This post is part of a monthly series that explores the historical applications of building materials and systems through resources from the Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL), an online collection of AEC catalogs, brochures, trade publications, and more. The BTHL is a project of the Association for Preservation Technology, an international building preservation organization. Read more about the archive here.
The traditional storefront on the archetypal American “Main Street” changed dramatically during the 20th century due to innovations in building construction and retail marketing. This month’s exploration of the BTHL features the architecture of the small-scale shop. In the 19th century, the ground floor of commercial buildings was often framed by a series of cast-iron structural columns supporting masonry walls that shaped the interior. Millwork outlined display windows and entrances, the primary features of the façade; signage, though present, was not yet well integrated with the structure. Innovations in building material categories like glazing and metal façades, along with changes in consumer marketing tactics, changed this, facilitating the rise of modern design. For many Americans, the downtown storefront might have been their first exposure to the modern design movement that began in Europe and swept across the U.S. in the 1930s. This design transformation was aided by the marketing support of major manufacturing companies, particularly those producing glazing and other storefront products. In 1935, Modernize Main Street, a national competition sponsored by building-products manufacturer Libbey-Owens-Ford (LOF), served as a major benchmark for this trend.
The second half of the 20th century reveals an integrated storefront design in which the functions of graphic identity and display meld with the architectural expression. A selection of the BTHL’s trade catalogs below offers an overview of 19th- and 20th-century storefront design.
Manual of the Bouton Foundry, 1887, Bouton Foundry Co., Chicago
Only a few catalogs remain that capture storefront designs of the 19th century. The best of these in terms of architectural illustrations is that of the Bouton Foundry Co. of Chicago, dating from 1887. The company offered an extensive line of cast-iron columns, the essential structural element of commercial building façades from the early 19th to the early 20th centuries.
Awnings, Tents, Camp Furniture, c. 1880, Murry & Baker, Chicago
One of the most critical elements of any storefront is the signage, and awnings played an important part in this expression. As functional accessories to shade front windows and sidewalk displays, awnings also afforded a storefront the opportunity to showcase a graphic identity.
George L. Mesker & Co. Architectural Iron Works, 1900, George L. Mesker & Co., Evansville, Ind.
The Mesker Co. of Evansville, Ind., and St. Louis were catalog merchants of storefront materials and installations, including cast iron columns, millwork, and sheet-metal façades. Its products were especially popular with property owners in small towns, where lax building codes allowed their wood-framed, sheet-metal façades, considered a fire hazard, to be constructed in place of masonry. The façades' elaborate designs, combined with their economical prices, made the company quite successful. A website has been set up to document and promote the legacy of the Mesker company and its contemporaries.
Radford’s Store and Flats, 1909, Radford Architectural Co., Chicago
The Radford Architectural Co. is best known for its house-plan books and construction guides. Shown above is a catalog detailing the company’s storefront offering, which includes plans for the ground floor and upper stories as well as illustrations of commercial façades. This 1909 edition features many single-story designs, indicating the shift from the multi-story “Main Street” buildings common in the 19th century.
Daylighting, c. 1920, Luxfer Prism Co., Cicero, Ill.
In addition to his building design work, Frank Lloyd Wright also devised a building product that was extremely popular for commercial storefronts during the early 20th century: prism glass, which was used in the transoms of shop fronts in thousands of buildings across the country. In 1897, Wright received a design patent for a series of ornamental glass patterns for prism glass tiles, which were typically 4-inches square and set into a frame of zinc came strips. The glass prism shape on the inside would diffuse and refract sunlight into the building interior, which was important as electric lighting was still in its infancy. These glass tiles were manufactured by the Luxfer Prism Co. of Chicago (later American Luxfer Prism) between 1897 and 1930, and were distributed nationwide through glazing and storefront contractors.
Glass, Paints, Varnishes, and Brushes: Their History, Manufacture, and Use, 1923, Pittsburgh Plate Glass (PPG)
This comprehensive catalog covers the product categories of glass, paints, varnishes, and brushes and notes that it includes information about “their history, manufacture and use.” It also features ample illustrations of the latest in storefront designs using copper metal framing with prism glass transoms, often incorporating graphics.
Modern Storefront by Easyset, 1931, PPG
The modern design changes that began with European architects in the 1920s and the resulting Art Deco and Art Moderne styles featured new metal framing techniques and architectural finishes that transformed America’s streetscapes. American retailers were among the first to showcase these new designs in their communities.
Carrara Structural Glass, 1942, PPG
New exterior facing materials sold during the period included flat panels in both glass and metal. PPG marketed its structural glass panels under the trade name “Carrara glass,” a reference to the Carrara marble of Italy.
How to Plan and Construct Modern Storefronts, 1938, LOF
LOF was a leader among building-product manufacturers in producing design and technical publications to show architects and builders the latest styles and design materials in storefront construction. LOF marketed its structural glass panels under the trade name Vitrolite.
How to Give Your Store the Look that Sells, 1951, PPG
The top glazing manufacturers marketed their materials for the renovation market as well as in new construction. This volume emphasized a comprehensive approach to store modernization, including products that could upgrade both the building façade and interior, such as expansive glazing.
Lighting for Show Windows and Open-Front Stores, 1956, General Electric
Illuminating display windows and building interiors was particularly important for the “open-front” store, which featured ample glazing that allowed passersby to see the interior and for the front window to be used as display space.
Aluminum Store Fronts, 1960, Kawneer, Niles, Mich.
Kawneer pioneered the creation of metal-front stores starting in the early 20th century. By the time this catalog was issued in 1960, the company claimed to have sold more than 2.5 million building fronts.