Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Christo's and Capital Market: Old Safeways Still Useful, Tell Development Story

Even a fragmentary history of Safeway in Salem is far, far beyond our scope here at the moment. Without better documentary evidence, it's hardly possible develop any narrative.

But city phone directories can give us a faint sketch of the history, and it turns out it's pretty interesting. As shopping moved from on foot to by car, the building forms and locations changed too, conforming to auto-logic over human scale. This is not a novel insight, of course, but the history of Safeways in Salem show it with particular clarity.

Safeway on corner of Court and Commercial, 1938
182 North Commercial Street was 3rd iteration
The building is the Breyman block of 1874,
also known as the "White Corner"
Salem Library Historic Photos

Enter the Market - Late 1920s

As best as I can tell, Safeway first came to Salem between 1926 and 1930. They opened shops in downtown buildings and the addresses bounced around a fair bit. They include 162, 270, and 182 North Commercial Street. One outpost at 1980 North Capitol Street was also opened.

Nationally, Safeway was already a large chain. It went public in 1927 and by the early 1930s had over 3,000 stores. The entry into the Salem market coincides with this growth phase. (See wikipedia and a long history at Groceteria for more.)

The period is a fertile one for change, obviously: It is the same time streetcar service ended in Salem and is also the end of stock market bubble and beginning of the Great Depression nationally. Ferment and then catastrophe brought lots of transitions in housing, transportation, and shopping.

It seems likely that the store on North Capitol Street was the first auto-oriented store. I don't know, though, if it was new construction or represented a reuse of an older building. The other stores downtown were in pre-auto storefronts, like the Breyman block of 1874, representing city development that dated from the 19th century or right at the turn of the century.

This is a transitional period, Safeway hasn't settled into a pattern, and is not so interesting for us. It may be that Safeway was always auto-oriented and had to wait for things in Salem to catch up. The next period, which represents particular configuration and set of solutions, is very interesting!

Suburban Markets - circa 1940

Three Legacy Groceries on Broadway

The first auto-oriented stores located in close-in neighborhoods started to be built in earnest around 1940. Several things are going on here: The worst of the Great Depression is over (though we still aren't out of it yet), and autoism is firmly entrenched. National chains in multiple retail sectors are beginning to standardize. So grocery stores are going into a new building type: New construction specifically meant for driving customers. The groceries are no longer going into first floor storefronts on 19th century commercial blocks.

A strip along Broadway is particularly illuminating.

As best as I can tell, the first of these auto-oriented storefronts was actually built as a grocery store in about 1925. It had Maynard's and now will have Barrel and Keg. While the building today may not be very impressive, it may have been advanced stuff in the 1920s!

First grocery on close-in Broadway, circa 1925
A decade later, on the same block, but at the other corner, Safeway decided to move in.

It might surprise you to learn that Christo's is in an old Safeway store!

Christo's Building: First Safeway on Broadway, late 1930s,
but only in use for a couple of years
It was built it looks like in the late 1930s, and was only in use for a couple of years. It would be very interesting to learn more about why it was abandoned. Furniture manufacturing and other uses seemed to find it a more congenial home.

Maybe one reason Safeway left it was to secure a location with better traffic on Market Street instead of on Belmont. There might have also been ways this building didn't work well, either for internal customer flow or for delivery and logistics.

So right around 1940, Safeway moved one block north.

Safeway at 1230 N Broadway - vacant now
You can see the art deco-y detailing on the corner columns.

The Successful Template

I don't know which store was built first, but two other instances of this very same template still exist in Salem. The building at the corner of Broadway and Market, the former motorcycle store, might be the one most intact, though.

Safeway at 1240 State Street - Capital Market today
The Capital Market has a new awning that covers up a good bit of the art-deco-y flavor, but it also might retain older tile at the bottom. The side entrances are not original.

