Retro Roadmappers, you know that Mod Betty would never send you into a chain store to purchase something (horrors!) but there’s nothing that says you can’t just go in there to look around and see the architectural remainders and reminders of what used to be there, is there? Especially when it could've been demolished completely, which is so often the case.
While I'm sure there are plenty of one-off opportunities for this type of adventure throughout Philadelphia, the concentration of these interesting spots in a few block radius makes it a nice little destination for the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boy in all of us!
Walking and Gawking: Architectural Sleuthing in the Chain Store Era - Chestnut Street
Start at the corner of 17th and Chestnut Streets.
Rite Aid / Club Quarters / Provident Trust Building 1636 Chestnut St.
We’ll start off slowly at the corner of 17th and Chestnut, and rejoice that the historic brick building you see before you wasn’t torn down and replaced by something boring and “modern”. With a traditional Federalist style that harkens back to the history of the city, this use to be the Provident Trust Building, built in 1927.
If you go into Rite Aid you’ll see that they saved some of the architectural details like the arched windows and upper moulding, so it’s good for a quick stop in. Not mindblowing, but good that it is still here.
That’s OK that we started out slowly, because just a few steps further down Chestnut is easily the most Art Deco building in the city, if not the state! Mod B <3's Art D.
Old Navy / Art Institute / WCAU Radio Building 1622 Chestnut St.
The WCAU Radio Building was built in 1928 and dazzles from the outside, not inside. From the even numbered side of the street you’ll get a nice close up of the lightning bolt motif above the door at 1622 that boldly declares the power of radio in its various forms (I’m thinking drama, music,literature, the spoken word, don't you think?)
However, to really experience the pizzazz of this geometric landmark, you should cross the street to gaze up, past the chain store, and behold the glory of the entire building. (I think all these zig zags are making me pull out all my Z wordz!)
Machine age metal grillz define each level of the building, and the Aztec sunrize is split in half by what once was a glorious glass tower rising above the building.
The building is on the National Register of Historic Places, so if you’re keeping a checklist of those buildings, you can consider this one visited!
CVS / Jacob Reed Building 1424 Chestnut St.
Getting back on the even numbered side of this street, walk a few blocks towards Broad street to 1424 Chestnut. This is the stop that started this entire post for me, as I was flabbergasted when I happened to glance up above the entrance to CVS and discover an arch laden with mosaics of Mercer tile, indicating that this building has a much more interesting history than its current situation would indicate.
This is the Jacob Reed & Son’s building - they were clothiers, and the tiles above the entrance reflect the different stages of cloth making. Much like the WCAU building, you’ll appreciate it more fully if you look at it from across the street, but since you’re here under the arch, enter the store using the revolving door.
Once inside look above and you’ll see how the chain was considerate enough to keep not only the glass transom of the front door and backlit clerestory windows, but also some of the carved woodwork and murals painted inside the arches, showing how the modern dressed man might wear the clothes purchased here in the early 20th Century.
(Interesting to note that the CVS name and logo were placed “backwards” in the glass, so it could be read from the inside of the store, instead of the traditional outside view.)
You are now just a few steps away from South Broad Street, so continue in that direction, admire the diner-like stainless steel ticket booth of the Prince Theatre and stop on the corner of Broad and Chestnut.
At this point the tour becomes a “Choose Your Own Adventure”
You can either cross Broad Street to check out the Walgreens at the corner of Chestnut and South Broad
Head south on South Broad 2 blocks to the corner of Walnut and South Broad, the Bellevue Hotel
Walgreens / Wanamaker’s Men’s Store 1 South Broad St.
Some local folks may remember this space as a Borders book store, but Walgreens recently came to town to claim this corner as their flagship Philly location. It was originally the Wanamaker’s Men’s Store, and if you head to the 3rd floor you’ll see how the drugstore chain has nicely highlighted the decorative plaster ceilings and restored the brass chandeliers.
Speaking of decorative plasterwork....
Hyatt at The Bellevue / Bellevue Stratford Hotel 200 S Broad St.
The public spaces of the Bellevue are laden with such decorative plasterwork it is as if a wedding cake decorator took over and swirled white sugar curliecues over the ceiling and walls.
Known as the The Bellevue-Stratford when it was built in 1904, it is probably most famous outside of Philadelphia for being the place where “Legionnaires Disease” was discovered (read all about it here.)
While you needn’t worry about catching anything like that there now, if you feel the need to wash your hands, there are bathrooms conveniently located off the food court in the lower level of the hotel. Don't go up into the hotel itself, you can tell just by this sign that it is a Fancy Place!
And that, dear Retro Roadmappers, is a free, fun not-fussy architectural adventure in Philly courtesy of Mod Betty.
You never know what you’re surrounded by until you stop to see past what is going on right now. So slow down and as my pals Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66 like to remind us all, just Look Around!