This presentation is part of the Mid-Century Modern Structures: Materials and Preservation Symposium, April 14-16, 2015, St. Louis, Missouri.
Mid-Century Commercial Modernism: Design and Materials
by Carol Dyson
Carol J. Dyson: Thank you. Well I really wish to thank the National Park Service and many other sponsors of this great conference. I am truly thrilled and honored to be speaking here today.
As we just heard, I work for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and under the auspices of our Tax Incentives and Regulatory Programs we have been involved with a number of significant and iconic mid-century buildings such as the one shown here. But I am not going to be talking about any of these today.
This morning I wish to talk about how mid-century modern made its way to main streets across the country, and I really think it’s interesting how some of the same materials, assemblies and design partis of the larger scale, signature buildings also showed up in the smaller-scale, commercial buildings of the mid-century.
In the mid-20th century countless owners of banks, shops, restaurants, theaters, and other commercial businesses built new buildings, or were inspired to update or modernize their existing building. Newer 20th century businesses proliferated including car dealerships, gas stations, dry-cleaners, fast-food restaurants, motels, and drive-up banks. We also saw the introduction of shopping plazas and shopping centers. Often these buildings were the first architectural expression of modernism to reach a community. These modern, commercial buildings fully utilized a variety of modern materials and assembly in their quest for an up-to-date image.
New industrial materials fostering new designs was not an unknown phenomenon for commercial buildings. In the mid-19th century architectural cast-iron columns, shown here on the right, and cast-iron columns and lintels replaced the more husky store-fronts of brick and stone you see on the left. This allowed for larger plate glass display windows. Then, near the end of the 19th century the steel shelf angle lintel allowed for full, store front widths of glass replacing the 8-foot spacing of cast-iron columns and increasing the front display area, and allowing more daylight in the store. But about the same time prism glass transom above the store display came into use and they could bounce a light that reputed 30 feet deeper into the building. Now the need for the tall store windows was reduced and commercial buildings with prism glass transoms could have shorter floor-to-ceiling heights.
Then, only a few decades later, and seen here on the right, cheaper electricity and affordable artificial lighting obviated the need for those same prism glass transoms and allowed less glazing of the store front.
Business owners, ever since the new styles and trends recognized new materials and methods as a means to proclaim their modernity. Shops felt the need to have a store front reflect up-to-date styles, or banks wanted to display their modern efficiency. New deal programs aimed at strengthening the construction industry and improving commerce led to the Libbey Owens Ford company and I’ll refer to them as LOF, sponsoring the Modernized Main Street Program in 1935: a competition that showcased elegant, art moderne, commercial buildings utilizing vitrolite, LOF’s opaque structural glass, and held in place by gleaming, white metals.
The marketing incentives were effective and many store fronts, theaters, and gas-stations were re-clad with glass, porcelain enamel, sometimes even laminate panels. But by the end of the 1930s you have store front design begin to move beyond moderne designs into a new aesthetic.
During the second world war Pencil Point Magazines published “Store Fronts of Tomorrow”, a competition. The modernized main street façades in that competition had been primarily still 2-dimensional excluding some aluminum or steel canopy projections, but by 1943 this new competition show-cased dramatic, 3-dimensional changes to the building façades.
A third influential promotion took place immediately after the war. The 1946 “Machines For Selling,” you see one of the illustrations here on the right. It was sponsored by the store front company: Kawneer. This aluminum store front manufacturer promoted efficient machine-age design for a new, modernist world.
Throughout the 1940s and 50s, many commercial designs appeared and were publicized, ones by signature designers such as Morris Lapidus, Raymond Loewy, Victor Gruen and Morris Ketchum Junior. They were all promoted to other architects and designers and commercial building owners. The net result of the competitive competitions, the advertisements and advances in materials manufacturing and product marketing was that the lower level of commercial buildings in the mid-20th century moved from streamlined moderne to exciting new designs, something I like to refer to as the deconstruction of the front façade.
Foremost among these new innovations was the open front. Rather than opaquely-backed display windows, the now welded store or theater lobby itself became the display. In this advertisement, says: “How to make the sidewalk part of your store”. Store owners are removing the vision barriers to give passersby a sweeping view of the entire store. When people can see in, more come in, more business.
With steel lintels spanning across an entire store front, that shop front first floor, or first two floor display areas could be visually opened up. Perfectly clear plate glass could be produced and transported in sheets as large as 12 by 25 feet to allow visual connection with the building interiors. The term “open front” or “visual front” were utilized by the glass and store front manufacturing companies to describe this dramatic new look. Large windows allowing a view inside the business were used in a variety of commercial structures including theaters, gas-stations, restaurants, and shops. This period photo of a steak-and-shake restaurant shows its broad expanse of glazing and, indeed, one of the mottoes of steak-and-shake is: “in sight, it must be right”.
