Sunday, August 31, 2008

A Streamlined Approach For Ralphs

After adding a flurry of new stores in the late 1920’s, Ralphs settled into a slower expansion mode, opening an average of one new store a year. By the mid-thirties, the chain was once again ready to crank up the pace. The new Ralphs stores, though very different in appearance from those that went before, were striking indeed in their own right.

Ralphs’ architect of choice, once again, was Stiles Clements. In 1937, the Morgan, Walls and Clements firm was reorganized with Clements in charge, adopting his name as well – "Stiles O. Clements Associated Architects and Engineers" as their new name henceforth.

These new stores were designed in the Streamline Moderne style, a variant of art deco, which utilized such design elements as rounded corners, curves, grilles, narrow bands of windows (often of glass blocks) and occasionally nautical elements, such as porthole windows. Structures in this style had long, clean lines, oftentimes featuring sleek pylons or other projectiles. The most typical building finish was cement with a white stucco veneer. The 1933-34 “Century of Progress” Chicago World’s Fair was largely composed of Streamline Moderne buildings, mesmerizing the throngs of folks who descended on Chicago from all over to attend the fair. It was a look that represented speed, modernity and industrial progress. I suspect that many Americans, whether or not they attended the Chicago World’s Fair, were thrilled at the first sight of a new Streamline Moderne structure in their area.

Clements was an ideal choice to implement this new look for Ralphs, as Richard Longstreth’s excellent book The Drive-In, the Supermarket, and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 1914-1941 suggests – “(Clements) proved ever adroit at perceiving shifts in taste, manifesting them in ways that made it seem as though he had precipitated the change”. High praise indeed. In 1936, the first of these stores opened, at 4641 Santa Monica Boulevard, near the Vermont Avenue intersection. More Streamline Moderne Ralphs’ followed in quick succession – Beverly Hills, North Hollywood, Santa Monica, Whittier, Burbank, Inglewood (Manchester and Crenshaw), Los Angeles (4366 S.Figueroa St. and Exposition and Crenshaw) and Sherman Oaks before the outbreak of World War II.

This expansion increased not only the chain’s footprint but its prestige as well, with the possibility that each new Ralphs store “could have a considerable impact on its environs” notes Longstreth. “Standing in sharp contrast to its older neighbors, the facilit(ies were) conceived to draw a substantial clientele away from a number of existing establishments”. Undoubtedly, they succeeded in a big way.

With the advent of World War II, Ralphs’ new construction, like that of most everyone else, ground to a halt. A relatively few Streamline Moderne stores were built afterwards, the style having fallen out of favor by that time.

The first and second photos are courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library’s Security Pacific National Bank Collection and show the Exposition and Crenshaw, Los Angeles and Third and Wilshire, Santa Monica locations respectively. The third photo, from the book Modern Super Markets and Superettes (Progressive Grocer, 1956) shows what I believe is the Third and Vermont, Los Angeles location, one of the very last streamlined stores (looking closely, it's really much more of a streamline/modern hybrid in this case), which opened in 1948. Below are two great full page Grand Opening ads from the Manchester and Crenshaw store (1939), and the Exposition and Crenshaw store (1940), from an era when grocery chains took out lavish 16-to-20 page advertising sections in papers such as the Los Angeles Times to trumpet the opening of a new store. The “free food shows” were very much the standard for gala grand openings in those days (replaced in later years by giveaways of free corsages for the ladies, free balloons for the kiddies, free donkey rides for anyone willing, and the obligatory personal appearance by Pinky Lee). The last item is a Ralphs ad from 1947 showing a veritable tower of plenty, topped by a Ralphs milk carton sporting the pylon tower from the Beverly Hills store. Kind of puts “milk carton reading” in league with cereal box reading, at least in my book.


  1. I rather like the Streamline Moderne style. It is funny though, I have seen these types of buildings a ton of times but have never heard of that term until now.

  2. Didi, streamline moderne was very popular among hotel/motels, restaurants and theters in the 1930's. Ralphs and Publix were the two primary supermarkets to utilize this type of building, though other chains did build scattered stores in much smaller numbers like these. I have seen picutures of several Grand Union and a Kroger in Columbus, Ohio that were streamline moderne. The Kroger had signage that it was the store of tommorow today. I suspect it opened around the same time as the Chicago Worlds Fair.

    I guess the design was symbolic of hope for the return of better times, and by the mid-30's, the depression was easing. And for sunny Southern California, the region continued to boom during the Great Depression, so the design for Ralphs is very appropriate for the region. The design just feels optimistic.

    Seeing these buildings makes me want to go to Miami Beach, a virtual momument to Art Deco and its variations. I remember in the 1970's and 80's, Miami Beach was passe', but now it's one of the hottest spots in the USA. There are even some intact Publix stores in the Miami area from the era, some of which were originally Publix and some were Grand Union.
    Several recent build Publix stores in South Florida have revived the design as well. I think you and Dave would enjoy a trip to the beach.

  3. Didi - I've always liked it as well!

    Ken - I know quite a few other chains, even A&P, built streamlined stores on a one or two-off basis. It really was a great optimistic look that stood in contrast to the times and signaled better times ahead.

    I've been to the Miami area, although it's been a few years. Can't speak for Didi, though!

  4. Ah, Ralphs. 3 generations of us have shopped there, starting in the twenties with my Grandparents. I so remember the one at Manchester and Crenshaw just north of the Morningside Park section of Inglewood.

    Although I realize the current incarnation has nothing to do with the company George Ralphs founded, I still like shopping at my local Ralphs, if for no other reason than my Mom and Grandmother did.