architectural community and soon came to be regarded as a local landmark.

In 1987, Grand Union moved its headquarters to nearby Wayne, New Jersey, while the store was left in place. As the photos sadly attest, the building deteriorated from that point on, hence the many boarded up windows. In 2001, after a seeming multitude of ownership changes, acquisitions, bankruptcies and other traumatic events, the chain finally threw in the towel. The Grand Union name lives on in a handful of stores that aren’t formally connected with the original organization.

The Elmwood Park Grand Union, along with its famous tower, was torn down later that year. A Walgreens now sits on the site, and the rest of the shopping center now has uniform storefronts.

John’s reflections appear below.

“I've lived in Elmwood Park my whole life so the Elmwood Shopping Center was a huge part of my life growing up. My mother used to walk up there with my sisters and I when we were little so I have great memories of all the stores with those great neon signs. The signs today are so boring compared to them. Another thing is that years ago all the store fronts looked different from each other, which had a lot of charm, and that's changed within recent years. The town wanted all the store fronts to look the same. I remember all these great stores like Kress which later changed to McCrory's, Channel which was a hardware store, Loft's (a candy/ice cream store), Molk Brothers (a greeting card/jewelry store), a men's store called Mr. L, a womens store called Lobell's, the Walgreens of course, and I vaguely remember the Neisner's and another store called Shirlaine's or Shirlene's, and of course the Grand Way which you know is now a Big Kmart”.

“I never thought they would actually tear down the Grand Union tower and when I was working there we were always told that they couldn't because it was a landmark. So much for that. The sad thing is that when G.U. moved their headquarters from Elmwood Park to Wayne, the tower remained empty and fell into serious disrepair. There were broken windows all over it. The other really sad thing is that while years ago that was their flagship store, when they moved no one cared about that store anymore. What was once their flagship store went downhill fast. Hours were cut, employees disgruntled, and customers very unhappy. Still I look back at my time there as the best years of my life”.
Note: Please click here then scroll down for earlier photos of the Grand Union Elmwood Park location.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

It's a Wal-Mart World Out There

Two of the many notable developments of the 1980’s were first, the ascent of Wal-Mart to the top of the American retailing world (the peak itself would be reached in 1991) and secondly, the establishment of Sam Walton as a modern-day American folk hero.

As mentioned, the company closed out the seventies with $1 billion in sales and 278 stores. Ten years later, in 1989, their profits were $1.6 billion (surpassing Kmart’s profits for the first time) on a sales total of nearly $26 billion, with a store count of 1,402 Wal-Mart Stores and 123 Sam’s Wholesale Clubs. Their market area, far too big to fit in a circle, magic or otherwise, comprised 29 states.

In many ways the catalyst for Wal-Mart’s explosive growth was their acquisition of the Big K stores. Overnight, the company’s store base grew by 20 percent, adding Georgia and South Carolina as new states, more than doubling their presence in Tennessee and Kentucky, and picking up some nice new locations in Mississippi and Alabama. Within a year, sixty percent of the Big K stores had been converted to the Wal-Mart format, not a simple process. Most importantly, the episode built the confidence of the Wal-Mart management team, convincing them that the company’s growth rate could be stepped up big time with relatively few problems.

Year by year, more states were added – Nebraska and Florida in 1983, North Carolina, Indiana and Florida in ’84, Virginia in ’85, Wisconsin in ’86, Minnesota in ’87, Colorado in ’88, Ohio and Arizona in ’89, and Michigan and Wyoming in 1990. The following year, Wal-Mart, that good old “southern chain”, became a coast-to-coast operation with stores in California, Nevada and Utah. Of course, Wal-Mart has been a 50-state (and international, for that matter) operation for many years now. Here is an amazing animated graphic illustrating Wal-Mart’s growth from 1962 up to now. Watch as the slow progression gives way to a frenetic pace. Kinda gives you pause, eh?

In 1987, Wal-Mart launched a new concept that quickly came to be regarded as a failed experiment - Hypermart USA. The peripatetic Sam Walton’s travels had by this time led him around the world – to South America, Australia, South Africa and all over Europe in search of retailing ideas. Walton was most impressed with the French-owned Carrefours (pronounced car-four) Hypermarket stores in Brazil, and got the itch to try out the concept in the United States. Carrefours’ Hypermarkets were huge 200,000-plus square foot stores offering general merchandise and a huge selection of food under one roof. While other American companies had tried or at least dallied with the hypermarket idea, Chicago’s Jewel Food Stores among them, no one had been able to make it fly.