Many of the most evocative designs were seen in retail because of their business emphasis on design and style. Glass might be lightly framed or butt glazed to create an open look. Some glazing was then framed by fluted or broadly curved aluminum trim, turning the front into a picture-frame stage set for the products or services viewed inside. Interiors were brightly lit to further bring the business content to the passersby.
Angles were another design element that occurred parallel with, and often as part of, open front design. Designers experimented with a front plane of commercial buildings: glass front walls were angled, either pitched inward from top to bottom to reduce glare, or angled back on a horizontal plane towards the entrance and plan. The stepped and zigzagged open, arcaded lobbies, they’re also called exterior lobbies by the business, of the 1920s as we see here, still recur but now these outdoor lobbies, or arcaded lobbies are asymmetrical. You see here on the left some rigidly symmetrical 1924 store front designs for that exterior lobby, that display area in front of the store. And on the right you see some of the same motifs but done in a truly asymmetrical manner, and that’s for a 1945-46 publication.
Angles and asymmetry were everywhere. You see here an example in Chicago, Roberto’s, and here’s another one, in Moline, Illinois, with similar, asymmetrical, arcaded front. You see angles even in things such as this stone veneer up here on this store front jutting through that canopy and awning, and signage and even roof lines might be angled.
Not all modern commercial buildings were completely open. Dramatic designs often showed front façades deconstructed into 3 dimensions. Retail display cases projected proudly from glazed or solid planes and appeared to float within large plate glass windows. Free standing table display cases appeared outside but within asymmetrical exterior lobbies (as shown here and here). Cantilevered display cases appeared inside and out: some only slightly cantilevered, others, like this, more dramatically did so. Here you see an example in Bloomington and the display case in the front would have had a manikin, or one or two manikins in it. And here you see projected awnings that would slice into, in a horizontal manner, into these more 3 dimensional store fronts now, and you see an example of a steel awning on the left and an aluminum, lighter weight aluminum one, suspended on the right.
Above these new, elegantly open storefronts, however, changing downtown economics created many vacant or under-utilized upper floors. These upper windows could now be covered as part of a modernization campaign with glass, aluminum, porcelain panels as you here. When daylight was still desirable on upper floors, open-weave metal, usually light-weight aluminum, sometimes even plastic was used.
Installing these metal grills or panels created over the upper floors created and instant style update or backdrop for giant signage, well suited to an automobile age. Some of these buildings’ re-claddings have an elegant design and are representative of an important time in commercial history. When part of a design façade is complete with a contemporary storefront below they deserve serious evaluation by preservationists.
Modern commercial buildings were highly dependent on signage. Often graphic neon, over-scale lettering comprised an important part of the design. However, due to new business ownership changing aesthetics, or simply cheaper alternatives for new signs, most of these distinctive graphic messages have been removed. Thankfully some communities have recognized the recent past signs and surveys, historic sign ordinances, or with designation.
As the 1950s and 60s moved forward, more evidence of modernism appeared in commercial buildings. Some buildings were clad in steel and aluminum curtain walls with porcelain enamel panels or glass spender panels. Within, functional international spaces were easily adaptable to different uses. This striking Ville Park bank was designed by Peter Roche, a former a student of Mies Van Der Rohe and a future professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. The bank was inspired by Mies unrealized design for the [inaudible 00:11:55].
Manufacturers Hanover Trust branch bank, a 1953 bank, designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s Gordon Bunshaft, in New York City, was very influential on mid-century bank design. This cornered building incorporated immense plate glass vertical sheets, a massive 10 by 24 feet, and, following the concept of the open front, it proudly showcased its modern efficiency by placing the Henry Dreyfuss design bank front door right behind the store front of the glass. And the photo on the right I took, it’s literally 8 feet from the front glazing to the bank vault. We see here an advertisement for the vault itself, proclaiming that on the day the bank opened the passersby were so impressed by this door of tomorrow that they stood in the rain and stared.
This idea of showcasing behind a glass façade, a bank’s functional modernity to attract progressive-minded customers, was taken up by other bank designers of the period such as Bloomsdale Bank Building and Equipment Companies’ University Bank of Carbondale, in Carbondale, Illinois. You can see the open vault door in this rendering between the blue car and the customers.
Mid-century commercial buildings often utilized progressive new structural forms. On main streets some these buildings might be simple masonry or curtain wall structures but dramatically topped with daring roof forms, such as folded plate, or thin-shelved concrete as in this drive-up bank in Oklahoma City. Theaters, restaurants, bank buildings and bowling alleys were among the more common representatives of this style. Dramatic pylons; soaring roof lines; expressive structural and sculptural massing, all contributed to a style defined by Chester Liebs in his groundbreaking book, “Main street to Miracle Mile”, as ‘Exaggerated Modern’.