Safeway at 245 Court - vacant now, office instead of retail
One of the stores is also downtown, and it is interesting as an auto-centric encroachment on what had been a very walkable, streetcar oriented 19th century commercial center. The shift seems sudden. In just about two years we went from the Safeway at top in the old White Corner (1874) at Court and Commercial to this new concrete shell. (It is significant that two older buildings on the corner, home today of Shryocks and the beauty school, both underwent moderne remodels at this same time!)

The building at 245 Court has also been modified a great deal, but you can also see the patterning on the corner columns - though the paint doesn't highlight the details as well.

There appear to have been five stores total on this template, but two of them have been demolished it seems. The prevalence of the template suggests that this building type worked well, a least for a decade.
  • 1420 State
  • 245 Court
  • 1230 Broadway
  • 935 South Commercial 
  • 2120 Fairgrounds Road 
One uncertainty is whether these buildings were an existing chain Safeway purchased or whether Safeway built them themselves. Although Safeway often expanded by buying small local chains, these particular stores don't show up in directories as existing under a different name, so it looks like they were built specifically for Safeway. Though this is not certain given the two-year gaps typical between directories. They could have operated under one name for a year or so and then have been purchased by Safeway.

So we have a building type and series of addresses, three of which are all about the same distance from the city center: 1420 State, 1230 North Broadway, 935 South Commercial. There's a clear sense of spacing here, of serving a neighborhood. But again, while a number of people still probably walked for groceries, the internal logic of everything is autoist.

That three of these buildings remain today is at least a little remarkable - though of course they are just concrete boxes, and can probably be configured in any number of different ways. Hopefully they can continue to be reused in flexibly different configurations and will not be demolished.

For comparison, here's our first First Fred Meyer in what is today the Engelberg Antiks space. It looks like it adapted an existing building from circa 1915 and was not new construction for Fred Meyer. I don't know if there's an equivalent story about mid-century Fred Meyers in Salem.

Back to the Safeway narrative, you know how the story goes from here...
Moving Farther Out

Yup, as development moves farther from the city center, so do the stores. The stores also get bigger and get more parking lot.

One store that did not move far was the 1420 State Street location. After Washington/East School was demolished, the Safeway moved about three blocks north to that site, and though it has been remodeled, the store at 1235 Center Street remains the primary grocery store serving downtown and the close-in east side neighborhoods.

Elsewhere, as Salem grew, and the arterials radiating from the city center generated more suburban development, stores relocated in leaps. The store on South Commercial moved much farther out, from 935 to 2575 South Commercial, and that building now houses School District offices.

The downtown store itself, 245 Court Street, closed a few years later and was replaced by the one on Edgewater. This suggests that the Court Street site had also served West Salem customers who crossed the river, either for shopping specifically or for employment. No store in downtown proper remained, and so this period of the 1950s represents the first emptying of downtown.
  • 1235 Center replaced 1420 State, about 1952/53
  • 1530 Edgewater replaced 245 Court, circa 1960
  • 2575 South Commercial replaced 935 South Commercial, circa late 1950s
Even Farther!

The flight of the Safeway store on South Commercial might be the most striking. It went from 935, to 2575, to 3285, and finally to 5660 Commercial Street SE. While the buildings for also 2575 and 3285 remain today, School District offices in one and the other still vacant, only 5660 is in use as a Safeway.

The penultimate store in a series:
3285 South Commercial, vacant today
You can see how the buildings progressively retreat from the sidewalk and are served by larger and larger parking lots.

Current locations: two are central, three on far edges
I don't know there's a direct lesson here or some conclusion that should be drawn from this sketch of Safeway's history. It just illustrates deeper patterns in city history and urban development. Patterns in housing and patterns in grocery shifted in tandem, each reinforcing the other. Safeway history shows the development of auto-oriented neighborhoods and the building types that serve them increasingly distant from the city center. It shows what came to be and what is.

If you already think smaller-scaled walkable development is preferable, this won't create new arguments for it. If you think big boxes on large parking lots are best, this won't sway you to think otherwise.

But you could hardly ask for a better illustration of the flight from the center.

(Know more about Safeway, grocery generally, or the national history of retailing and chains? Chime in!)

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