Monday, May 26, 2014

My Trip to the French Market.

It was the happiest of coincidences. In the late summer of 2010, I spent a day in the Kansas City area visiting customers with a co-worker who was based there. Most of our meetings were on the “Kansas side” of town (as opposed to the “Missouri side”), which was largely new to me at the time.  We wrapped up in the late afternoon and adjourned to a local watering hole (McDonald’s) to grab a Coke and compare notes.

Leaving the restaurant, I glanced off into the distance and noticed what appeared to be, of all things, a castle on a hill – a dark, sprawling brick structure with two magnificent towers piercing the sky. “Whoa, it’s the French Market!” I exclaimed, recognizing it immediately, barely able to contain my excitement. “Uh, that’s Kmart, Dave”, my co-worker said, or something along those lines. True enough, of course, as the building had indeed housed a Kmart since 1970, and since my friend was in his mid-thirties, he wouldn’t have known it as anything else.

But once upon a time, it was indeed the French Market, a unique attempt at a discount store/supermarket with an international, old world flair. I first learned of it years ago on David Johnson’s wonderful “Discount Stores of the ‘60’s” site (which remains one of my favorites to this day), and felt I’d gotten to know it a bit from articles I read later on in old trade magazines. From all I’d read, the place was truly the talk of the town in its early years.

So after saying our goodbyes and exchanging the normal pleasantries, I hopped back into my car and proceeded to burn two five inch-wide, half inch-deep grooves into the pavement that spanned the distance between the McDonald’s and that most unusual Kmart.  During the (rather short) drive, visions of the French Market danced in my head. There I was, fantasizing about stepping through those doors into a pristine 1960’s faux-European marketplace, abuzz with beehived and Brylcreemed shoppers. Hoping to see at least some remaining features from the French Market’s glory days. And finding…pure Kmart. 

I’ll have to say it seemed nicer than most latter-day Kmarts. Cleaner, better stocked and more orderly - as if this location were one of the few remaining points of pride in that once-great organization.  And some vestiges of the French Market were indeed still visible, the most striking (besides the still-magnificent facade, of course) being a fixed awning along the upper inside front wall, once the home of the “Boulevard de France”, a collection of mini-shops, long since walled off below the awning for (presumably) office space.  
In September of 1962, a 54-year old family farmstead, located at the northeast corner of 95th Street and Metcalf Avenue in the booming Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, was razed. The property had been the home of George and Agatha Barthol, who raised ten children there. Mrs. Barthol, by then widowed and living in a nearby neighborhood, made frequent visits back, according to a Kansas City Times newspaper article, to “(watch) heavy construction machinery reshape the land”. “Mother is not saddened by the sight”, her daughter was quoted in the article, “she’s happy to be where she is.”

Perhaps Mrs. Barthol shared somewhat in the excitement that was sweeping the greater community about the “all-in-one” shopping center about to rise on the site of her former home – a brand new discount department store and modern supermarket all under one roof. An exotic theme that was sure to draw attention to their growing community. And it was gonna be huge – a whopping  171,000 square feet total, with 135,000 square feet allotted to general merchandise and another 36,000 to food and drug – twice the size of the average 1963 supermarket.

The French Market was the first retail project of Kansas City-based entrepreneur Sherman Drieseszun.  Drieseszun had cut his teeth in the garment business, acquiring Vic-Gene Manufacturing with his nephew and business partner Frank Morgan. (There were only four years between them.) Vic-Gene was a supplier of private-label women’s garments to retailers.

In the ensuing years Drieseszun and Morgan would shift focus to developing numerous office building, mall and shopping center projects both in and outside the greater Kansas City area. Their most notable shopping center, arguably, was Metcalf South, which opened in 1967, just across 95th Street from the French Market in Overland Park. Metcalf South was the area’s first enclosed mall, with Sears and The Jones Store as the original anchors.  Among the other malls the pair developed and/or owned at one point were East Hills Shopping Center in St. Joseph, Missouri,  Oak Park Mall in Kansas City, Crestview Hills Mall in northern Kentucky, Westminster Square Mall near Denver,  and Southwyck Mall in Toledo.

In later years some controversy would arise around Drieseszun’s shopping center holdings, and several newspaper articles lamented his lack of investment in older mall properties, allowing them to become dated and no longer competitive enough to attract quality retailers that would draw shoppers.  Upon his passing in 2007, however, he was hailed as a visionary who helped to reshape the Kansas City skyline, developing its two tallest buildings – AT&T Town Pavilion (now known as just “Town Pavilion”, and which itself incorporated a shopping mall) and One Kansas City Place.

To design the French Market, Drieseszun engaged renowned local architect Morris Schechter, who a few years earlier designed (with Raymond A. Bales) the famed TWA headquarters building in Kansas City, now rightly hailed as a mid-century masterpiece. Schechter’s work was reportedly inspired by Les Halles, the famous 19th century Parisian market, evoking its “feel” while sidestepping its fairly impractical design in favor of a more standard discount store template  (i.e.: a rectangular box.), with some unusual added features.

For the interior design work, Drieseszun went with the very best in the business – Brand-Worth and Associates, a Los Angeles-based retail design firm. In the 1960’s, no retail design firm was hotter than Brand-Worth, who produced stunning work for a list of clients that ranged  from Ralphs supermarkets to The May Company department stores. The French Market design team was led by Brand-Worth creative director Ray Jacobs, who “conducted extensive research into modern French design” for the project.  They definitely rose to the occasion, producing colorful décor throughout the store - bold in some areas, delicate in others, resulting in a successful “modern French” look, all rendered with the refinement and sense of whimsy that were among the firm’s trademarks.  

