Saturday, February 27, 2010

Putting the "Pacific" in "A&P"

On May 2, 1930, A&P opened nine stores in the greater Los Angeles area, their first units on the West Coast. Seventy years after the company’s founding, the famous name – The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company – became a statement of fact, and of the long-awaited realization of a dream.

An article in the previous day’s Los Angeles Times quoted A&P president John Hartford, who had traveled across the continent for the landmark occasion: “These nine stores represent only an opening wedge…of an expansion program which will take in the entire Pacific Coast and Rocky Mountain territory.” He mentioned that leases for thirty additional Los Angeles-area stores had already been signed. The original nine store locations were as follows: 6811 South Western Avenue, L.A., 5859 Franklin Avenue, L.A., 31 Pier Avenue, Hermosa Beach, 37 North Fair Oaks Avenue, Pasadena, 136 San Fernando Avenue, Burbank, 1515 Mission Street, South Pasadena, 211 East Main Street, Alhambra, 6265 Van Nuys Boulevard, Van Nuys (Usually pronounced as a single word – “vaneyes”. You’re welcome.), and 106 North Pacific Avenue, Redondo Beach.

A year later, the company opened its first stores in the Seattle area. They took things a bit slower here where the pace of store openings was concerned, but over time A&P would develop a respectable presence in the market. It would prove to be the company’s only other significant entry in the Western states.

The designs of the Los Angeles-area stores in particular were very appealing, with some of the finest area examples of Spanish and Art Deco retail architecture rising up under the A&P banner. Many of the early stores featured open fronts in a nod to the region’s ideal climate – no storefront windows or doors (“open front” meant exactly that), allowing plenty of room to extend display bins onto the sidewalk to attract shoppers. After hours, these stores were secured by sliding doors or folding scissor gates like the kind used by indoor mall stores today. Local competitor Vons was a major proponent of the open front design, as was Lucky Stores “up north”, to name just a couple.

Probably the most notable individual store in A&P’s western roster was the Westwood Village “super-store” opened in 1936. The store was designed by renowned California architect Allen Siple, who at that time was under contract to the Janss Investment Corporation, developers of the legendary Westwood Village commercial center that borders the UCLA campus. The exterior design is in the Janss Brothers’ mandated “Mediterranean” style, as were the other 1930’s Westwood landmarks, including the domed Bank of America building, the Fox Westwood Village theatre and the famous Sears store, among many others. Whether the style bore any resemblance to genuine Mediterranean architecture is a matter of somewhat snarky debate even all these years later, but it looked great in my opinion. The most striking feature of the A&P store, and for that matter the other Westwood buildings mentioned, was its tall, spire-like tower, where in this case the red neon-outlined “A&P” lettering was visible for a great distance at night. The store was torn down in the late 60’s to make room for another theatre.

By 1935, only five years after the first stores opened, there were over 100 A&P stores in the L.A. area. As the company gradually shifted its store mix to supermarkets in the late 1930’s, this number began to decline, leaving the company with roughly 50 area stores by 1950. This phenomenon was by no means unique to A&P - nearly all major grocery chains experienced decreased store counts in the 40’s and early 50’s as they replaced two to three small stores at a whack with one (much larger) supermarket. There was one problem in this case, though – the Los Angeles area was positively exploding in population in the postwar era. A massive population shift was underway. People were moving to Southern California in droves from the Eastern and Midwest areas, in quest of the warmer climate and boundless opportunity the area had to offer. As time passed, A&P appeared more and more to be in retrenchment, or at least at a standstill.

To be sure, the area’s supermarket scene was brutally competitive, with a number of locally-based competitors boasting loyal followings – Ralphs, Alpha Beta and Vons among the strongest of these, with Hughes, Market Basket, Boys Market, Fox, Mayfair, Stater Bros., the Fitzsimmons/Roberts/Thriftimart stores and others I’ve surely forgotten to mention commanding their pieces of the pie as well. The competition grew even more intense when two Northern California-based competitors ramped up their “Southland” operations – Safeway, always a factor, but a major push into SoCal beginning in the late 50’s would transform them into a huge player there, and Lucky Stores, Inc., who in 1963 established a large office/distribution complex in Buena Park to support what proved to be very rapid growth.

