Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Ralphs - Supermarkets, Spanish Style

Ralphs, a SoCal institution with roots extending to the late 19th century, certainly had one of the more interesting beginnings for a retail chain. In 1873, 23-year old San Bernardino County native George A. Ralphs was considered to be the Los Angeles area’s champion bricklayer. A freak hunting accident that year cost him his left arm, forcing Ralphs to abandon his chosen profession. He reset his sights on the grocery business, opening a store at the corner of 6th and Spring Streets. Two years later, Ralphs would be joined by his brother, Walter B. Ralphs. For the next quarter century, the brothers operated the single store, relocating it one block north in 1901 to make way for the Hayward Hotel, which still stands on the original Ralphs store site.

Interestingly, a large percentage (well over half) of Ralphs’ business in their early years consisted of mail order and home delivery of groceries. Much of their in-store trade was done via barter instead of on a cash basis.

In 1909, the company was formally incorporated as Ralphs Grocery Company, and two years afterward they finally opened a second store, located “way out in the country” (as the Los Angeles Times later put it) at the corner of Pico Boulevard and Normandie Avenue. A third store was established at 2601 Pasadena Avenue and a fourth at Vermont Avenue and 35th Street, part of Ralphs’ gradual growth over the next two decades, reaching a tally of ten units by 1928.

Ralphs scored points with customers in 1926 when it took on the Los Angeles “Bread Trust”, a local cartel of bakers who supplied the majority of area grocers. On a fateful Friday, Ralphs was informed that food retailers would be required to raise the price of a loaf of bread from five cents each to a dime. Defiant, Ralphs secured a building that very weekend and installed their own baking equipment. On the following Monday five-cent loaves bearing the Ralphs brand name appeared on the chain’s shelves.

In 1928, the already innovative Ralphs vaulted into the forefront of the industry with the introduction of self-service, a revolutionary development at the time, in its stores. The stores were rearranged and checkstands were installed near the front entrances. Home and mail delivery, longtime staples of Ralphs’ business, were dropped. Most significantly, the company launched a major expansion drive, opening six new, large, beautifully designed stores within a 13-month period. Twelve more stores would follow over the next decade.

To design these stores, Ralphs engaged Los Angeles’ premier architectural firms, including Morgan, Walls and Clements, with the design effort led by Stiles Clements. Russell Collins and W. Horace Austin designed several as well. The stores were built in the Spanish Colonial Revival (or Churrigueresque for you enthusiasts) style, a very popular look for Southern California at the time (and certainly to some extent still). To me, these stores’ amazingly elaborate, exquisite facades are without equal and are of a quality that is typically reserved for buildings of a greater stature than “mere” supermarkets. The sheer expense of the late 20’s/early 30’s Ralphs stores mandated that the design of future stores be simplified, which they of course were. (The Streamline Moderne facades that came a few years later proved to be far more economical.) Sadly, nearly all of the Spanish Revival Ralphs stores are long gone, many torn down in the 1950’s or 60’s to make way for larger, more modern Ralphs units. I’m confident that if these stores still stood today, they would have long since been accorded architectural landmark status.

I would like to extend my very special thanks to the Los Angeles Public Library for the use of these superb photographs, most of which are from their Security Pacific National Bank Collection . The first photo shows the Ralphs store at 6121 W. Pico Blvd in Los Angeles, designed by Russell Collins and opened in fall 1931. The photo itself was taken in 1945. The large rectangular sign atop the store is typical of those added to many Ralphs stores in the late 30’s. The second photo shows the Long Beach Ralphs, 2024 E. 19th Street, opened in 1931. This store was designed by W. Horace Austin. The third photo shows the 5711 Hollywood Blvd. store in a photo taken by Moss Photo shortly after its 1929 opening. The fourth photo, taken by Herman Schultheis, shows the same Hollywood Blvd. store, equipped with a larger sign and two new neighbors, including a new A&P store (!) directly to the left. Without knowing better, I think it’s safe to say that this particular A&P must have struggled to compete with its much more attractive next door neighbor. The fifth photo, taken by Luckhaus Studio, shows the 5615-23 Wilshire Blvd. Ralphs, designed by Morgan, Walls and Clements just after its 1929 opening. It’s amazing to see the open space around this store, which in time would find itself in the thick of one of the most fashionable, prosperous and densely built-up strips (Wilshire Boulevard) to be found anywhere. And how about those oil wells in the background! The sixth photo, photographer unknown, shows the same store from another angle. The seventh photo, from 1929, shows the new Chapman Park Market at 3465 W. Sixth Street. In 1933, The Market would be taken over and operated by Ralphs, whose signs would then grace the smaller tower to the right. This gem, also designed in the Spanish Revival style by Morgan, Walls and Clements, still stands. The final photo, from 1886 and photographer unknown, shows Ralphs brand new store, replacing the original 1873 store on the same site. George Ralphs stands out front leaning on a stack of boxes and his brother Walter can be seen in his shirtsleeves.


  1. WOW! Driving up to the local Giant Eagle will never be the same after viewing these photos. When did we trade in architectural style for low, low prices? Those buildings are simply beautiful! Thanks, Dave, for digging around to get us retail fanatics the old photos we crave. We need your coffee-table book version next...

  2. This is truly historic "Americana". I love your site. Thanks for all the effort, it is appreciated.

  3. Adrienne - Outclasses 'em all, doesn't it? I'd love to have shopped in these. Nothing today comes close. And thanks so much for the last comment!

    Richard - Glad to do it, and that you like it! Thanks!

  4. My comment (as always)--Wow!!!

    Thanks for the amazing pictures!

  5. Those are some of the most distinctive grocery stores I've ever seen. Beautiful!

  6. What can I say to add to the wonderful comments? How gorgeous are those stores??? So large and ahead of its time.

    BTW, libraries rule!!!

  7. Pat, Steven and Didi - I couldn't agree more!

  8. Dave, to be able to shop these emporiums today would be a dream.
    Thanks for posting these treasures.

  9. I drove by 2601 N. Pasadena Ave. last night. It looks like the building might still be there because its definately an older building, but its been stuccoed over and theres a clothing store there now.....

  10. Steve - Best I can tell from the Windows Live Local "Bird's eye" view, the corner portion of the building is original. It does look like it was expanded significantly, and I'd be fairly sure that none of the original interior details remain. I look forward to checking that one out myself on a future trip to L.A. Thanks!