Sunday, August 22, 2010

A Well Planned Safeway, 1966

Many of the retail chains featured on this site were known for an iconic look – a combination of architecture, signage and interior decoration that made their stores instantly recognizable. While this remains largely true today, one could argue that it reached a peak during the 1960’s.

Among the foremost of these would have to be Safeway, with its “Marina” design. They had a handful of other favored formats, including the “Ranch” Safeway (Low, peak-roofed stores. Maybe they had one of those in Hidden Valley, California - get it? Ok, moving right along…), but the Marina, introduced in 1959 and named for its maiden location on San Francisco’s Marina Street, is far and away the best remembered Safeway store design today. Hundreds were opened in Safeway’s vast American territories (the West, Atlantic, Southwest and Plains regions), and a number of examples sprang up in the company’s Canadian, European and Australian markets as well. The Marina stores featured floor-to-ceiling windowed facades with one of several “standard” arched rooflines - with or without upswept “side wings”, horizontal wings, etc., and a multitude of other permutations. At the briefest glance, they were unmistakably Safeways.

As much as I like the “trademark” store designs of Safeway and others , however, l love the one-of-a-kind stores these chains would occasionally open to fit into an unusual setting or meet some special architectural requirement. Depicted above, in a wonderful photo sent to me recently by Amy Bertsch, is just such a store - from 1966, the Safeway supermarket at the brand-new Lake Anne Plaza in Reston, Virginia. This photo was taken by visitors from nearby Alexandria. My sincere thanks to Amy for sharing it with us.

Amy informs us that Lake Anne Plaza was the first community in Reston, the “planned suburb” of Washington, D.C., to be completed. Intrigued, I did a brief bit of research on Reston and Lake Anne Plaza and found it very absorbing. One site in particular, the Planned Community Archives at George Mason University in nearby Fairfax, is a treasure trove, to put it mildly.

There’s way too much detail to go into here, but I’ll attempt to cover a few basics. Reston, conceived in the early sixties, was the beneficiary of experience gained by America’s earliest planned communities, including Park Forest, Illinois and the various Levittowns. Planning goals for Reston included maintaining the close proximity of homes, stores and offices (creating “an ideal place to live and work”) in a modern architectural environment, while hopefully avoiding the income and class stratification that became so closely associated with the aforementioned towns.

Whether they succeeded in the latter goal is hard to say, but the modern architecture of Reston (and Lake Anne Plaza in particular) is now widely recognized as a true mid-century modern classic. The master plan for Reston, completed in 1963, was developed by acclaimed architect James Rossant, whose firm also designed the buildings in Lake Anne Plaza. Additionally, Rossant was an accomplished artist who personally designed the Brutalist sculptures that adorned the Plaza’s courtyards and fountains. In 1982, Lake Anne Plaza was declared a historic district. Through the years, his firm remained active there, overseeing a major renovation some of the Plaza’s key buildings and sculptures a few years back. Mr. Rossant passed away in December of last year at the age of 81.

The Safeway, now gone, was a vital part of the Lake Anne community in earlier years. An early 70’s Lake Anne promotional brochure, archived on the GMU site, spotlights a middle-aged couple who regularly traveled to the store by boat, for example - a sure-fire way to keep the romantic flames glowing. The store’s restrained signage, the polar opposite of 70-foot-tall tower signs, is very appealing in its own right, and I got a particular kick out of seeing the famous Safeway font and “S” logo rendered in black and white - a very classy touch!

At some point though, as the photo below (shown here through the kind courtesy of the Planned Community Archives, Special Collections & Archives, George Mason University Libraries) shows, the signs were changed from monochrome to the very familiar red and white. Perhaps the company felt the need to ramp up the branding power a bit.

Or maybe the whole thing was just a Wizard of Oz-like dream sequence: “Oh, it was beautiful! There was snow everywhere – and the Safeway signs were all in color – and you, and you, and you, and you were there!!”

But I guess the first scenario seems more likely, doesn't it?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Subtleties of Signage

I don’t know about you, but I find the gaudy retail signs of recent years to be a real turn-off. Today's four-foot tall wooden eyesores or stacked-stone monstrosities always leave me longing for a simpler time - when understatement was the word of the day.

Take the sign shown above, for example. Notice how the gentle earth tones, orange and green, blend seamlessly into the surrounding landscape. You can almost hear the conversations that must have taken place…”You know, I’ve been gazing at that hillside for the last ten minutes or so…did you realize there was a Sears there?”

The main function of a sign is to inform, and this one does that beautifully. Its message is simple: “Everyone needs food, and most of us need something from the pharmacy now and then. Go no further. You can find these necessities right here.”

The best signs are like négligées… you barely know they’re there…

This well-known shopping center’s sign extends a warm invitation: “Welcome to Gulfgate. I’m safe - be at ease. Shop as long as you’d like - go home when you please.”

