Sunday, August 22, 2010

A Well Planned Safeway, 1966

Many of the retail chains featured on this site were known for an iconic look – a combination of architecture, signage and interior decoration that made their stores instantly recognizable. While this remains largely true today, one could argue that it reached a peak during the 1960’s.

Among the foremost of these would have to be Safeway, with its “Marina” design. They had a handful of other favored formats, including the “Ranch” Safeway (Low, peak-roofed stores. Maybe they had one of those in Hidden Valley, California - get it? Ok, moving right along…), but the Marina, introduced in 1959 and named for its maiden location on San Francisco’s Marina Street, is far and away the best remembered Safeway store design today. Hundreds were opened in Safeway’s vast American territories (the West, Atlantic, Southwest and Plains regions), and a number of examples sprang up in the company’s Canadian, European and Australian markets as well. The Marina stores featured floor-to-ceiling windowed facades with one of several “standard” arched rooflines - with or without upswept “side wings”, horizontal wings, etc., and a multitude of other permutations. At the briefest glance, they were unmistakably Safeways.

As much as I like the “trademark” store designs of Safeway and others , however, l love the one-of-a-kind stores these chains would occasionally open to fit into an unusual setting or meet some special architectural requirement. Depicted above, in a wonderful photo sent to me recently by Amy Bertsch, is just such a store - from 1966, the Safeway supermarket at the brand-new Lake Anne Plaza in Reston, Virginia. This photo was taken by visitors from nearby Alexandria. My sincere thanks to Amy for sharing it with us.

Amy informs us that Lake Anne Plaza was the first community in Reston, the “planned suburb” of Washington, D.C., to be completed. Intrigued, I did a brief bit of research on Reston and Lake Anne Plaza and found it very absorbing. One site in particular, the Planned Community Archives at George Mason University in nearby Fairfax, is a treasure trove, to put it mildly.

There’s way too much detail to go into here, but I’ll attempt to cover a few basics. Reston, conceived in the early sixties, was the beneficiary of experience gained by America’s earliest planned communities, including Park Forest, Illinois and the various Levittowns. Planning goals for Reston included maintaining the close proximity of homes, stores and offices (creating “an ideal place to live and work”) in a modern architectural environment, while hopefully avoiding the income and class stratification that became so closely associated with the aforementioned towns.

Whether they succeeded in the latter goal is hard to say, but the modern architecture of Reston (and Lake Anne Plaza in particular) is now widely recognized as a true mid-century modern classic. The master plan for Reston, completed in 1963, was developed by acclaimed architect James Rossant, whose firm also designed the buildings in Lake Anne Plaza. Additionally, Rossant was an accomplished artist who personally designed the Brutalist sculptures that adorned the Plaza’s courtyards and fountains. In 1982, Lake Anne Plaza was declared a historic district. Through the years, his firm remained active there, overseeing a major renovation some of the Plaza’s key buildings and sculptures a few years back. Mr. Rossant passed away in December of last year at the age of 81.

The Safeway, now gone, was a vital part of the Lake Anne community in earlier years. An early 70’s Lake Anne promotional brochure, archived on the GMU site, spotlights a middle-aged couple who regularly traveled to the store by boat, for example - a sure-fire way to keep the romantic flames glowing. The store’s restrained signage, the polar opposite of 70-foot-tall tower signs, is very appealing in its own right, and I got a particular kick out of seeing the famous Safeway font and “S” logo rendered in black and white - a very classy touch!

At some point though, as the photo below (shown here through the kind courtesy of the Planned Community Archives, Special Collections & Archives, George Mason University Libraries) shows, the signs were changed from monochrome to the very familiar red and white. Perhaps the company felt the need to ramp up the branding power a bit.

Or maybe the whole thing was just a Wizard of Oz-like dream sequence: “Oh, it was beautiful! There was snow everywhere – and the Safeway signs were all in color – and you, and you, and you, and you were there!!”

But I guess the first scenario seems more likely, doesn't it?


  1. Wow, it is hard to believe that is a picture from the 1960's! It looks very much like a couple of the newer Safeway stores in Portland, Oregon.

  2. Speaking of shopping and planned communities. here is a link to an article from the KANSAS CITY STAR:

    It's about people organizing to keep part of the city's Country Club Plaza (considered to be the first shopping area developed as such in this country)from being torn down for an office building.

    Personal note--the John Korolow mentioned in the article is one of my oldest online old we weren't even online when out paths crossed. We learned of each other through a club that used a phone message system to provide information and contacts.

