Written and drawn by Ben Leech
Unlisted is a series of portraits highlighting Philadelphia buildings not yet listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. To learn how to protect a building by nominating it to the Register, click here.
Address: 1020 Market Street
Architect: Victor Gruen and Elsie Krummeck
The former Robinson Department Store is maybe the least “Philadelphian” of any building in the city. It looms over Market Street like a Pacific swell breaking over a square city’s streetscape. But the surging tide of modernism the building once promised never really reached us, and today Robinson’s stands frozen and forgotten, like a plastic kiddie pool propped up against an abandoned house. The store was designed by Victor Gruen, who is today mostly demonized for spawning the shopping mall as we know it. But in 1946 Gruen was a new American, having fled Vienna before the war to work in the drafting rooms of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In the 1940s, he and partner Elsie Krummeck were at the vanguard of commercial architecture, building sleek and radical storefronts in downtowns nationwide. The Market Street store was one of eleven the couple designed for the California-based Grayson-Robinson chain of budget womensware, and each of these Austro-Angelean behemoths was a unique flourish of curves, color, and commerce. They were machines for blinging, and they heralded a bright new era of architecture as advertisement.
The Philadelphia store is one of the last to remain standing, but it casts a Dorian Gray-ish pall over Market Street today. The tile mosaic facade is waterstained and pockmarked with bolt-holes from the now-lost Robinson sign. One parapet has been lopped off. Once an elegant arcade with floating glass display cases, the ground floor is now stuffed with standard-issue storefronts, complete with metal security grates and plastic back-lit sign boxes. It’s weird, dirty, and dated– like a Frank Furness building probably looked in 1946.
Gruen’s chickens have come home to roost in the Gallery at Market East across the street– a bustling but architecturally invisible affirmation of Gruen’s later shopping mall ethos. But is it too late to give up on his earlier urban visions?
For further reading:
Hardwick, M. Jeffrey. Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
Heller, Steven and Heimann, Jim. Shop America: Mid-Century Storefront Design, 1938-1950. Los Angeles: Taschen, 2007.
Jackson, Mike. “Storefronts of Tomorrow: American Storefront Design from 1940 to 1970.” Preserving the Recent Past 2, Deborah Slaton and William G. Foulks, eds. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 2000.
Wall, Alex. Victor Gruen: From Urban Shop to New City. Barcelona: Actar, 2005.
Michael Stern led a Preservation Alliance-sponsored tour of North Philadelphia’s Mansion District as part of the North Philadelphia Arts and Culture Alliance’s Treasures of North Philadelphia openhouse on April 24. In case you missed it…