Monday, August 31, 2009

Ghosts of Market East

Speaking of the grand, old department stores like Strawbridge & Clothier - which stands vulnerable once again now that Foxwoods has been told to retreat to the river - Market East was once Philadelphia's booming hub of commerce. Like an outdoor European Arcade or precursor to the the American Shopping Mall, Market East was lined with about a dozen department stores ranging from the tiny Robinson's to the massive Wanamaker Building. Let's take a tour.

The recently defunct Strawbridge & Clothier's second building (see previous post) at their original location still stands empty. Designed by Simon & Simon in 1928, it compliments the adjacent Post Office at 9th and Market as beautifully preserved examples of large scale Art Deco design. It is significant to mention that Strawbridge & Clothier, a once mighty retail empire including Macy's and Hecht's, began at this location in Philadelphia.

The corner of the Gimbel's complex at 9th and Market is seen here in 1979 shortly before it was demolished for a parking lot, a.k.a. The Disney Hole, named for the would-be location of Philadelphia's failed DisneyQuest. Fortunately the Gimbel's office building still remains, seen in the background.

Robinson's quasifuturistic tiled 1940's facade still remains on Market East between 10th and 11th. A broken neon sign reading "Robinson" can be seen at the right of the building.

The sprawling Lit Brothers department store at 7th and Market was designed by a number of architects from 1859-1906 and still stands today as a shining example of what Market East could be.

Few realize it, but the Snellenburg Department Store at 12th and Market still stands today...sort of. Designed by James Hamilton Windrim and John Torrey Windrim in 1906, the first two floors of the building remain as the "placeholder" structure known as the Girard Block, which has been awaiting redevelopment for nearly three decades. Redevelopment of this block is undoubtedly a key in any potential Market East Renaissance.

You can't talk about department stores in Philadelphia - or the United States for that matter - without mentioning John Wanamaker. My father and grandmother have both told stories that begin with a trip downtown to meet their friends "Under the Brass Eagle". The present building designed by Daniel H. Burnham includes what was once the world's largest pipe organ. The organ still plays everyday at 5 P.M. and is the focal point of the store's famed Christmas light show. The Wanamaker Building still as a department store as Macy's, previously Lord & Taylor.

These are just a handful of the department stores that lined Market East between the early 1800's and the mid-1900's, not to mention the dozens that lined Chestnut Street and Filbert Street. Unfortunately today, the nostalgia outweighs the need when it comes to department stores. Shopping Malls supply the specialty needs while discount department stores supply the necessities. Sadly Market East has become such a ghost town that even K-Mart can barely survive. What this location needs is some sort of destination attraction, something to draw a crowd, improve public transportation, and create a residual market for shopping.

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