Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Surprise Visit to Katz City

So I’m on a business trip to Springfield, Missouri a few weeks ago, in town just for the day. I’m there to call on a customer, a well-known manufacturer of well-known products, as part of an effort to become well-known. As I drive through town, the usual mental prep is taking place.

Until I spy a building in the distance, that is, one I’d previously seen only in photographs. It’s a CVS Pharmacy to beat them all – a gigantic glass-fronted structure with a zig-zag (the proper architectural term is “folded plate”) canopy suspended above the store facade. I recognize it instantly as the famous “Katz City” drug/department store, opened in 1961 as the crown jewel of the legendary Katz Drug Co., a Kansas City-based drugstore chain known for their unique-looking stores, brash marketing approach and above all, their mascot - a grinning black cat. To top it off, just a block or two up Glenstone Avenue is a perfectly preserved early 60’s Steak ‘n Shake restaurant, a delightful relic of that long-ago era when fast food was good for us. (Or at least we didn’t know any better. That itself was good for us.)

Out the window goes my mental prep, of course. Wild thoughts begin to run through my head, like how to break the news to the family when I get home that night – “I’ve been transferred to Springfield. We’re moving in two weeks. Sorry, Kids!” After a few minutes I settle down, deciding instead to just visit the store after my appointment is over. When I get there later that afternoon, I’m struck by a couple of things –the zig-zag canopy’s fine state of repair (by no means typical for classic retail properties, unfortunately), and by the sheer size of the place - the typical CVS interior decor and signage was there, of course, but so was what seemed like miles of low-rise shelving devoted to gift items that you’d never find in one of their typical stores, plus a massive-width main aisle. An impressive 75,000 square feet, I learn upon checking my “Katz files” back home.

Indeed it was the largest store in the Katz chain at the time of opening, described by the company as “The Store of the Future Today” and “a one-stop shopping colossus”. The store was designed by the Kansas City-based architectural firm of Kivett and Myers, whose resume of deco and mid-century modern gems includes several other Katz stores that still stand, such as these striking examples in Kansas City on Main Street and in Overland Park, Kansas. The Springfield store was unique in that (to my knowledge) it was the only Katz location not to feature their trademark script logo or the black cat mascot on the store exterior, although both were likely seen in abundance inside.

As the chain’s ownership has changed through the years, so has the name above the front doors, of course. In 1971, Katz sold out to Skaggs Drug Centers, Inc., whereupon the store became a Skaggs unit. In 1984, Skaggs (now renamed American Stores, after another company they bought) acquired Chicago-based Jewel Companies, owners of the Osco Drug chain, and eventually the Skaggs stores were redubbed as Osco units. In 1998, American Stores was sold to Albertsons, and when that chain was dismantled in 2006, the free-standing Osco Drug stores, including the futuristic one-stop shopping colossus pictured above, were snapped up by CVS. Thankfully, they’ve preserved the store’s classic exterior thus far.

The photo above shows the store as it appeared not long after its December 1961 grand opening, festooned and glowing for the occasion. I’d love to have “crossed this Katz’ path” back then, but better late than never!

16 comments:

  1. I was in Overland Park in 2009 and saw this building! We were across the street, at a Burger King, making a "pit" stop. LOL

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  2. Skaggs used to be in my town, too, after they took over the Skaggs-Albertson's that opened a few years prior. It was to stay primarily a supermarket-and-pharmacy for the rest of its life, becoming Skaggs Alpha Beta, Jewel-Osco (briefly), and finally Albertsons again before closing.

    It's still vacant today, and has some interesting architectural remnants. I made a post on it in my blog (http://csroadsandretail.blogspot.com/2011/01/from-skaggs-shopping-center-to.html).

    There was also a Jewel-T in town, something I'd like to see covered on this site (Jewel-T, not that location)

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  3. A retail architecture classic. Glad to hear it's still occupied and recognizable.

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  4. What a gorgeous store! I am sure I have driven through Springfield (Missouri, not Illinois, of course) on our road trip some years back. Wish I had paid more attention!

    Sort of OT, but since you mention Osco I really miss the freestanding ones. The in store Jewel Oscos just do not have the same feel and I think they stopped selling DVDs or at least the one by my house has. Sure, you can always purchase $20 a pop new releases or get a $1 rental from the Red Box outside but what I really miss were the low budget low priced goodies like Mystery Date that you can take home and basque in the glory of early 90s wonder. Yes, I know. I am a dork.