  3. Thanks for the nice walk down memory lane - I remember the red "S"! There's an independent grocery store there (or was last time I visited). Due to growing store sizes, the Lake Anne Safeway's compact dimenions eventually put it more in the class of the Town House stores that used to operate in Washington DC ( Since this "landlocked" Safeway couldn't keep pace, size-wise, other than adding a tiny additional storefront as a wine area, I think the store's upkeep suffered; this impacted its already limited revenue potential, so its eventual demise was sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  4. I live near Lake Anne, and always wondered where the Safeway used to be. I now know that the clock in the plaza was the Safeway logo sign. Thanks!

  5. Planned suburban communities predate Park Forest: Shaker Heights, Ohio; Riverside, IL; Chevy Chase, MD, Greenbelt, MD, Greenhills, Ohio. The list goes on....Shaker Heights included a pioneer planned shopping center (Shaker Square). The "Greens" (Greenebelt, Greenhills) also included shopping centers; because they came later than Shaker Square, they included supermarkets. Shaker got one after WWII.

  6. Quite an informative post. I am wondering if a planned community like this or Park Forest could still work and be adapted today? I know they sort of do similar projects to this but they tend to be upscale (The Glen in Glenview comes to mind) but planned communities like Park Forest were geared towards the middle class. I guess I am wondering if a middle class planned community could still work today.

  7. Interesting you mention income stratification of neighborhoods today. As a sometimes insomniac, I find myself watching public TV digital subchannels into the wee hourse of the morning, particularly "The Ohio Channel". Often they show interesting lectures given at the Cleveland Club or the Columbus Metropolitan Club. In one such lecture, an older man stood up and said that he was a developer/home builder for over 40 years. The one thing he said he notices, is that nowadays the first thing people ask when they want to buy a house is where the better neighborhoods whereas in the past most people weren't as concerned with locating in the "right" areas and that the income levels of people living together was more diverse.

  8. Danny, that doesn't really surprise me because taking a look at the example I mentioned I can't imagine anyone of a middle class or lower class income level affording to live in The Glen even though they are a mixed use of townhomes, bigger homes and rental apartments. When this plan was conceived it was meant to be upscale complete with upscale retail like Ann Taylor (which has since closed), Von Maur, Dominick's etc. This is where one of two Bravo restaureants in the Chicago area is located so there is nothing but upscale retail and entertainment. Hard to see any new development today where economic separation co-exists (I know that may be a poor choice of words but it was a bad day at work and my brain hurts) in the homes side by side with a retail development of say Aldi's and Bloomingdale's. Whereas back in the day in Park Forest, IL a Goldblatt's stood side by side with Jewel and Marshall Fields though I am told that was no easy task to make happen as there was objection to Goldblatt's.

    Basically, that's why I wondered.

  9. I agree with Howard -- the photos are so brilliant in focus and the color so crisp, they could have been taken yesterday.

    The store in the snow looks sort of like a college campus building! Very stylish.

    I miss Safeway. There used to be a Safeway up the street from us, but now it's a Sainsbury's. I like Sainsbury's, but I don't know why Safeway gave up business in Britain.

  10. When I was in elementary school, we watched a program called Doomsday 2000?? I think, that featured planned communities, one of which had architecture much like Lake Anne Plaza. The basis was a kid doing a project on how pollution and declining resources were destroying the world, only for him to learn we were taking measures and plans to head off disaster.

    The one flaw with the Lake Anne store, was it was small even for the era in which it was built. The buildings are still good examples of mid century modern. Were it not for the old style "magic carpet" automatic doors, the building looks contemporary even today and lacks the gaudy attempts at most shopping centers built nowadays in that it deliberately wanted to look cutting edge while today the "faux retro" look is being built.

    One of the things about most planned communities from the 60's which relates to Danny's points. Most were planned to house a diversity of income levels. These plans often included higher density housing and apartments for people of more modest means. During the recession of the 70's, the lower density developments prevailed that catered to higher income stratas and most of the higher density development was scratched. Peachtree City, GA is one glaring example of how as it filled with higher income people, high density was zoned away.

  11. Howard – The building definitely has a modern look, and the brick pavers would definitely fit in today. I’m guessing that the newer Safeways in Portland are quite a bit larger, though! Thanks for the comment.

    Paul – I had the pleasure of visiting K.C.’s Country Club Plaza for the very first time about a month back, and was blown away by it – what an exquisite place, timeless and so well preserved. When I read the line in the article you cite that the place “has never been declared a historic district”, I was absolutely appalled. This honor has been conferred on scores of far less deserving places, in my opinion. Given the historical significance and sheer beauty of the place (and the fact that it still houses vital, healthy retail chains and very popular restaurants), preservation is a must. Here’s hoping that sanity prevails!