The supermarket portion of the French Market was operated by Floyd Day and Frank Armanees, who owned and operated five Thriftway supermarkets in the KC area. “The advertising and promotions of the French Market”, Progressive Grocer magazine noted, were “run independently of (Day and Armanees’) other operations.”  

On October 10, 1963, the French Market celebrated its Grand Opening, with all the attendant hoopla hailing “the quality of a Specialty Shop with the selection and value of a giant department store, in the relaxed atmosphere of a Paris market”. (I need to relax after typing that.) One can only hope that La Marseillaise, the French National Anthem, was played at the ribbon cutting. (Try listening to that without bursting into “Love, love, love…” after the first few bars. Didn’t think you could.) The opening day special was spot-on: French bread, transported from France “with the cooperation of Trans World Airlines” – for 8 cents a loaf! (Personally, I prefer my bread like this - flown in daily from Europe. It’s getting really expensive, though…) Apparently the festivities extended into a “2nd Great Week”, as the ad below attests, with a giveaway of authentic French coins and a chance to see “the championship sports car Grand Prix.”  

Promotional ballyhoo aside, delightful scenes greeted the shoppers of the French Market – the “Boulevard de France”, a series of small shops along a flower cart-lined “street”. Seating for the children’s shoes area masquerading as a trolley car. Decorative kiosks (long before the term became dreaded by mall goers) plastered with French travel posters. A hat tree and a “maypole” in the women’s apparel section. European road signs in the auto accessories section (Equipement d’une Auto). And all manner of faux French finery in the food departments, including “Bon Bons” and a “Bread Truck”. (Which is English for “Camion de Pain.” Now, I know you’re thinking “Wow, that’s worth the cost of Rosetta Stone by itself - what this guy won’t do to impress us!)

Unfortunately, the French Market’s run turned out to be brief, closing for good in May 1970. While I haven’t been able to locate much information relating to its demise, a July 6, 1970 Kansas City Times article offers some details, referencing a court judgment that was levied “for nonpayment of rent, cancellation of insurance, nonpayment of tax escrow funds and nonprevention of waste and deterioration of the premises.” Yikes.

Without question, this sad end was preceded by a long period of decline. I can only imagine how difficult (and expensive) it had to have been to maintain such a level of customized branding for what was essentially a one-off operation.

Those grand towers didn’t remain idle for long, however, as the same Kansas City Times article laid out the plans for the building’s future - as a new location for the fastest growing (and arguably most talked about) retailer of any kind in America at the dawn of the 70’s: Kmart. At the time, there were four Kmarts in the greater KC area, and that figure was about to double. 

Plans were announced for a new Kmart at Bannister and Hillcrest roads, two more in locations “soon to be announced”, and a fourth, the KC Times article stated, to be opened in the former French Market, resulting in “the largest K Mart in the Kansas City area”, according to John B. Hollister, S.S. Kresge’s vice president of real estate.    

“Extensive remodeling,” including “interior relighting and refixturing” would be soon underway, the article goes on to say. Presumably this meant the removal of the French Market’s unique and beautiful décor, to be replaced with the normal Kmart interior. (Funkily attractive in its own way, and easily the most fondly remembered Kmart interior design today. But anything but unique, of course, given the number of Kmarts in existence.)

One aspect of the planned remodeling, thankfully, appears never to have happened. The article refers to “work on a new single front entrance in the center of the market” that was put on hold due to a construction strike. Had the strike not occurred, it seems possible that the “French” façade, towers and all, might have been ditched altogether, leaving Overland Park with nothing more than a (really big) standard-issue Kmart.

The supermarket eventually ended up in new hands as well, becoming part of a leading Kansas City-based supermarket chain, Milgram Food Stores, which was founded in 1913 and known for some nicely-designed stores and their chipper “Hi Neighbor! “ slogan. The Milgram family sold the company (which had been briefly owned by Kroger earlier in its history) in 1984 to grocery wholesaler Wetterau, Inc., of St. Louis. Ultimately the “supermarket” portion of the building would become a Hancock Fabrics store.

Last October, I visited the Overland Park Kmart for what would sadly be the last time (while open, at least), as signs were up throughout the store announcing its imminent closing for good. December 15, 2013, turned out to be the last day of operation for the 43-year old Kmart. The Hancock Fabrics store closed soon afterward, relocating to a nearby shopping center. Reportedly, the building will be torn down in the near future to make way for a new Lowe’s home improvement center.

Overland Park, Kansas, remains a treasure-trove for old retail enthusiasts, and if you’re in the Kansas City area, I would highly recommend visiting it. (Along with KC’s legendary Country Club Plaza, an absolute must-see.) There is much of interest there, including Metcalf South, a fascinating semi-dead mall (only one anchor - Sears, still exists, along with a handful of other stores). There is also the stunning circa-1958 Katz Drug Store, which has been a CVS for some time now. And for just a little while longer, a little bit of France in the heartland of America.

I can’t help but wonder how a French-themed home improvement center might go over. It’s not too late, folks!

If anyone reading this has some personal memories of shopping at the French Market (Original Recipe or “Extra Kmart”) you’d like to share or can fill in some of the large gaps in its history, we’d love to hear from you!

The first set of black-and-white photos and the first color photo set are from Progressive Grocer – the June 1964 issue of the magazine, and from the book “Progressive Grocer’s Outstanding New Super Markets”. The photos in the second black-and-white set are Brand-Worth publicity shots that appeared in the March 1964 issue of Display World magazine.

A very special thanks to Brad Moore, master modeler and Overland Park historian, for providing the 1970’s close-up exterior photos of the Kmart and Milgram stores, and to David Johnson, first for providing the inspiration for this post through his website, and for the use of the wide composite view Kmart photo.

The final photos, shown below, were taken by me on a sunny early morning in October 2013. Note the fine composition and lighting in the interior shot. I call this the “shooting photos while pretending to check Facebook” technique.