Saturday, September 22, 2007

Safeway Sixties Style

Through the 1960’s, Safeway continued to pursue Chairman Robert Magowan’s oft-expressed objective of maintaining an aggressive store building and modernization program. During this period, usually 60 percent or more of Safeway’s stores were under ten years old - no mean achievement for a chain of that size. The comparatively tiny, white-painted Safeway stores of the 30’s and 40’s were an all-but-distant memory. A great many of the distinctive pyloned stores that had replaced them in the early and mid-50’s were themselves radically remodeled and expanded or replaced altogether by modern, much larger stores, often on the same site. Even though Safeway’s overall U.S. store count dropped by roughly 10 percent through the sixties, the chain’s overall square footage greatly increased, a trend shared with several other major supermarket chains.

Safeway utilized a number of architectural styles throughout the sixties, the first versions of many of them having “premiered” in 1959 or so. The most notable of these styles can conveniently be called the “Marina Family” of designs, after the company’s signature “Marina Safeway”, which opened in San Francisco in 1959. Although most (but certainly not all) subsequent marina-type stores were less elaborate than this first store, with its mosaics and four-foot wide louvered sunshades, the influence is obvious. The marina style generally consisted of a curved roofline and glass across most of the storefront except for a small section on the sides, which were usually finished in stone, wood or mosaic tile and most often sported the red and white round “S” Safeway logo. There were several basic variations of the marina theme (hence the “family” designation), which are most easily distinguished by the curvature of the roofline.

Many Safeway stores featured a low-slung peaked roof that Progressive Grocer magazine generically termed a “ranch-type design”.

The company also designed a wide variety of stores to meet local architectural standards, and this practice yielded many interesting designs – “Colonial Williamsburg” style buildings, rustic western-style exteriors, stores sporting historical murals of local significance (this category also included some of the marina-style buildings) and other one-of-a-kind designs intended to blend in with adjacent shopping centers. To be sure, however, many shopping centers of the era were content to present a “mix-n-match” appearance.

Then, there were stores that by Safeway standards were of very conventional design, with flat roofs and a minimum of architectural frills. Even these stores, in my opinion, had a classy, understated look that clearly identified them with Safeway.

As far as their overall business was concerned, the 1960’s saw a continuation of Safeway’s remarkable growth, the entrance into some new markets and exit from others. In 1960, Safeway opened its first store in Alaska, and in 1963, they reentered Hawaii after a 29-year absence with a new store in Honolulu. In 1961, the company ended its 20-year long presence in the underperforming New York-New Jersey market with the sale of around 160 area supermarkets to First National Stores. Magowan stated that the company’s intention was to use the funds from the First National transaction to build additional stores in the West, “where growth is assured”, as he was quoted in Time Magazine. The early sixties also saw Safeway’s entry into the UK, West Germany and Australia, all initially by acquisition of existing local chains. Many of these early European and Australian Safeways are very charming in that they were converted from existing, sometimes very old stores in picturesque old-world street settings. The stores that Safeway would build in those areas in the coming years often closely resembled their American and Canadian counterparts which were, of course, also charming.

The following stores are pictured, top to bottom: A 1963 Marina-style store with historical murals in Ashland, Oregon honoring a famous local Shakespearean theatre, another Marina-style from Honolulu, also from 1963 (the first Hawaiian Safeway in nearly three decades) , a "ranch-style" store in Alamo, CA from 1968, a Colonial-style from Richmond, VA in 1959, a unique design featuring historical murals in Santa Barbara from '59 as well (now a Vons and still looking good at 34 W. Victoria St in SB, thanks for the tip, Ed!), another '59 shot, this one a shopping center special in Independence, Missouri, an unusual design from in a 1965 Oakland location (which was actually a newly renovated 1950's era store) and a conventional flat-roofed store in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada from 1968.