It was a battle waged on many fronts – price, advertising (especially on television – these were the wild and woolly days of live remote commercials and crazy promotions), store location, and, fortunately for us – architecture. The store designs of Southern California supermarkets – especially from the golden age (I guess I would call the 1930’s Spanish and Art Deco designs the “platinum age”) of the mid-1950’s to the mid 60’s – represent the pinnacle of the form, with a number of stores standing out as prime examples of Mid-Century Modern architecture.

In this one respect, A&P made a bold last stand. At the start of the 1960’s they opened several new stores (mostly replacement units) in major suburban L.A. markets with fresh, contemporary architecture, representing a major departure for the conservative and tradition-bound “Grandma”, as the company was fondly nicknamed. At the same time A&P was beginning to blanket the eastern half of the country with its Centennial stores, their new SoCal units sported gigantic neon signs, ranch-like stonework and bold colors, a fine fit for the area’s unique vibe. There would be no colonial-themed stuff there.

Groceteria has an astounding set of color photos of some of these stores, taken at the time of their grand openings. These photos prove that (architecturally, at least) A&P could definitely cut the mustard. Beyond the excellence of the store designs, two aspects of those photos jump out at me – first, the presence of the Van DeKamp’s windmill signs on the storefronts. Interestingly, A&P promoted the local bakery favorite over their own Jane Parker brand, a major reversal of their normal policy. Secondly, the “Blue Chip Stamps” banners, meaning that A&P opted to join the Blue Chip trading stamp consortium (an intriguing mini-soap opera in itself - hope to discuss it here someday) instead of offering Plaid stamps as they did in other regions. Both decisions appear to have been a nod to local preferences.

The 1960’s would prove to be a very difficult period for A&P – in 1964, the company lost its status as America’s largest retailer to Sears, but that was merely a hint of much deeper problems. There were many reasons behind their dilemma, which I won’t go into detail about now, but chief among them were an inexplicable slowness to open stores in the booming suburbs, and an overemphasis on their own store brands, causing them to lose out on the national brand marketing bonanza (with millions of dollars in network television advertising support that A&P appeared not to care about) of the 1960’s.

The crux of the matter, as far as the West was concerned, was that A&P never seemed to make a real commitment to the area. It was most telling that the company had never even set up a separate western division. There were seven A&P retail divisions in 1960 – New England, Eastern, Atlantic, Southern, Central, Middle Western and Central Western. The Los Angeles and Seattle markets were in the….uh, Eastern division. Along with such sunny-climed areas as the Bronx, Brooklyn, Garden City (Long Island), Newark and Paterson, New Jersey, all monster markets for A&P. Suffice it to say that two small groups of stores, 2800 miles away from home base, would have received precious little attention.

None of this was lost on the competition, and it was obvious that A&P wasn’t exactly striking fear into their hearts. As Robert Magowan, the ever-unflappable chairman of Safeway, told Time magazine in a 1965 article, unflatteringly titled “Weak Tea” - “I doubt that A&P will come West in any force until it shores up some of its weak spots. And then I still doubt it.” The (somewhat more flappable) A&P brass had acknowledged this for a while by then. As far back as 1959, A&P president Ralph Burger told an Associated Press interviewer when asked about expansion in the west – “A&P originated in the east and its development has naturally been limited principally to that section of the country…There are no plans for major expansion in the west at this time”. Six years later, the consequences of that course of action appeared to weigh on then-A&P president Byron Jay, as he told Time – “We may have made a mistake in the West.”

It came to an end for A&P in Los Angeles in December 1968 with the announcement that the company would sell its 31 area stores to the E.F. MacDonald Company. MacDonald was the owner of Plaid Stamps, A&P’s trading stamp of choice in all but the L.A. market, an irony already mentioned above. The previous year, MacDonald became a supermarket operator itself when it purchased 40 Shopping Bag stores from Vons Grocery Company, who was forced to sell them as a condition of an FTC antitrust order. The A&P stores would be rebranded as Shopping Bag stores. In the early 70’s, MacDonald sold the chain to Cleveland-based Fisher Foods, Inc., whereupon they reopened as Fazio’s units, as previously discussed here.

In 1974, A&P sold off its Seattle area stores, which Retired A&P Executive/Biographer William Walsh had termed a “more successful operation” in his fascinating book The Rise and Decline of The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. Some of the stores went to Smith’s Food King, which was later acquired by Fred Meyer and then by Kroger.

Anyone vaguely familiar with the A&P story is probably well aware that the sun has set on a large part of the A&P Empire in the last few decades. 150 years after its founding, though, the proud name still exists, on more than a few stores. Not many can say that.