    Anonymous – Glad that you enjoyed the walk down memory lane! Thanks for that bit of info on the additional storefront for the wine area. You make a good point about the store’s small size – it would probably fall into the “convenience store category” today, and was undoubtedly on the smaller side even by Safeway’s standards of the day, as Ken notes above.

    Dcseain – Kind of neat that they reused the sign frame for a clock! That’s the kind of trivia that I find very interesting, as I’m sure others would if they knew about it.

    Anonymous – Thanks for bringing up the very important point about America’s earlier planned communities. I was thinking postwar and should have qualified it as such. I lived in Riverside for ten years growing up (my mom still lives there), so it probably should have occurred to me! Long live Olmsted!

    Didi – It does seem that planned communities skew toward the higher income levels now. I’m not sure that a “heavily” planned community geared toward the middle class would do well at all today. Upscale planned communities are sold based on status, and to a lesser extent convenience. In mid and lower income brackets it would probably feel more like social engineering - the difference between wanting to be a part of something and feeling like you have to.

    Danny – I’ll bet he had a very interesting perspective, given 40 years in the business. Sounds like, based on that, that the perceived differences in “quality of life” between neighborhoods must be sharper than ever.

    Nightdragon – I had seen your profile before but forgot that you lived in Britain! I think the Safeway pullout was part of a larger scaling back of operations – they also exited several major US markets around the same time (late 1980’s). You’re probably aware that Sainsbury used to operate in the US as well. One of the chains they owned was Shaw’s in the New England states, and by all accounts I’ve read, they were excellently run stores.

    I agree that the buildings do resemble a nicer college campus of that era. And yes, the photo quality is wonderful – Amy told me it’s from a slide, by far the preferred photographic format in my book!

    Ken – I can’t say I’ve heard of that film, but it sounds like a fun one – like when we all gathered around our TV sets to watch “The Day After”. I do remember environmental films along a similar line being shown in class during my early grade school years in the early 70’s.

    The Lake Anne store had no hope of being expanded without disrupting the unique architecture, and was small for the times as you mention. I’m sure local residents hated to see it close. (Not sure when that happened, but it would be interesting to know.)

    I think the Peachtree City example you mention is typical of planned communities as a rule, at least in recent decades. High-income housing as rule has been more profitable to develop, although the last couple of crazy economic years have tossed the rule books out of the proverbial window, I’m sure.

  12. Dave, right you are about the Shaw's chain during the J. Sainsbury era. They were growing and thriving back then. For a time Shaw's even adopted the legendary "Good Food Costs Less" slogan employed by Sainsbury's. Sainsbury's was having difficulties back home so Shaw's got sold to Albertsons in 2004 and it's been all downhill from there.

  13. It's funny you mention Reston... Only last week after reading about it's history I was telling my boyfriend I wanted to make a pilgramage up there to see what it was all about! I found the concept intriguing, in particular it's roots in mid century modernist America. Great post :)

  14. Highlands Ranch in the Denver area is a massive planned community. Everything conforms to community standards, including architecture and landscaping. It is a pretty sought after place for retail, but there is plenty of space so all types are present. I should add that the Wal Mart in Highlands Ranch is extremely popular, considering that this is an upscale community.

  15. I spent most of my life in the DC area, and I never cared for Reston. Perhaps it is "maintaining the close proximity of homes, stores and offices (creating “an ideal place to live and work”)"

    However, when the place was designed and built, it was assumed that all travel would be by private automobile. Look at the traffic mess around there now.

    A planned community, at least in such a congested area as Northern Virginia, should have rail transportation. Finally, Reston will be getting Metro access in 2013.

  16. Anonymous – Thanks for that detail on the Sainsbury ownership of Shaw’s. Interesting that adopted the British slogan for use her in the states!

    Amber – Thanks very much, and hopefully you’ll get to travel to Reston soon! It’s a place I’d like to see as well, now that I know more about its history.

    Anonymous – Quite a few places across the country have strict zoning and architectural/landscaping standards, but the Reston concept of living in such close proximity to the places you shop (or work) doesn’t seem to be as prevalent today.

    Tom – Some of us need a little time to “decompress” on the way home from work, and a 2-minute drive wouldn’t exactly allow that. In light of that, I’m not sure how much I would have liked it either! The architecture is great, though.

    The expansion of the Metro into the Reston area sounds like a great (and long overdue) move. I’ve always had good experiences riding the Metro on trips to the DC area.

  17. I'm wondering if you could do a round-up of Safeway store designs that were unique in the 1970s and 1980s, since those two decades seemed to lack any descriptive features that Safeways from the '50s and '60s had had.