  1. All these photos are very breathtaking. The designs, the colors, the plam trees. Just awesome!

  2. Virtually all chains built larger stores in the 60s than in the decade before and many were far larger than the typical 22K sf marina. Grand Union was building 30K sf stores in the late 50s. Moreover, the barrel vault roof was already present in a great many supermarkets from the 30s onward for engineering reasons and Safeway was not the only chain to strip that configuration bear and make the curved roof evident from the street (rather than hiding it behind a rectangular font). Penn Fruit had similar stores that probably originated sooner. Ranch designs were common among Acme and other chains.

  3. I remember discovering the mosaic murals on the side of the now Vons in downtown Santa Barbara a few years ago.
    A block off of State Street, they are still in good shape!

  4. Ed - That's great to know! I'd love to see it in person someday. These truly were works of art, and their like probably won't be seen again. It's staggering to imagine what it would cost in today's dollars to design new retail stores with these.

    Thanks very much!

  5. Anonymous, I think the Penn Fruit stores were some of the best looking ever. They probably built a larger percentage of their stores in the curved roof, open "marina" style than most chains. Albertsons had their fair share of these as well. You mentioned Grand Union - the one marina type I've seen of theirs in pics was opened in Utica NY around 1956 or so. I wonder if there were more.


  6. I grew up with the ranch design. It was prevelant in the Dublin store (later moved to San Ramon, with the same design).
    This was really a great post. Good work with the photos and writing.

  7. Thanks for the Santa Barbara store. I'll make a point of seeing it when I go to the Music Festival in August-RR Ryan

  8. RR Ryan - That's one I'd love to see myself!

  9. Regarding the German Safeway stores, there was one in my hometown into the 1990s. The building was a postwar construction with a distinctive white tiled exterior.

    The parking lot hosted an open air market on certain weekdays, probably because it was one of the few open spaces in a densely built 19th century quarter. In the 1980s, they put up a bronze statue on the parking lot, probably the only supermarket with its own statue.

    The building is still there and still a supermarket, though now occupied by the German Extra chain.

  10. Cora - Thanks for that background on Safeway's German stores. That's fascinating about the one with the statue. I hadn't heard of that previously, but it adds another dimension to the "charm" of the European stores I referred to.

  11. To be fair, I suspect the statue was sponsored by the county council rather than Safeway, but it's still very nice. It depicts a fishmonger, by the way, which is kind of fitting considering it stands in front of a supermarket.

    Regarding the history, the Safeway market is definitely a postwar building according to people who lived in the area for a long time, though nobody can remember what year it was built or what used to be there before. It was a Safeway into the 1990s, then briefly a Comet supermarket until the Comet chain was taken over by the German retail giant Metro AG and converted into an Extra market.

    The building is architecturally quite interesting, as it has an arched entrance and the outside is completely covered in white ceramic tiles. It is also remarkably well preserved. I'll see if I can snap a photo next time I'm in the area.

    Love your blog, BTW.

  12. Cora - Thanks so much for the kind words, I'm glad you like the site! I'd love to see a photo of the statue if you get a chance to take one.

  13. The Oakland store is most likely 3434 High St. The building is still standing and has been altered very little despite being occupied by Walgreens for close to 20 years now.

  14. You might wish to know that the Vons in Santa Barbara closed in December 2009.
    also, regarding Grand Union Marina-style stores, I shopped in one circa 1980-83 at 126th and 2nd in Lansingburgh (North Troy), NY. They exist(ed)! grin...

  15. I recognized the Edmonton store right away :-)

  16. The Oakland store is definitely 3434 High St. I remember shopping at that store as a kid. It's a Walgreens now and the building to the right with 3 windows is still there too. Later Safeway added a sign where the Walgreens sign is now with a neon circle S and neon SAFEWAY in green letters with a yellow background.

  17. That Honolulu Safeway has just closed down. They built a new store just around the corner from it.

  18. Dave, now you've gone and done it! I totally remember the store next to the Blue Ridge Bowl in Independence! We moved to the KC area after living in SoCal for a while, and my parents would shop at the "Monkey Wards" and then stop at the Safeway. Never did go into the bowling alley.

    1. Glad this brought back some memories for you! The Blue Ridge Wards is pictured on another post, if you haven't already seen it -