The first two photos below are shown here by permission of the USC Libraries Special Collections, California Historical Society Collection. The first shows a magnificent streamlined/deco A&P and Thrifty Drug combination, located at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue circa late 1930’s. Next, from around the same time, is a very different but equally nice Spanish style A&P, location unknown. Note the men in tuxedos stationed in front. Both appear to be “open front” type stores. The next five photos are from Chain Store Age, circa 1937, and show the Westwood Village store (corner of Gayley and Broxton), exterior and interior views of the A&P “Food Palace” at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Cochran Avenue, and similar views of the South Pasadena A&P store. After that is a brief hat tip to the Seattle area, with a 1959 A&P publicity photo showing the Bremerton, Washington store. The metal sign to the far left is a variety I’ve only seen on Seattle area A&P stores. Last, from the Los Angeles Public Library, is the Pasadena store, located at East Foothill and Rosemead Boulevards, as final preparations were underway for its April 1959 grand opening.

Below are two full-page ads from that grand, glorious era when new supermarkets rated an entire newspaper section (in the Los Angeles Times, no less!). The first is from the 1935 opening of the Wilshire Blvd. “Food Palace”, the second from 1950, marking new stores in Santa Monica, Escondido and Altadena. The ad provides a comprehensive listing of Southern California A&P stores as of that date.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Last of the Melting Snow - A&P '67

At last - the snow is all but melted, save for a few somewhat dingy looking piles here and there.

Oh, I don’t mean today, when half the country has been covered with record snows. That could go on for weeks yet! I’m referring to the scene above, a 1967 snapshot photo (thanks to Mark) of the A&P supermarket in tiny Millerton, New York. Millerton is some 60 miles northwest of Hartford, very close to the point where New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts intersect. They definitely see their share of snow – over five feet a year on average.

The store pictured is an excellent example of a “Retrofit Centennial” – where A&P would take an existing store (usually featuring the traditional round A&P logo, bracketed by tapered rays or the phrase “Super Market”) and construct a new upper facade of siding, a bit of ornamental fencing and its distinctive colonial-style lettering, providing even their humblest stores with a more upscale appearance. Perhaps they lacked the dramatic impact of the company’s new-from-the-ground-up Centennial units, but no doubt most communities considered the new look a major improvement. Throughout the heyday of the 1960’s, A&P rolled out these upgrades on hundreds of stores.

Endeavoring to finish up these A&P posts before the snow finally does melt…

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Other Side of Harlem

...Harlem Avenue, that is. The photo above, from a 1976 issue of CTA quarterly, shows a group of people about to catch a southbound West Towns bus as it stopped on Harlem Avenue, directly in front of the North Riverside E.J. Korvette store and across the street from Berwyn’s Cermak Plaza.

As mentioned in a series of Korvette posts on this site a while back, as a kid I found this circa-1965 store's charmingly out-of-date script signage mesmerizing. I was thrilled to locate this photo, showing the tower sign as it appeared at the near-exact time of said mesmerization.

In 1976, Korvettes (the "E.J." had long since been dropped and the plural form adopted) was a sad shadow of its former self, the glory days of the 1960's just a memory by that time. After the chain's closure in 1980, this particular store became a Kmart, and the 190,000 square foot store now houses Kohl's and Petco. Despite modifications to the building, there are large swaths of Korvette's trademark white porcelain-glazed brick visible, still gleaming after all these years.

The 70's plaids haven't aged as well, I'm afraid.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Art and History of Cermak Plaza

What in the world would ever cause a strip mall to become famous? Thousands of them have been built over the last 60 years. Because of their utilitarian nature and the relative ease of facelifting, remodeling or expanding them, a high percentage of them still stand. Over time, the "lucky ones", if such an analogy makes sense, continue to house "Class A" retailers - well-known department and specialty stores and major chain supermarkets. In others, the tenant mix has shifted to "dollar stores", off-price retailers and independent grocers. Still others are home to flea markets, thrift stores, used bookstores and the like. All serve a purpose in their communities.

But you can spruce them up, modernize them, give 'em facelifts until their ears meet, and there's not the remotest chance these things will bring fame. No, it takes something drastic. And that's exactly what happened in the case of Cermak Plaza, a circa-1956 shopping center in Chicago's near west suburbs, when it became home to some huge (and hugely controversial) modern art pieces in the 1980's.

