Before Target and Walmart ruled the land, Americans bought everything from notebooks to bicycles in midsize, urban stores known as five-and-dimes. Smaller than a department store but bigger than a corner drugstore, they were part of highly competitive national chains known for bargain prices.
In Philadelphia, the most storied five-and-dimes from the mid-20th century — Woolworth's, Kresge's, W.T. Grant — were concentrated along Market and Chestnut Streets. Because they didn't rely on a standardized store design, as today's bargain retailers do, their facades were often real works of architecture. Even though some have suffered clumsy modernizations, these artful commercial buildings are what gives Center City's shopping streets their distinctive character today.
The handsome, former Kresge's store at 1520-22 Chestnut St. underwent particularly harsh renovations over the years, yet it has survived with its integrity intact. When the five-and-dime opened in 1934, it sported an intricate art deco facade crafted by Silverman & Levy, two Penn architecture grads who were known for their commercial architecture. Recently purchased by PH Retail, a division of Post Bros., the old Kresge's has just been given an extensive facelift that restores some of its lost details and reinforces its art deco identity.
Many people associate art deco with lavish movie palaces. Although Kresge's is more modest, the composition borrows design elements from those theaters to give the store its drama. The limestone facade is scored with deep horizontal grooves on the upper floor that contrast with an array of flat, vertical columns and sporty, machine-age metal fins. Kresge's original sign, which was accented with racy silver bars, added another horizontal band. The architects also marked the entrance to the second floor with an elongated, vertical transom.
Because store windows were the five-and-dimes' main form of advertising, the architects made the most of them. The ground floor was originally divided into three glass vitrines to maximize space for product display. Customers could walk around those window cases, scoping out merchandise before entering the stores.
The Kresge's chain was founded in 1912 by Pennsylvania native Sebastian Spering Kresge (S.S. Kresge). By 1929, he had built the company into a small empire with almost 600 locations. But as the U.S. population shifted to the suburbs after World War II, five-and-dimes began to lose their allure. Seeking to change its image, Kresge rebranded itself as Kmart and opened its first big-box store in 1962.
It's not clear when Kresge's Chestnut Street closed, but a series of tenants began to chip away at the art deco details. The glass vitrines were replaced with flat shop windows. The sculpted limestone cornice was retrofitted to serve as a retaining wall so cars could be parked on the roof. And the glowing transom over the office entrance was sheathed in marble.
PH Retail had initially intended to strip off what remained of the art deco facade. But after the Preservation Alliance's Paul Steinke showed the company photographs of Kresge's in its prime, the firm reversed course.
Not all the original details have been recreated, but enough that Kresge's art deco heritage is now evident. The new tenant, Buffalo Exchange, won't sell the same vast range of merchandise as Kresge's, but it specializes in bargain-priced clothing, bringing this spot on Chestnut Street back to its low-cost beginnings.