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  5. Skaggs always seemed to have big stores, even selling TVs and stereos. Those went away when the Osco name went on them.

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  6. It's cool that you have a lot of files with information about old stores on them at home. I wonder where one can get information on them. The Internet, or what?

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  7. The Steak n Shake is along Route 66, isn't it? Or at least near it?

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  8. I lived in Springfield for three years and learned a little about the retail in that area. The building on the corner of the CVS/Katz lot was a small 1950s Safeway. Downtown Springfield has a marina Safeway now operating as a Price Cutter and a 1940s Safeway operating as an independent. A block north of the Steak-N-Shake isa 1960s IGA called Smilleys.

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  9. Kim – I’ve seen the Overland Park location (another very distinctive store) but I wasn’t driving and didn’t need a pit stop at the moment, sorry to say! ;)

    Pseudo3D – I’d love to have seen a Skaggs Alpha Beta, or a Texas or Arkansas-based Jewel-Osco (would’ve really been neat, considering I grew up around Jewel-Osco in the Chicago area). I’ve seen lots of Albertsons, of course. Jewel T would be a good future post, I do have a couple of pics.

    Most of the “files” are old trade magazine articles, company financial reports, ads, postcards,etc. that I’ve been able to track down. Sometimes they turn up on Ebay. Some of the stuff I’ve had for years.

    There’s a second classic Steak n’ Shake in Springfield. It is on Route 66, as you say.

    Catnip Intoxicating – This is the only Katz store I’ve seen that didn’t have the famous black (later versions were yellow/gold in color) cat sign. Could easily have been one of a kind.

    Steve – That’s for sure, and the well-preserved state of the awning, as mentioned, was a very nice surprise.

    Didi – This one just caught me by surprise - I had totally forgotten about it!

    Nothing dorky about “Mystery Date”, right? :)

    Jamcool – Katz was a pioneer in terms of drugstore sales of big-ticket items, and it’s interesting that you mention Skaggs did that as well. Definitely wasn’t the Osco philosophy, though.

    Jacaburington - Thanks for those great notes on other classic Springfield retail stores. I’ll have to look out for those former Safeways (especially the one next to the CVS/Katz – wow!) next time I’m there. Thanks again!

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  10. As much as I'd like to see a Kroger Greenhouse post, I don't think that's possible. What I would like to see is anything, really. Jewel-T would be great.

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  11. Pseudo3D - I'm working on something else at the moment and have other things planned after that, but both are subjects I want to cover eventually. As mentioned, vintage Greenhouse photos are hard to come by, but everything seems to turn up eventually. Jewel-T I would include as part of a more comprehensive look at Jewel, which I've only touched on before.

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  12. Know what? Just as old grocery stores are neat (I enjoy 1980s designs the best, you know), there's one other part to the vintage grocery experience: old packaging!

    I mean, check out this old Chips Ahoy! bag. How is this NOT cool?

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/60585948@N00/4315927159/in/photostream/

    I mean, it even says "Nabisco, Inc."! I miss Nabisco, even though I only knew it as Nabisco Brands.

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  13. So glad you posted on this great old building! This is one of my favorite stores in Springfield. I think it ws so big because of the blue laws; drug stores could be open on Sundays, so they had a lot of extras not expected in drug stores. Glenstone Avenue north and south of this store is still a favorite part of town for me. A few mid-century style buildings remain. I remember the Safeway someone mentioned. There is also, next to this CVS, a building that used to house an A & P in the colonial or centennial design, whatever that is called. Someone mentioned the Steak and Shake; my grandfather's best friend managed it back in the 60s before opening a franchise of Mr Quick hamburger stands. There are a couple of quite old shopping centers near the CVS; one had a great 40s era one screen theater, a Ben Franklin, Crown Drug, Grants, and I think a Woolworth at various times. The IGA someone mentioned was once an Ozarks chain called Consumers. If you are interested in knowing about anything along this great stretch of Glenstone, let me know!

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  14. Next time you're in Springfield, you need to go downtown and meet Dairy Queen's oldest franchise. (Its #7 and has been around since 1946!) The people who run it are two of the nicest I've ever met. They were also on this corner at one time and have some vintage photos down at the DQ. 307 S. Jefferson is the address.

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  15. It's the only place I went in Springfield, and I can't say I'm disappointed!

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