Berwyn, Illinois, is eight miles directly west of Chicago's Loop. The physical layout of the city is very much a continuation of Chicago's perfect grid (the town of Cicero sits in between), with row upon row of two-flats, three-flats and bungalows with small but well-manicured lawns. Among the city’s streets are some major thoroughfares - Harlem Avenue and Roosevelt Road, for example, which constitute Berwyn’s western and northern borders respectively. Oak Park Avenue and 26th Street are a couple of others, and Ogden Avenue (U.S. 34), a major highway spanning from Chicago’s West Side all the way to Aurora, cuts a diagonal through Berwyn. Through the decades, the heart of town, from a retail standpoint at least, has been 22nd Street, more commonly known as Cermak Road. The road is named in honor of Anton J. Cermak, the late mayor of Chicago, who was cut down by an assassin’s bullet intended for President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt at a public appearance in Miami in 1933.

In the early 1950’s, Berwyn’s retail scene looked pretty much like that of most American cities and “inner-ring” suburbs (pretty much the only type of suburb around in the early part of the 20th century). There were usually a few major commercial strips, lined end-to-end with variety stores, butcher shops, grocery stores, single-screen theatres and all manner of specialty shops. Smaller city streets were punctuated with corner grocery stores, dry cleaners, candy shops and other mom-and-pop operations. Sometimes the major chains could also be found in corner locations off the beaten path – in the late 1920’s, for example, Berwyn boasted no less than 11 A&P stores, according to the pictorial book “Berwyn” by Douglas Deutchler. As mentioned, however, Cermak Road was the “main drag” retail-wise. In the 1950’s, the Cermak Road Business Association even issued their own trading stamps, called “Blue Stamps”, that were issued by merchants up and down the strip. I’m not sure if they were redeemable for kolaches or not.

The decade of the 1950’s saw the American shopping center come into its own. In 1949, the Urban Land Institute compiled a list of major shopping centers opened or in development at that date, arriving at a total of 67. In July 1953, there were 158 centers on the list, and in May 1957, six months after Cermak Plaza’s opening, the tally amounted to a whopping 720 shopping centers, only to grow from there. Americans had discovered a new way to shop, and they loved it.

On January 10, 1954, an article in the Chicago Tribune announced a five million-dollar shopping center to be constructed on a 30-acre site at the corner of Harlem Avenue and Cermak Road in Berwyn. The parcel was known as the “old Gage farm”, and had recently been owned by the city of Chicago, interestingly enough. The developer of the shopping center would be New York City-based National Plazas, Inc., which was headed by Emil Muller and David W. Bermant, who by that time had developed “15 similar shopping centers” in various U.S. cities. The center’s name would be “Cermak Plaza”, and it would be run by Bermant’s management company. (Five years later, National Plazas would open Mt. Prospect Plaza, just down the street from the future location of Randhurst.)The article named some prospective tenants – among others, there were Walgreens, J.C. Penney, Hillman’s Pure Foods, F.W. Woolworth, Thom McAn shoes and a “large eastern variety chain”, which turned out to be one of G.C. Murphy’s few ventures into the Chicago market. The center’s architectural design would be provided by Rochester, New York-based R.E. Van Alstyne and Anthony J. Zelenka, a local architect based in neighboring Cicero. Zelenka would also design “a new branch of J. Sterling Morton High School” (known as Morton West), which would open directly behind the shopping center.

The next two years would be fraught with problems, which started right away when a group of Berwyn residents sued to halt the project, citing traffic hazards. The lawsuit, which was originally filed by six homeowners whose property adjoined the tract, gathered the support of 1,600 petitioners within days of the project’s original announcement. In October 1955, after a grueling 21-month battle that led all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court, the plaintiffs finally dropped the suit, and the way was cleared to begin work.

While still under construction, Cermak Plaza stayed in the news in the worst possible way when it became the scene of a murder. On June 6, 1956, a masonry contractor was shot and killed while working inside the shell of the future shopping center. The assailant turned out to be his business partner, who apparently felt that the other man had cheated him out of his share of the Cermak Plaza while contract while he was out on sick leave. The Tribune reported of four eyewitnesses to the shooting. Eventually the culprit was convicted and sentenced to 99 years for the crime.

