Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Robinson's on Market East

Robinson's Luggage is closing its doors. I don't know why that's news. Who buys luggage at a specialty store? I still throw my chonies in a Jansport backpack.

This isn't about overpriced handbags. It's about Market East's Robinson's Department Store and the need to declare it historic and begin the campaign to restore its façade is now. Yes, this very minute.

Historic communities have a knack for calling history buffs to action at the eleventh hour. The historic Boyd Theater is likely doomed, as is Kenny Gamble's Philadelphia International Music. As much as I'd love to see both saved, historic preservation is a job for thousands of people, and part of that job is admitting you've lost.

But more importantly, it's anticipating future loss.

With NREA's planned expansion of the Girard Trust Block, the Gallery's proposed renovations, and rumors flying around Bloomingdale's interest as an anchor, it's quite possible that we will be looking at a whole new Market East by 2015.

Market East doesn't host a bevy of historic properties. With ample real estate at the Disney Hole and lackluster, craptastic architecture begging to be redeveloped, the gems of Market East are likely secure. No one will ever tear down Reading Terminal or the PSFS Building and the post office is probably safe.

But there's one icon on Market East that is largely ignored by historians and completely ignored by shoppers that choose to endure Kmart.

Victor Gruen's Robinson's Department Store still stands at 1020 Market Street. Its neon lights broken and large signature long gone, few people know it's there and why it's significant.

At first glance, Robinson's is a Brutalist nightmare, a product of midcentury design many would rather forget. Stained and cracked, the five story Robinson's looks like a murky, concrete wave prepared to envelope what's left of Market East.

But it's more than that. The façade is actually comprised of thousands of small, indigo tiles that once sparkled as a beacon to Market East's thriving enterprises.

Of all of California's Grayson - Robinson's eleven unique department stores, Philadelphia's is one of the few that remain. Although Robinson's tends to get lumped into worn midcentury design, it's anything but.

Its graceful curves harken earlier experiments with Art Nuveau and Art Deco while the sterility and simplicity of its face carried architects to their modern interpretation of International Style: Brutalism. It was built at an odd period of European influence during America's rebirth that followed the Great Depression. Many peg it for basic 1960s retail design, but it was built in 1946 and it's so much more interesting.

While Robinson's peddled affordable womensware much like Burlington Coat Factory and Marshall's, it predated low budget architecture by a solid two decades while catering to the diversity that was Market East.

In its heyday, Robinson's dazzling façade was illuminated by five large lights, its signature, and two smaller neon demarcations. Although its beauty is hard to see today, the building is largely underutilized. Some Scrubbing Bubble and a Sham Wow could easily bring out its luster.

But now is the time. Market East has positioned itself as a clean slate and Robinson's simply blends into the background of disposable real estate. Philadelphian's preservationists need to recognize Robinson's worth, as it was, is, and can be.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I always thought that building facade was butt-ugly... but it has potential to be butt-beautiful.