Additional materials and motifs were also added to commercial vocabularies. Structural Expressionism and Brutalism both brought smooth and rough-textured concrete to main street and natural elements, such as brick and stone and wood materials, began to show up on commercial structures. These were sometimes described as ‘Californian Style’ or ‘Suburban Modern’ at the time.
What are some of the more widely used materials as part of the these mid-century main street, commercial designs. As we have seen, plate glass formed an integral part of the designs in mid-century commercial buildings. Plate glass was the perfectly clear covering for the open front that became so prevalent. Tempered, or heat-strengthened, glass was used for clear doors, elegantly attached with minimal hardware. Before the war, the light metals of aluminum and stainless steel were the most common framing, teamed with plate glass, porcelain enamel, and structural glass façades. Then after the war, anodized aluminum and newer champagne and gold colors joined the earlier clear-coat, or mill-finished, aluminum. And here you see the Citizens State Bank in Oklahoma City, which has a gold anodized, geodesic dome.
Steel was used in curtain wall systems and display windows. However, despite advertising, aluminum store front framing was more common in retail store fronts. Porcelain enamel and steel panels first became common on commercial buildings before the war. Its use continued throughout the 1950s, especially on slip-covered or curtain walls, but it was now seen with rougher textures.
Not all commercial buildings materials were new in the mid-century. Older build materials were re-tooled to create newer modern effects. Brick, often in blond colors or with darker textured surfaces were stacked with continuous vertical joints rather than a running bond. In other building, brick was lain in more decorative, textural patterns. Terracotta was also utilized, but usually not to imitate stone as it was in earlier decades. Rather now it is clearly expressing modernism.
Structural Expressionism and Brutalism utilized both smooth and rough-textured concrete. Pre-cast columns in the style of Minoru Yamasaki or Edward Durell Stone were also utilized in main street buildings from the 1960s to the 1980s. They were most common in banks or offices.
Tile, previously found in store front bulkheads, now add color, texture and pattern to accent façades. Smaller mosaic tile and colorful patterns was used frequently in the 1940s through 60s.
Stone was installed in smooth and elegant polished panels, and also in a more rustic manner. And in case you were wondering, this is not a front façade of a building. We often refer to this in our office as the Rosetta Stone of stone panel and stone veneer. It’s on the back wall of a stone veneer installer in Springfield, Illinois.
Panelized imitation stone, concrete or veneer panels also became common. Laminated panels of imitation materials on wood substrates showed up on commercial buildings as quick and affordable modernizations (and here’s an example of a faux tile).
Now I want to talk quickly about a few case studies. I’ll start with just a couple of the many sad losses because these buildings are often endangered. This is The Hub clothers in Springfield, Illinois, and when it was rehabilitated to be a children’s museum we tried to talk them into keeping the front façade design and changing the name and signage, but leaving the man and boy there. It seemed like a perfect fit for a children’s museum. But they were adamant that they wanted to go back to something more historic so they removed all of the porcelain enamel façade and nothing was really left underneath it. They had to do all new windows, all the window hoods, the cornices, the store fronts, everything was gone, so they ended up with a very generic “Ye Olde” store front.
Here’s another loss from Springfield. It was a beautiful black box on the Springfield Old State Capitol Square by Jack Baker. And because curtain walls are often were easier to install they’re sometimes too easy to de-install and put something up and the Drive-it façade that they put up that you see here in the lower corner. Unfortunately the building has remained empty since they did the rehab.
And, motels I just have to bring up. We’ve lost probably 5 Route 66 motels in Springfield Illinois alone over the last five years. They cannot compete with the larger chain motels and they truly are going fast.
So let’s talk about something a little more positive, a few wins. This was a slip-covered building with a modernist canopy in Springfield where the owner of a gallery that went in there decided to put up his own sign, and he did one that I think is very appropriate. They did large sheet metal letters, very appropriate for this modern façade.
We did a lot of work, and do a lot of work with advising main street communities in Illinois and working with a lot of period-appropriate fonts that you can use now too. This is House Industries’ fonts which are just great. And we encourage owners to work with good quality original materials. Now you can’t really tell that when you first look at this façade but here was the design that our main street staff, Hannah Margaret Barris, did for this owner and they loved it and they went ahead and installed it. Basically just painting everything that was there and putting up appropriate signage.
And I’ve got to bring up my friend Tim Dunn who’s the vitrolite specialist if any of you are ever working with structural glass, carrara or vitrolite, Tim works nationally. He’s the only person that I know of that makes his living repairing structural glass, interiors and exteriors. And on the upper right there, you see some of the glass that he’s salvaged and stockpiled over the years.
