Introverted Buildings in Philadelphia
Robinson's Department Store, Tenth and Market Streets
I don’t know when Robinson’s closed. At street level, it’s been divided into two stores so the only way you’ll notice it is by looking up or seeing it from across the street.
Decades into the 20th century, folks felt obliged to clear what was once considered clutter along Market Street. Cigar store Indians. Newspaper stands with the ubiquitous red and yellow (was it?) slogan “Nearly Everybody Reads the Bulletin.” Neon pushing “Lovelier Fashions for Less.” The (still extant) lettering on the corners at Lit Brothers: “Hats Trimmed Free Of Charge.” My favorite, was on the north side of Market west of 11th Street: a giant neon eagle, its two dimensional wings buzzing with electricity as they flapped in the rush hour dusk.
The purging of all of this pre-modern character, this urban clutter, took many forms. Nothing beat the street-sleek facade of the PSFS Building at 12th Street, although the Mussolini-Modern Post Office at 9th has its merits. In between, commercial Philadelphia cleaned up its act with no building so bold as this one. What would you even call that vertical sweeping feature rising up and fading back from the storefront? And the way it reverses into a re-invented eve? Pure cool. So mid-century.
But who’s looking up, now?
Maybe it’s not a case of who is looking up but rather WHAT’S looking up…
Over the last several years, the Philadelphia City Archive has been sharing many of its two million photographs online at the searchable http://www.phillyhistory.org. And it turns out, Betsy just found that they have a street view from 1961 of this facade featuring the original bold script of the now-gone Robinson sign.
There’s no knowing Robinson’s, I think you’ll agree, without seeing this sidewalk view. It illustrates the cliff-like character of the facade. Mixed shades of Mesa Verde and the Jetson’s, if such a thing is possible.
Looking at Robinson’s now, it’s hard not to imagine what it looked like in its heyday. By the time I photographed it, that huge ‘approaching wave’ was thoroughly misunderstood. In the City Archive photo, Robinson’s is in step with its funky neighbors; everybody is sporting curves, vertical signs and mod lettering.
Yes! In the mid-century, even the highly fussy Reading Terminal Headhouse dressed up for occasion with a blinking neon wrap-around “Sun-Ray” sign. (Eat your heart out, Hard Rock Cafe.)
I remember this as a Kiddie City in the early 60s.
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