After weathering these crises and wrapping up months of construction, the opening for Cermak Plaza was finally announced for November 29, 1956, just in the nick of time for the Christmas shopping season. The center’s 21-store opening lineup included a number of national names – J.C. Penney, F.W. Woolworth, Kinney Shoes (years before they would be owned by Woolworth), Thom McAn, Lerner Shops and Walgreens – along with some well known Chicago-based chains – Jewel Food Stores, Hillman’s Pure Foods (a Jewel competitor for whom this would be their 11th store), A.S. Beck Shoes, Suburban TV and Record and the ever-popular Fannie May Candies.

In an era where gloriously over-the-top Grand Opening festivities were the norm, Cermak Plaza’s fetes certainly didn’t disappoint. The Jewel Food Store opened on November 15, two weeks before the rest of the shopping center, to a host of grand opening giveaways and contests. The most exciting of these was a free helicopter ride for a “lucky lady” each half-hour throughout the day. The first ride, according to a Tribune article captioned “She’s up in the air about shopping”, went to Mrs. Louis Filicetti of Elmwood Avenue. For her part, Mrs. Filicetti declared it was the “first time she’d been up in anything except an elevator”. Clearly, a new era of thrills had descended upon Berwyn.

Not to be outdone, the Plaza’s main festivities, held on the “official” opening day of November 29th, brought the appropriate pomp to the occasion. Close as it was to Christmas, Santa made an appearance, flanked by eight live Alaskan reindeer (top that, Marshall Field’s!). The crème de la crème, however, was a live appearance by Frankie Yankovic, “America’s Polka King!”, and his band. Never before or since has there been such a perfect match of artist and grand opening. Those of us who grew up watching far too much TV in the 70’s and 80’s would probably best know Mr. Yankovic from several K-Tel record commercials he was featured in through those years. One can only hope he changed the lyrics of “The Pennsylvania Polka” to “The Cermak Plaza Polka” on that day. I mean, please!

In April 1957, another key tenant joined the Cermak Plaza lineup when Sears, Roebuck and Co. opened a new “Class B” store there, replacing the existing Sears unit at 5938 Cermak Road in Cicero. The addition of the Sears store transformed the shopping center’s configuration into an “L-shape”, although the Sears was detached from the rest of the center. In the early 1960’s, Sears expanded their Berwyn location to add an auto center, and the plain signage was replaced with the much bolder 60’s serif version.

Interestingly, the iconic aqua and white signs with their huge, bent arrows did not appear until the shopping center was nearly two years old. In a September 25, 1958 Chicago Tribune article, a dedication ceremony for the signs was announced for 7pm that night. Today, of course, some folks would laugh at this, while others would place it on a level of importance with the signing of the Magna Carta. (I think you know where I stand.) It brings this picture to my mind – a couple at home as they’re getting ready to leave. The husband, who we’ll call Ralph, is standing impatiently in the gleaming pink-tiled kitchen on the top floor of a three-flat. “Bernice, c’mon, are we going to the dedication or what?” (Note: In this part of the world, the phrase “or what?” can be affixed to almost any sentence. It’s a figure of speech, not an actual request for alternatives.) It’s a good thing we can’t hear Bernice, but through the bathroom door I think I could make out something about Ralph’s “blankety-blank bowling night”. Meanwhile, Chester, their 13-year old son, yells up to the third-floor window from the front yard – “Hey Maa! I need two bucks – we’re goin’ for pizza! Can you hear me or what?” He’s got a handful of pebbles ready in case they didn’t hear him.

Well, it could’ve happened.

Through the balance of the 1950’s into the following decade, it would be safe to say that Cermak Plaza was king of the retail hill for its area. In the mid-1960’s, however, some competition began to enter the picture. Across Harlem Avenue from Cermak Plaza, in what would be called North Riverside Plaza, E.J. Korvette opened one of its “Korvette City” retail complexes in 1965, complete with a two-story “promotional department store”, furniture and carpet center, supermarket, and auto center. In 1967, Jewel left Cermak Plaza and moved into the Korvette supermarket space as a Jewel/Osco, where it remains to this day. (After Korvette’s demise in 1980, Kmart took over the main store. It now jointly houses a Petco and a Kohl’s store.)

The big change would come in 1975 with the opening of North Riverside Park Mall, developed by Melvin Simon and Company, just west of the Korvette complex. Prior to that, area residents would have to drive west to Oakbrook or Yorktown to shop at a “real mall”, but now the area would have one of its own. Anchored by Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co., Montgomery Ward and J.C. Penney, who would vacate their outdated 60,000 square foot Cermak Plaza location in favor of fancy new 266,000 square foot digs, North Riverside Park quickly and thoroughly stole any remaining thunder that Cermak Plaza could have claimed, including the coveted (and lucrative) role of host to community events. Service Merchandise, one of our family’s favorites, soon took over the old Penney space at Cermak Plaza.

