Last of a Kind
exterior interior

There's a certain style of postwar American architecture that is born out of exuberance of that era, with a soupcon of the "form follows function" of the International Style, but without the dogmatism of most International Style architects. Some of these are documented in the 1952 book "Built in USA: Postwar Architecture in America", published by MOMA.

One example that didn't make it into the book was a series of grocery stores built by the East coast Acme Markets chain in the 50s and 60s. Dozens were built, but most of them have been bought, sold, demolished, or remodeled beyond all recognition. This one is virtually unchanged from the day it opened. It's really a simple prototype, with a simple program: Aisles of shelves for staples, surrounded by a "back of the house" to maximize the area that can be serviced from both the customer and employee sides, with transparent front wall. A few modern gee-whiz items like automatic doors. 15,000 square feet of open plan under one roof. No big deal, there are plenty of ways to build such a utilitarian building.

What the Acme Market prototype did, though was take that utilitarian program and give it a touch of class, entirely through materials and revealed framing structure. exterior sign It's a very simple building, made entirely of brick, metal, and glass. The peaked roof tops out at about twenty feet, down to about ten feet at the sides. The signature "ACME" logo, done in molded plastic, and backlit with fluorescent tubes. Inside, you see the steel structure of the roof, wide-flange beams supported at the edges by the walls, and in the interior by a grid of tubular steel columns. Eight-foot fluorescent tubes run parallel to the wide flange beams, attached directly to the exposed steel roof lighting framing. All the steel is painted white; all the other materials are left as is. The curtain wall is not as elegant as the curtain walls of today, but the proportions are good. And that's about it. A utilitarian building with honesty in structure; no need for a drop ceiling to make everything look tidy; it's clean to begin with. The building hides nothing, because there is nothing to hide. There are some nice little custom details, like the (older) Acme logo on the door. I suppose they had a few hundred of them made before the logo got redesigned, so why let them go to waste?

interior sign Inside, there's a bit of graphic design that's been an enigma to me since childhood: the back of the ACME sign is deconstructed into a graphic that hints at but isn't a reverse image of the ACME logo. I've always wondered just how hard a sell it was for the designers to convince the client to buy that large illuminated sign twice; first, a readable version for the outside, and then another version that doesn't say anything at all for the inside. (If you have any information on the designer of the interior sign, please email me. I suspect that it was designed by Ellsworth Kelly, who did a similar architectural sculpture for the Greyhound bus terminal in Philadelphia at about the same time.)

This particular Acme, in Parkesburg, PA opened in 1969, and closed in May of 2003; its last major renovation was in 1988. Probably at that time, sliding half-silvered mirrors that separated the back of the house from the open refrigerator cases around the perimeter of the front of the house were removed. On the customer side, the mirrors gave the illusion of even more bounty, on the service side they allowed the staff to see when meat and produce needed to be replenished; a standard for that prototype in the 50s and 60s.

There are a number of reasons why this store couldn't be built today. While it was quite large for its time, today shoppers expect more variety, and that requires more space. More space means a larger footprint, and that means that a single peaked roof would be several stories high. That much volume would cost a lot to heat. Instead we now have the flat roof, steel truss version of "big box" retail: the days of soaring ceilings for a mere grocery store are over. More modern (and efficient) ways of designing HVAC systems wouldn't allow for such a simple, uncluttered exposed ceiling anyway. Eight different custom shapes of large glass for a single storefront? Two sizes should be plenty. Brick? Both for the outside, and the vestibule? You must be kidding.

It's still a pity to see such an honest building fall to changing times and more modern marketing strategies, especially since it didn't get modernized to keep up with the latest trend in commercial architecture. Parkesburg didn't need that kind of change for change's sake. I suppose it will eventually get re-purposed, and the high ceiling covered by a more modern drop ceiling. Why would you want to see exposed structure and fluorescent tubes when you can have a nice horizontal 2' X 4' grid? Surely the sign, inside and out, will go immediately.

I would like to thank  Acme Market's Department of Community Affairs for allowing me to take interior photographs of this store before it closed.

All text and images © 2003 by Alan R. Turner.

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