We’ve had some success stories in some of these commercial buildings, driven by recognition and incentives. Here’s a case in Urbana, Illinois, with a Victor Gruen mall. And it was listed on the National Register before it was 50 years old, and it went for tax credit rehabilitation, which kept the original Terazzo floors, and in the cases where the original store front still existed (like here), those were maintained as well.
I love this little, modest, commercial shopping plaza in Pekin, Illinois. The owner of it is so proud: his grandparents built it; it was the first one in the region; its currently being nominated for the National Register.
And John showed this building yesterday. I was pleased to see him show it. It’s a wonderful example of community support for one of these commercial buildings. And I actually think it’s a great example of mid-century design with the open front, and on the left there, there’s some orange and red tile on a sweeping pattern that you can see extending there inside the store front.
And here in St. Louis be sure and try and drive by the flying saucer. It was originally a Phillips 66 station which was saved by hard work; by a large number of people, probably many of whom are here in the room.
And in Springfield we had a Michelin Man, and a tornado. And here you see what happened after the tornado, he lost his head. And here you see it after, another success.
So before I get to the conclusion I just want to mention that we have some resources for you on our website, at the Historic Preservation Agency. We have a page on mid-century commercial design and I also have store fronts components guide that I’ve posted there that goes into and identify some these elements in more than I had time to deal with today.
So to conclude: commercial design of the mid-century was often strikingly modern, celebrating up-to-date looks and efficiency worthy of an optimistic post-war age. However, too few of these buildings still survive intact and many are not even fully appreciated by their current owners or by their communities. I hope that education, recognition and preservation can save some of the better examples of them. Thank you.
During the mid-twentieth century unparalleled and dramatic changes in the design of commercial buildings transpired across the United States. Much of the current analysis and attention given to recent-past resources has focused on larger scale high-rise buildings, high-style single family examples, or signature-architect-designed institutional buildings. Often, however, it was the more humble mid-twentieth century bank, clothing shop, cinema, or dry-cleaners that was the first architectural expression of Modernism to reach a town or city. Advances in material manufacturing, product design, and marketing all had a decisive impact on the mid-century commercial setting.
Many of these modern commercial designs were created by some of the more talented architects and designers practicing across the country, many of whom wrote publications on store design that widely influenced commercial construction. Meanwhile, the companies that produced many modern materials, such as glass and aluminum storefronts, also heavily promoted commercial building renovation. Glossy brochures showing sophisticated shoppers coaxed store owners to update their stores in order to match the newest styles of goods and fashion.
Newly constructed exaggerated-modern massing and experimental structures captured the interest of the modern consumer. Savings and loans displayed folded plate roofs, or restaurants contrasted rustic wood with large areas of glazing. Owners of older downtown buildings covered unused upper story windows with porcelain-enamel, gold-anodized aluminum, Vitrolux glass, or plastic slipcovered facades. Channel-set and reverse-set neon, internally illuminated back-lit signs, and cursive or san-serif stainless steel letters all broadcast a new modernity to a fast-moving auto-driving public.
Asymmetrical and angled Herculite storefronts reduced glare while their diagonal plans coaxed the shopper into the store. Picture-framed, cantilevered, projecting, or inset display cases were crafted out of tempered-glass aluminum framing. Tempered-glass storefronts turned well-lit store interiors into a new form of window display. Vertically stacked textured brick and tile or structural glass grounded and contrasted with sleek white or gold metals. Glassy storefronts spilled new lighting methods onto busy sidewalks for evening shoppers. The results were striking, celebrating up-to-date looks worthy of an optimistic post-war age. In short, main-street became modern.
This presentation addresses smaller-scale commercial and downtown resources such as specialty shops, restaurants and banks. A discussion of these resources within their mid-century design and commercial context, will be augmented by analysis and illustration of their commonly-used modern materials and design vocabularies. A visual compendium of the major new components and materials that make up these mid-century commercial buildings will also be provided, along with examples of preserved modern designs.
Carol Dyson is the Chief Architect for the Illinois SHPO and also teaches about the recent past for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Preservation Program. In Illinois Carol has been involved with the rehabilitation of 860-880 N. Lake Shore Drive by Mies, Bertrand Goldberg’s Hilliard Center, and SOM’s Inland Steel Building. Previously, as a Deputy Regional Preservation Officer for GSA in Washington DC, Carol was involved with a number of mid-twentieth century historic buildings including Marcel Breuer’s HUD building. Carol is a contributing author to Twentieth Century Building Materials, and both Preserving the Recent Past conference publications.