Though he is better known for his shopping malls of the 1950’s and 60’s, Victor Gruen spent the earlier part of his career designing stores. As M. Jeffrey Hardwick’s recent biography of Gruen, Mall Maker(2004), tells it, Gruen began his career in the mid-1930s as a designer of modernist boutiques in Vienna. After emigrating to the US in 1938, he remained committed to reinventing the modern store. His designs for stores such as Ciro’s on Fifth Avenue and Barton’s Bonbonniere on Broadway still look fresh today. By 1941, Gruen had established himself as the preeminent store designer in the US.
It was around this time that Gruen relocated his office to Los Angeles, and began doing larger chain-stores. He did a series of stores in the LA area for Grayson’s Ladies Ready to Wear—on Hollywood Boulevard, Crenshaw Boulevard and Third Street, as well as assorted other chain stores, including Wynn’s Furniture in Inglewood and Milliron’s in Westchester.
Now, the chances that any of these stores or even the buildings are still in existence over fifty years later is slim at best. Indeed, it is gospel in shopping architecture that a store design has a life span of ten years. Many stores go out of business well before that, usually for reasons other than the architecture. If they do make it to the ten year mark, they have often been modified so much that the original design has become unrecognizable, buried beneath countless incremental renovations. Fifty years represents many lifetimes for a work of shopping architecture.
Still, I was interested to see what, if anything, was left of these early Gruen projects. For this study, I am indebted to Jeffrey Hardwick, who kindly e-mailed me the original photos, as well as the Central Library, where I was able to look up the store addresses in the 1948 Yellow Pages. The sites visited are:
The exterior is surprisingly intact. The original massing of the façade, in spite of the overspray of grey paint, is legible. The current tenant is the Crenshaw Discount Store, which is using the street side only for signage, not entry. This is typical of Gruen’s method during this period. The street façade directed bold signage at passing cars, while entry occurred from the parking lot behind the store.
The original building is long gone. A much larger building now occupies the entire block—an ex-Safeway supermarket, set in a sea of parking. The supermarket appears to have gone through several later incarnations, including a gymnasium (the scoreboard and basketball hoops are still inside) and a church. It is now home to the Iglesia de Cristo Ministerios Llamada Final. It isn’t entirely clear what the main signage on the building—“ACADEMY”—ever referred to, other than perhaps the nearby Academy Theater, a local landmark. It is worth noting, however, that, whatever the Academy was, they were resourceful: they reused five of the letters from the original Safeway sign, even cleverly inverting the “W” into an “M.”
What was once probably a typical downtown shopping street has since the 1970s been the Third Street Promenade. Urban pedestrian malls such as this were a response to the suburban mall which was pulling shoppers out of traffic-clogged downtowns. As the inventor of the mall, Gruen has apparently engineered his own obsolesence on this one. What was probably a bold storefront design directed at passing cars no longer made sense after the advent of the pedestrian mall. The precise site of Grayson’s is now a Champs outlet, an utterly banal composition of stainless steel, glass and blue squiggles.
Gruen’s flashy neon storefront which dramatized the recessed entry is, alas, no more. In its place is For Play, a low-brow lingerie store that has apparently saved all notions of flashiness for its wares. The flat pink stucco bulkhead with hand-painted sign is dull and dreary.
The distinctive shark-fin bookends remain, as does the general massing of this free-standing structure. However, all traces of glassy, dynamic modernism, including the voided corner showcase, have been eliminated, stuccoed over completely at street level and replaced with cheap vinyl punched windows at the upper level. The building now houses the Crusade Christian Faith Center (Dr. Virgil D. Patterson Sr. Pastor), entry in back.
A true milestone in shopping architecture, this store catapulted Gruen into much larger projects—what would become shopping malls. Now a Mervyn’s department store, the building has just undergone another bad renovation. This time they’ve added a new entry piece onto the back. Unfortunately, this new portal, while feebly adopting some motifs of the original design (vertical fins, red paint to match the original brick infill panels), summarily destroys the most revolutionary feature of Gruen’s 1949 design—the parking ramps that criss-crossed the back façade, bringing cars up and down from the rooftop parking deck.