My first exposure to Cermak Plaza came around this time, when my family moved from the Northwest suburbs to the Near West suburbs (Riverside, which is just across Harlem Avenue from Berwyn). In some ways it felt like I’d moved to another state altogether. The most striking differences, to me, were the slightly heavier Chicago accents and the strength of the ethnic traditions, particularly in older suburbs such as Berwyn, compared to the much more recently settled Northwest ‘burbs. Of course, these traditions always seem to often translate to food, and the Bohemian (Czech) baked goods and the incredible Italian food (Benny’s and Salerno’s Pizza, Novi’s Beef, Mazzone’s Italian Ice and Turano bread – yess!) soon became favorites of mine. Another way the strong sense of pride expressed itself was in the annual “Houby Day” parade, a tribute to, of all things – a mushroom. That’s right, “houby” means mushroom in Czech, and on one Saturday morning each Fall our high school band would pile into the buses and trek over to Austin Boulevard in Cicero to take our place in the parade, whose route ended at Cermak Plaza. There I was, trying to stay in step among the politicians running for office in their convertibles, garden club floats and shriners dressed as genies on flying carpet go-karts. We gave the best years of our lives to that mushroom.

One day, I noticed some scaffolding in the Cermak Plaza parking lot, surrounding what looked for all the world like a giant mud pie on a pedestal. As it turned out, what was taking place was the creation of a gigantic piece of modern art, the work of Nancy Rubins, an artist based in New York City’s Soho district. The “pork chop-shaped” sculpture, called “Big Bil-Bored”, would stand three stories tall and was embedded with the flotsam of the American consumer culture – old portable televisions, fans, bicycles, hubcaps and other debris. The work was commissioned by Cermak Plaza owner David W. Bermant, an enthusiastic, high-profile patron of modern art. When the inevitable press questions came, Bermant responded from a socio-cultural perspective one doesn’t generally expect from shopping center owners: “People can look at Nancy’s work and see their own life”, he told the Chicago Tribune in November 1980 as the sculpture neared completion. “At first I thought the plaza merchants would kill me. This piece shows the stuff they sell for what it is. But I decided to do it anyway because it was important.” (Now that’s putting the “b” in subtle!)

As you would probably expect, the community went apoplectic over the sculpture. “It’s a hunk of junk, a monstrosity”, according to one angry resident quoted in the Tribune article. “Why don’t those people do something constructive like sweeping the street instead of dirtying it up?” Judy Baar Topinka, the local state representative, weighed in on behalf on her constituents to the Berwyn/Cicero Life newspaper: “Is this the image that Berwyn wants to present to the world, a portal on a major thoroughfare? Instead of rejuvenation, revitalization, beautification and progress, the message that is being sent is that we're riding high on the scrap heap. It is, at best, the worst public relations move I have ever seen put forth.” Finally the mayor of Berwyn, Thomas Hett, conceded that due to the fact that it was on private property, little could be done. “But let me tell you, I don’t see how anyone in their right mind could have approved the thing.” In any event, Big Bil-Bored was there to stay.

My own attitude towards the sculpture was initially very negative, and I wish I could say that type of art has grown on me in the years since, although in time I kind of got a kick out of all those 1950’s-era toasters staring at me as I walked out of Walgreens or Service Merchandise. What has changed is that I’ve come to greatly admire Bermant’s courage in daring to stand out from the crowd - a bold and exciting move, worthy of note.

Over the following decade, Bermant would commission several more modern art pieces, mostly much smaller in size, for Cermak Plaza. Several of them still exist, and all are catalogued in detail on this excellent site. One that can still be seen at the Plaza is artist Dustin Shuler’s “Pinto Pelt”, which is essentially the hide of a Ford Pinto, mounted taxidermy-style, to the side of the Plaza optometrist’s shop. Given the Pinto’s unfortunate reputation, that’s probably the safest place for it.

