Friday, May 3, 2013
But scattered among their 1,600-plus stores at the time were a number of bonafide architectural gems –fine examples of deco and moderne styling that undoubtedly stood out from their respective city blocks at the time. A fortunate few of these buildings, including the two pictured above, survive today – though neither one has housed a J.C. Penney for years. One thrives as part of a major specialty retail chain, while the future of the other is less assured. In the first photo, the rented searchlight (note the name of the company, “Film Ad Co.” – with all the movie premieres in town, these were probably fairly easy to come by in the L.A. area) is on site and ready to go for the grand opening of the new Penney store at the corner of 3rd Street and Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica, California, which opened in 1949.
This store was designed by Milton L. Anderson, a little-known Los Angeles-based architect, who also designed fine-looking Penney stores in San Bernardino and Burbank around the same time. Like his more renowned counterpart, Stiles Clements (the store directly faced a Clements-designed Ralphs grocery store across the street), Anderson designed in the Spanish Colonial Revival style in the late 1920’s, a popular Southern California architectural motif in the era just prior to the advent of art deco/streamline moderne, which he later embraced.
The specific style of this building, according to a 2006 City of Santa Monica Landmark Assessment and Evaluation report, is classified as Late Moderne, a school that “borrowed the horizontality, curved canopies, and curved corners from the Streamline Moderne style, and the flat roof, window bands, and boxy form of the International Style… Broad cantilevered rectilinear or curved canopies were also a character-defining feature… (as were) soaring sign pylons that dominated (a) building’s facade.” The report underscores the store’s most notable design feature, the “cylindrical fluted tower on the building’s northeast corner that rises above the roofline to form a prominent anchor to the retail store building as seen from Wilshire Boulevard and 3rd Street.”
The store (which replaced J.C. Penney’s original 1930’s-vintage Santa Monica unit at 1328 3rd Street, just up the block) both predated and survived Penney’s “full-line era”, roughly the early 1960’s through the early 1980’s, when the company sold large appliances, sporting goods, automotive and other assorted hard goods in addition to the Penney staples of clothing, linens, towels and the like. In all likelihood, the Santa Monica store, due to its location and relatively small size, never ventured far beyond the company’s traditional soft goods offerings.
In 1965 a three-block area of 3rd Street, encompassing the Penney store and other retailers, was closed off for conversion to a pedestrian mall. Known since then as the “3rd Street Promenade”, it remains successful today, no doubt owing to its limited scope, successfully avoiding the pitfalls of overreach that have doomed conversions like it in other cities.
The store survived under the Penney flag into the mid-1990’s, a point when the vast majority of these had long since been supplanted by large, regional mall-based stores. (Amazingly, a similar store hung in there all the way until last summer.) Since 1998, the store has been a prominent location for Banana Republic, the upscale banner of Gap Inc. The famous façade has been preserved (sans the Penney signage, of course), and $7 million worth of interior renovations were carried out. As of this writing, it looks like The Gap is putting this one up for sublease. Perhaps another supplier of high-end khakis will show some interest in this beautiful building.
Even more striking, perhaps, is the second store pictured, which opened the same year at 5930 Easton Avenue (later renamed Dr. Martin Luther King Drive) in St. Louis, Missouri, in an area of town known as the Wellston Loop. Once again, Penney engaged the services of a local architect, William P. McMahon & Sons, and once again a stunningly-designed building resulted.
McMahon, a St. Louis native, had already enjoyed a long career at that point, having designed homes, churches and various commercial buildings around town beginning in 1907. By the 1930’s he was working in partnership with his son, Bernard, a recent architectural school graduate who favored Modernism and would spend time in California, where streamlined design reigned supreme. By the time the Penney project rolled around, Bernard had long since mastered the form. Not to be outdone, the elder McMahon brought his own Modernist sensibilities to the job, honed through aerodynamic design work he did for a military aircraft manufacturer during World War II, when building design commissions were slow in coming.
The Wellston J.C. Penney store is considered a prime example of the International Style of Modernism, according to a 2006 report submitted to the National Register of Historic Places. It “typifies (the International style) through its rejection of ornamentation, incorporation of horizontal ribbon windows with cantilevered surrounds and dependence on regularity to organize the primary façade rather than axial symmetry.” (The difference between ‘regularity’ and ‘symmetry’ being “lots of windows or other structural features placed at regular intervals” as opposed to “the strict symmetry of a Greek temple”, the historical precept upon which much architecture was, and is, based. This excellent series of articles explains the concept better than I could ever hope to.) The building’s crowning feature, literally and figuratively, is its floating partial canopy, with cutouts that “frame views of the sky.”
Penney had opened their first St. Louis store two decades earlier, in 1928, at 2604 North 14th Street, and two others quickly followed – at the corner of Morganford and Gravois in 1929, then at 5976 Easton Avenue (doors away from the featured store) in 1930. This gave the company locations “north, south and west of downtown” respectively, according to the NHRP report.
Interestingly, “Unlike St. Louis’s three largest department stores, Stix Baer & Fuller, Scruggs-Vandervoort Barney and Famous Barr, J.C. Penney chose not to build a central store downtown. Instead, Penney’s focused on a decentralized model of retailing along the lines of Woolworth’s and other national chains by locating multiple in neighborhoods where its customers lived”, the report says. (This wasn’t necessarily true of Woolworth’s or Penney’s in other large cities, though, as both chains had a number of major downtown flagship stores by this time. But St. Louis was an exception.)
The Wellston store’s location enabled it to capitalize on the migration of St. Louisans to the suburbs while continuing to draw a fair amount of business from city dwellers. (Penney opened a second very successful neighborhood location the following year, 1950, at the Hampton Village Shopping Center, with the polar opposite architectural theme – a “Colonial Williamsburg” motif. That store remains open today.)
As late as 1967, the Wellston store still qualified as a key link in the Penney chain, and as such it was approved for an extensive “New Image” makeover that year, putting it in league with their new mall-based showplaces at Northwest Plaza and South County Center. By 1976, however, things had changed. In the report’s words, “the trends that enabled the Wellston store to be successful through the 1950s and 60s propelled shoppers even further westward; changing neighborhood demographics hastened the company’s departure.” That year, the Wellston J.C. Penney store closed. For the last 37 years it has stood vacant.
The building has been the subject of controversy in recent years, and nearly met its demise a few years ago when the local alderman withdrew his previous support for its preservation. Fortunately, St. Louis is blessed with a preservation community that’s second to none, and with a disproportionate number of great mid-century architectural blogs that tend to put the word out about such things. The best of the bunch, in my opinion, is B.E.L.T. – “The Built Environment in Layman’s Terms”, written by Toby Weiss (who also sings in a band called The Remodels – how great is that?). She recently informed me that the building has indeed been added to the National Register of Historic Places, and that the referenced alderman “has backed off on wanting to tear it down.” Other than that, all is quiet.
Of course, the key to survival of any historic retail building is a viable tenant. Maybe someone offering mid-priced khakis will give it a go.
As always, my special thanks to the J.C. Penney Archives at Southern Methodist University’s DeGolyer Library for the use of these great photos.