One-Part Commercial Block

Isaac Kremer/ November 15, 2020/ / 0 comments

One-Part Commercial Block, Ferndale, Michigan

The one-part commercial block has only a single story, which is treated in much the same variety of ways as the lower zone of the two-part commercial block. Essentially, it is a fragment of the larger type and should not be confused with the one-story shop, freestanding and capped by a pitched roof, which could be found in settlements during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Rather than appearing somewhat like a small house or service facility on a sizable farm or plantation, the one-part commercial block is a simple box with a decorated façade and thoroughly urban in its overtones.

The type appears to have been developed during the mid-19th century and soon became a common feature in towns and cities. It proliferated because of the rapid growth of Victorian communities, large and small, and the hopes speculators held for continued expansion. By catering to the swelling demand for services, these buildings could generate income, yet they represented a comparatively small investment. Often their most important purpose was defraying the costs of land that was likely to increase in value and thus at some future time support a larger, more profitable building. In this sense, the one-part commercial block represented a claim staked on urban ground. More often than not, these ventures met with success, if not always as soon as anticipated. Examples constructed in cities much before 1900 are now rare, although they still abound in many places where the pressures for development have not been as intense.

Most one-part commercial blocks constructed during the 19th century were used as retail stores. In many cases,  The street frontage is narrow and the façade comprises little more than plate glass windows and an entry surmounted by a cornice or parapet. However, in city and town alike, a row of similar or identical units can sometimes be  seen. A sizable wall area often exists between windows and cornice to provide a place for advertising and make the façade appear larger and more urban than would otherwise be the case. This false-front arrangement is especially common to small, wooden buildings erected during the second half of the 19th century to serve neighborhoods and create the commercial core of new towns during their initial period of development. While their form, freestanding and capped by a gabled roof, may be linked to the modest, one-story shop of the 18th century their facade design represents a departure from tradition and is closely tied to commercial practices of the period.

Victorian one-part commercial blocks were also designed for banks. In general, these buildings are of masonry construction. They tend to be somewhat taller and more embellished than their retail counterparts. The particulars of facade treatment vary and are similar to bank fronts on the lower zone of two-part commercial blocks.

Some retail stores dating from the early 20th century differ little from their Victorian predecessors, except for a greater uninterrupted expanse of plate glass across the front. Yet many examples from this era are more substantial in appearance and their elements are arranged in a more unified manner, reflecting the new concern for restrained dignity in the urban landscape. As a result, the differences between retail facilities and banks, often pronounced in Victorian examples, may be substantially reduced. Some early 20th-century stores are indeed quite large and imposing, especially when they are located in small towns. In cities, the one-part commercial block continued to be popular for modest buildings in neighborhoods. Grouped units are a ubiquitous feature along what once were streetcar Lines, where commercial development often grew to be quite extensive.

While composed in an orderly manner, most examples from this period have few if any historical references. Particularly with retail stores, the configuration permits little embellishment except near the roofline. At a time when simple design was ever more held as a virtue, ornate buildings that were small and provided no more than basic services would have been considered pretentious. Furthermore, investors showed an understandable reluctance to add costly decoration to buildings that might be replaced.

By the 1920s, however, efforts emerged to make the one-part commercial block in suburban areas more ornamental and visually harmonious with its domestic surrounds. The abundance of automobiles and corresponding traffic congestion also fostered the concept that low-density commercial development was preferable, at least in enclaves of the well-to-do. Some of the resulting changes are minor, such as use of a few decorative embellishments. In other instances, the shift in character may be quite pronounced, with large, picturesque elements modifying the basic configuration. Probably the greatest departure came from the development of drive-in shopping centers, where most units are located toward the rear of the lot to provide off street parking. While retaining the one-part composition, these complexes establish a new spatial pattern. The façade still addresses the street but no longer provides its major defining edge.

Another set of variations in the one-part commercial block can be found with movie theaters. Even small facilities fronted by shops tend to be conspicuous because of both façade features and apended signs. With larger complexes in urban neighborhoods, the auditorium may be treated as a sculptural backdrop to the retail units, with a tower or other vertical element providing a prominent beacon to identify the group.

Art Deco examples of the one-part commercial block may be quite elaborate. Using the abstract, geometric, vertical motifs popular during the late 1920s, an elegant decorative program was often made integral, emphasizing the façade’s division into separate units rather than its overall horizontal form (86). Treatment of streamlined designs is more varied. Storefront remodeling probably became more widespread during the Depression than it had been before, and many stores were completely transformed in the process. With small buildings in particular, the façade is often designed as a prominent display unto itself, with brightly colored surfaces, bold graphics and, in the case of retail stores, intricate arrangements of recessed display windows.

Horizontal emphasis predominates with most larger examples of the streamlined one-part commercial block. Often the entire facade suggests a sleek, mass-produced object, reflecting the highly influential field of industrial design. The results may be similar whether the building houses a single store or encompasses many units to form a planned shopping center (89-90). Expanding chain operations that sold a variety of related goods and required a large floor area on one level used this form extensively. As a result, the drug stores, five-and-dime stores and supermarkets of the 1930s and 1940s tend to stand out as prominent individual facilities instead of just occupying one or two units in a group of stores. Paralleling this shift, many theaters of the period have few, if any shops, and their streamlined vocabulary is used to enunciate their role as an entertainment center (93). A similarly specific character is given to examples of the type designed as bus depots.

Buildings dating from the post-World War II era may be simpler and more restrained in appearance, lacking the flashy exuberant details associated with streamlining. At the same time, a number of retail stores show a new kind of spirit. The facade no longer conveys the sense of a slick package so much as it resembles an open container for the salesroom beyond. Extensive and complex arrangements of display windows and large, often freestanding letter signs predominate, the exterior wall surface plays no more than a background role.

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About Isaac Kremer

Isaac D. Kremer, MSARP, is an agile leader with a track record of success revitalizing downtowns in the U.S. The prior two downtowns he managed were named Great American Main Street Award Semifinalists. Isaac is a much sought after speaker, having presented at over 30 conferences. Through speaking and writing he has influenced hundreds of fellow practitioners.

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