The next large piece of modern art to appear at Cermak Plaza wasn’t a sculpture or statue, but a building. When Yankee Doodle Dandy, a Chicago-based hamburger chain, went out of business in the early 1980’s, it freed up the valuable corner parcel at the intersection of Harlem Avenue and Cermak Road. The “Home of the Dandyburger” was torn down, and in the spring of 1984, a new McDonald’s restaurant with a very unique design rose in its place. Designed by SITE, which according to a Tribune article was “an art and architecture organization known for its exploration of new ideas for the urban visual environment”, sections of the store were elevated, leading to an unusual “floating” appearance that I remember really digging. (The restaurant’s natural tan-colored brick, like that of many McDonald’s, has since been repainted in a two-tone color scheme that to me lessens the “floating” effect.) Much credit for the modern design, of course, must go to Bermant, who “encouraged them to build a restaurant that would excite interest in the center and would complement the art works that we have already placed at Cermak”.

Important Update: After publishing this post, I came across an intriguing bit of information about the 1984 “floating” McDonald’s at Cermak Plaza. I mentioned the new paint job and how it seemed to lessen the "floating" effect. I’ve never been able to put my finger on why it’s looked so different in recent years, but now I know. Simply put, it no longer floats! I discovered an article on this blog, with photos that show the former “floating” areas – they’ve been bricked in! Aaaugh! Why it was done, I don’t even want to know. For those who didn’t see the once-unique store before this happened, I feel bad.

On a happier note, I received some interesting information from Michael, a Berwyn resident as a youth, who with his family continued to visit the area years after moving away. The corner parcel, where the formerly unique McDonald's stands, was home, as mentioned, to a Yankee Doodle Dandy from the late 60’s through the early 80’s. Prior to that, according to Michael, it was a Peter Pan Snack Shop, that looked exactly like this one. The Peter Pan Snack Shops were owned by Boston-based General Drive-In, which later became General Cinema Corporation, a subject covered on this website last year.

The crowning achievement, as far as Cermak Plaza’s art works went, would have to be Spindle, built in 1989 by L.A.-based artist Dustin Shuler, who also created the Pinto Pelt. Spindle consisted of eight cars impaled on a giant metal spike, like a stack of skewered “guest checks” next to the cash register of one of Chicago’s great Greek-owned family restaurants. Even though it no longer exists, Spindle is easily the most recognized image associated with Cermak Plaza.

For his part, Bermant was ever vigilant in defending the art works he had procured for Cermak Plaza and his other shopping centers as a means of differentiation and cultural enhancement. As he told an Associated Press interviewer in 1990: “What makes it different from any other shopping center? I’ve got the same crappy merchants selling the same crappy stuff.” (Bear in mind that the “crappy merchants” who populated Bermant’s shopping centers represented a “who’s who” of American retail. I’d love to have met this guy!) David Bermant passed away in 2000 at the age of 81.

Unlike the Dixie Square Mall, being featured in a Hollywood film was not essential to Cermak Plaza’s fame, but a fleeting appearance in the 1994 comedy film Wayne’s World (based, like The Blues Brothers, on a popular Saturday Night Live sketch) did much to help spread it. For the five of you who may not know, the main characters in Wayne’s World are Wayne and Garth (played by Mike Myers and Dana Carvey), two teenage heavy metal fans from Aurora, Illinois, with their own cable access TV show, where they pontificated about music, movies and most of all, “babes”, and as Wikipedia mentions, “trick(ed) their unsuspecting guests into saying vulgar words”. Classy stuff! (Or at least funny, usually.) Wayne’s favorite line was “Party on, excellent!”, and despite the fact that Mike Myers is a Canadian native, he pulled the suburban Chicago accent off well. (Note: “ax-cellent” or “excell-ennt” were alternative pronunciations of “excellent” common to early 1980’s Chicago, most often used to describe the latest REO Speedwagon or Journey album.)

The movie contains a night shot of The Spindle, with the Sears store in the background, as well as a brief shot of the neon-lit Cermak Plaza sign. This follows my favorite scene in the movie, the “Stan Mikita’s Donut Shop” sequence, probably a play on the Tim Horton’s coffee shop chain, which I believe hadn’t yet migrated from Canada to the states at the time of the film. Stan Mikita was a legendary player for the Chicago Blackhawks in the 60’s and 70’s. Bobby Hull may have been more famous, but Stan was the cult hero. A few years ago, a friend of mine from work told me of how he ran into the long-retired Mikita at a Florida resort while he was there for a trade show. “Dave, I can die now”, he said. I’m a fan as well, but I don’t think I’d take it that far. (When we lived in Nashville in the late 1990’s, we split season tickets for the first three seasons of the NHL expansion Predators, and I was struck by the politeness of the Nashville hockey fans. They obviously hadn’t learned “the art of expressive language” that we were so accustomed to in Chicago. Last I hear, though, they’re really starting to get the hang of it!)