Garland (suburban Dallas), Texas was the site of the first Hypermart USA opening in 1987. A second Dallas-Fort Worth store would follow, along with Hypermarts in Topeka and Kansas City. The stores – gaudy monstrosities with excessively high ceilings and massive entrance archways overwhelmed both the company and their customers. Although traffic was good, profits, due to the huge scale and overhead of the Hypermarts were not. Only four of them were ever opened. Author Robert Slater quotes Rob Walton as saying the Hypermart program failed “because of a lack of commitment and focus” – unusual attributes indeed for a Wal-Mart initiative.

Failure or not, the Hypermart experience paved a reliable highway for what would become Wal-Mart’s bread-and-butter, the Wal-Mart Supercenters. Scaled down and toned down, the Supercenters nonetheless were good-sized (150,000 plus square feet) and featured a similar merchandising mix to the Hypermarts. The first Supercenter opened on March 8, 1988 in Washington, Missouri. Wal-Mart was a bit more cautious at the outset, with only 100 Supercenters in operation over the first six years, but would step up the pace from there – 250 Supercenters were in existence by 1996 and an astounding 1,060 Supercenters by 2002. A by-product of the Supercenters’ success was Wal-Mart’s eventual dominance of the grocery industry. In 2001, Wal-Mart became America’s number one grocer, surpassing longtime industry leaders Kroger and Safeway, companies whose history goes much further back. Since we live smack in the middle of the Supercenter era (and goodness knows I try to stay away from the present on this site), I guess not a lot more needs to be said about them.

Sam Walton was not averse to publicity for Wal-Mart’s sake. In 1984, he splashed onto America’s front pages when he did his famous “Hula on Wall Street”, fulfilling a promise he made to Wal-Mart employees if the company met a certain earnings-per-share goal. Standing there on a summer day, with a crowd gathered around, a large contingent of TV cameras present, and outfitted in a suit, tie and grass skirt, the 66-year old Walton danced what he termed “a fair hula” to the music. A star was born.

What Walton was totally unprepared for was the media feeding frenzy that came his way a year later, when Forbes magazine featured him on its cover with the tagline “The Richest Man in America”. Shocked and a bit resentful of the publicity and encroachment on his privacy that ensued, Sam made a point of being seen driving his truck, wearing a casual denim shirt and jeans (Walton customarily wore suits to the office and on store visits) and hauling his hunting dogs around everywhere he went, in hopes that the media would be bored silly by his modest lifestyle and leave in short order. If anything, the opposite proved to be true, and it only fed the mystique. Eventually, he learned to live with the newfound attention, all the while trying to shift the focus to Wal-Mart’s amazing growth instead of his own story. It was never to happen during his lifetime. The story of Sam Walton - a true rags-to-riches, All-American saga was far too hard to resist.

In April 1992, after a long illness, Sam Walton passed away, followed three years later by his brother Bud. Control of Wal-Mart remained in the family hands of Sam’s wife, Helen, and their four children. Eldest son Rob Walton became chairman. The management of the company remained in the hands of trusted veterans David Glass and Don Soderquist, among others, who had highly developed skills in merchandising and distribution and were well-suited to take the company to new heights. Wisely, none of these men even attempted the impossible task of filling Sam’s shoes as the “Face of Wal-Mart”.

Here in the 21st century, Wal-Mart is the largest company in the world, a spot that was for many years the domain of General Motors. Reviled by many, defended by many - but ignored by few.

The first photo above shows the 1980's standard triple-soffitted Wal-Mart facade in a 1984 photo. The second photo, from 1982, shows the somewhat more economical alternate facade that appeared on a good many stores, including most of the renovated Big K units. Photos 3 through 10 are from 1981 to 1984 and show the checkout area, the service desk (with ironclad guarantee on the wall in back), the mens' and girls' clothing departments, the record department featuring a poster of Billy Joel from his "Glass Houses" era along with signs for Blue Oyster Cult, Cheap Trick (I saw them in concert back then!) and the late great Dan Fogelberg. Not a compact disc in sight. Next is the TV department with an Atari display and some outdoor antennas looming above (now there's a tribute to outdated technology), and Sam and Bud Walton cheering on the troops. The last photo, from 1988, shows the 80's glitz monster (by Wal-Mart standards, at least) that was Hypermart USA.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

A New Wal-Mart On The Way

One last Wal-Mart post, that is. In the meantime, the boys here'll get the sign set up. From the looks of their outfits, it must have been a pretty cold day. I don't think I'd mess with 'em.