Now, a little background information on the photos, in the event you're curious: (1) Searstown Shopping Center, Winchester Road, Cumberland/La Vale, Maryland. Opened May 1, 1963. Height, 80 feet tall. From an advertisement for DuPont’s Lucite plastics. (2) Shoppers Square Shopping Center, South Virginia and East Plumb Lane, Reno, Nevada, opened November 5, 1964. The “Skaggs” portion of the sign featured blue lettering on a white background, the “Mayfair” portion, white on red. Height, 72 feet tall. From a 1965 Signs of the Times feature article. (3) Safeway, somewhere in Utah, mid-1960’s. Height, really really tall. From an ad for Dynapac rotating motors. (4) Gulfgate Shopping City, intersection of Interstates 45 (the "Gulf Freeway”) and 610 (“The Loop”), Houston, Texas. The shopping center was opened on September 20, 1956, but the earliest aerial photos I’ve seen do not show this sign. Later known as Gulfgate Mall, it was enclosed in 1967, then torn down and completely redeveloped starting in 2001. The sign still exists in modified form. Height, super mega tall. From an ad for another rotating motor firm, Specialty Engineering and Manufacturing Company.

Friday, August 6, 2010

A Charming Day at Wards

A brief look inside some typical Montgomery Ward stores of the mid-60’s, as shown in some official publicity photographs. They’re staged, of course, but they provide a nice feel for the Wards shopping experience of that era.

Much has been said and written about the services that most “fine” department stores once provided to their clientele. Home delivery (for even the smallest orders), gift wrapping, “personal” shoppers, interior decorating services, playrooms for the kiddos and more - at one time it was a very extensive list, pared down through the years as rising costs made these niceties impractical for the stores to carry them on.

Less talked about today are those services once offered by the “mass market” department stores – Sears, Penney’s and Montgomery Ward, many of which continued into the 1970’s. In Wards’ case, these included outdoor living shows, fashion shows, and for many years a charm school, the proud graduates of which can be seen in the first photo above.

For roughly ten years starting in the early 60’s, the “Wendy Ward Charm Centers”, a fixture of the larger Wards stores of that period, stood at the ready, eager to help America’s young girls mature into women of taste and refinement. “We recognize the young girls of this community are seeking competent, professional instruction in personal grooming, etiquette and appearance”, read a 1965 newspaper article heralding the launch of the Randhurst Wendy Ward courses.

The courses were aimed at three age groups – “Little Miss” (ages 4 to 8), “Jr. Miss” (ages 9 to 12) and “Teens” (ages 13 to 19). A 1966 ad for the Madison, Wisconsin program spelled out the curriculum in detail: “ - Instructions in proper and natural make-up. – Art of being feminine and charming. – Hair care and individual styling. – Exercises and diets. – Arts of conversation. – To walk, sit, stand with poise.” There were modeling classes as well, as a lady from Florida fondly reflected upon in an email to me a while back.

So if you happen to meet a particularly charming woman who hails from the baby boom years, think “Yep. Wendy Ward grad.” Not sure it would be polite to ask her about it, though. (We guys didn’t have a “Monty Ward” class to teach us such things.) It’s a shame that no society-minded 21st century retailer has picked up the mantle and introduced a “charm center” program of its own. Rumors that Hot Topic is considering the idea are unsubstantiated at this point.

Wendy Ward wasn’t the only fictional female inhabiting the cavernous new Wards stores of the day. The versatile “Carol Brent” was another, and her name graced a multitude of Wards’ house brand ladies’ fashions and accessories. She reigned over the girls’ toy department as well - the Ideal Toy Co. even manufactured a line of Carol Brent dolls, a Barbie knockoff. Wards credit card applications bore her name instead of “Jane Q. Public” on the cover.

In one ad Wards answered “the burning question”, with then-popular Ogilvy-style directness, just in case anyone was curious: “Who’s Carol Brent? Nobody. She’s an idea and a promise. Carol Brent stands for our idea that a lot of fashion and a lot of quality don’t have to cost a lot of money….” (At least they didn’t say “She’s a concept by which we measure our pain”. Wait, that’s a John Lennon lyric…)

The other scenes are self-explanatory, but I’ll give it a shot anyway: a little girl at the camera counter (can’t say I ever saw a roll of Montgomery Ward film – probably performed similar to Anscochrome), a young couple examining Damask drapery fabric (a big seller back then) in Wards’ “Style House” home décor department, a friendly Wards representative hands over “hers-and-his” credit cards (brings back memories of Flintstones cartoons and Wilma and Betty's battle cry: "Charrrrge it!"), gassing up an even then-classic ‘Vette (I’m guessing it’s a 1958 model), the catalog counter (everybody had…matching glasses!), and a family enjoying the Sunday paper, including the comics…and the weekly Wards flyer, of course!

Below, some nice examples of mid-60’s Montgomery Ward advertising – first, a photo showing the company’s Easter and Christmas advertising insert flyers. Last up, thanks to a tip from reader Danny, are two wonderful circa 1967 tv spots aired on (and presumably produced by) Houston’s KIAH-TV. Two of the stores mentioned in the commercials are pictured on this previous post. Having grown up in Chicago and watched the primitive but charming local commercials produced by WGN, long before it became a national cable presence, these commercials sparked some wonderful memories. The first commercial opens with a grand opening announcement for the new Pasadena, Texas store, and the second (with slightly out-of-sync sound) features a lady who might really be better off using paper plates.