Just as controversy surrounded the introduction of Cermak Plaza’s most notable art works, Big Bil-Bored and Spindle, it also surrounded their demise. Big Bil-Bored, having survived nearly two decades of public outrage and various attempts to force its removal, was becoming an appreciable safety hazard due to severe rusting of its embedded metal artifacts. In 1998 it was dismantled. Guess they just don’t make junk like they used to.

The destruction of Spindle, which through the years had become a true Berwyn trademark, caused more consternation. In 2007, Walgreens made known its desire to vacate its in-line location at Cermak Plaza in order to build a free-standing store with a drive-thru pharmacy at the edge of the shopping center’s parking lot. The spot they had in mind, as reported at the time, was exactly where Spindle stood. This time, there were allies in the battle – the Berwyn Arts Council and the Berwyn Mainstreet Committee headed up a valiant attempt to raise money to move the sculpture to another location within the parking lot in order to accommodate the new Walgreens store. On July 22, 2007, participants in Chicago Critical Mass, a monthly bike ride that attracts hundreds of cyclists, descended on Cermak Plaza to raise awareness of the need to “Save the Spindle”, citing anger about “corporate interests erasing (the) town’s identity”. It would be of no avail. The decision was made to sell the sculpture on Ebay, but the auction, with a $50,000 starting bid, found no takers. On May 2, 2008, it came down. Somewhere recently I read that the location of the new Walgreens, which is up and operating, is actually slightly east of the Spindle location. A painful thought, but oh, well.

Recent years haven’t been kind to the shopping center from an occupancy point of view, either. The Sears store closed in 1993, replaced by a Circuit City, which closed along with the rest of the chain last year and is now vacant. The Service Merchandise store has sat empty since that chain’s 2002 closing, with the signs amazingly still intact eight years later. The recently vacated Walgreens space also sits empty. Some Bermant-style imagination would certainly come in handy now.

About a year back, two new signs were erected at Cermak Plaza. While considerably shorter than the original signs, they represent an effort to emulate the original 1958 look, albeit with directory boards added. The new signs are internally lit plastic as opposed to the porcelain and neon of the originals. One wonders why they didn’t just restore the classic signs, the support posts of which could have easily accommodated the addition of the directory boards. The appearance of the new signs has caused concern among Cermak Plaza aficionados, fearful the classic neon tower signs aren’t long for this world, although it’s strictly a minor rebellion compared to the “Save the Spindle” outcry. In my opinion, they deserve points for even attempting to capture the look of the old signs, something rarely bothered with in these cases. And the color match is pure Pantone perfection.

I’m trying to think of ways to snag a V.I.P. invitation to the dedication of the new signs. To miss out on this event would be unthinkable, but I’m stumped. Wait a minute – I’m a blogger, right? And bloggers are sorta “members of the press”, aren’t we? Then I’ll just ask for a press pass! Yeah, that’s it! That’s the ticket!

Oops, sorry…wrong Saturday Night Live sketch.

Most of the photos above are the work of Jeanette Archie, taken circa 1991. My sincere thanks to Jeanette and her husband Joe for allowing me to use them here. While the Big Bil-Bored and Spindle sculptures are the main motifs of the photos, they afford a nice view of the surrounding stores, most of which have changed greatly through the intervening years. Many thanks also to James Quinn for the close-up of the classic 1958 sign, and to Noah Vaughn for the photo of the new sign, with the new Walgreens resplendent in the background.

And now, some artifacts:

First, a trade ad for National Plazas from Chain Store Age magazine, showing the company’s current and planned shopping centers, with Cermak Plaza topping the latter list. Next are two teaser ads (November 22 and 25, 1956) for Cermak Plaza, followed by the main Grand Opening ad on the 29th. The Jewel Food Store grand opening ad, from November 15, is next. Following that is a wonderful photo of the Cermak Plaza Sears as it originally appeared. My very special thanks go to the Sears Holdings Archives for allowing the use of this photo. After that, an opening day photo of the J.C. Penney store, which many of us remember in its later incarnation as a Service Merchandise. Last up is an artist’s rendering of the unique Cermak Plaza McDonald’s.