Modern Love: Why a North Philadelphia Thriftway deserves historical recognition

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story and photo by Peter Woodall This article is part of a special editorial partnership with Hidden City Daily on preservation in Philadelphia.Like what you read? Check out the full March 2013 issueand visit Hidden Cityfor more stories on the inspiring preservation work being done in Philadelphia.

Nowadays, vintage stores are thick with “Members Only” jackets from the 1980s and car collectors covet the “classic” Honda Civics from the 1970s. But appreciation develops more slowly when it comes to architecture: buildings must be 50 years or older to be eligible for the National Historic Register. In Philadelphia, however, there is no minimum age for a building to be called historic; and good thing because the city has a few late modernist buildings that are worth preserving, but have yet to make the list. 

This isn’t surprising. The work of our most famous post-war architects, Louis Kahn and Robert Venturi, does little to inspire public affection, much less love. Both Kahn’s Richards Medical Building (1960) at the University of Pennsylvania and Venturi and Rauch’s Guild House (1963) at 711 Spring Garden Street, are mentioned in most every architecture text book, yet have frustrated many a lay person’s attempt to understand their greatness. 

Each architectural period—Victorian comes to mind especially—has been loathed by the following generation or two, only to be lauded once a certain critical distance has been achieved. We may just now be ready to see the value in the austerity of raw concrete. Witness the recent groundswell of support for protecting the Police Administration Building, or “The Roundhouse,” at 7th and Race Streets built by Geddes, Brecher, Qualls in 1963. 

Easier to enjoy are Philadelphia’s few examples of post-World War II commercial vernacular architecture, none more exuberant than the Thriftway on Frankford Avenue and Pratt Street at the end of the Market Frankford El. Built in 1954 for the Penn Fruit Company, and designed by George Neff, the store is a glass and steel anomaly amid the brick storefronts of Frankford. Almost all the Penn Fruit stores from this period look more or less alike, but this one is by far the best preserved, and the only one with those marvelous candy-colored stripes painted on the ceiling. Let’s look past the everyday use and common form of this striking supermarket and put it on the Philadelphia Register before someone decides to tear it down. 

PETER WOODALL is co-editor of Hidden City Daily. Before that, he wrote a column on dive bars for Philadelphia Weekly, and worked as a newspaper reporter in Sacramento, Calif. and Bioloxi, Miss.