Two-Part Commercial Block

Isaac Kremer/ November 15, 2020/ / 0 comments

The two-part commercial block is the most common type of composition used for small and moderate-sized commercial buildings throughout the country. Generally limited to structures of two to four stories, this type is characterized by a horizontal division into two distinct zones. These zones may be similar, while clearly separated from one another, they may be harmonious, but quite different in character; or they may have little visual relationship. The two-part division reflects differences in use inside. The single-story lower zone, at street level, indicates public spaces such as retail stores, a banking room, insurance office or hotel lobby. The upper zone suggests more private spaces, including offices, hotel rooms or a meeting hall. The type has been used to accommodate a wide range of functions and is readily found in almost all forms of commercial development, dominating the core of small cities and towns as well as many neighborhood commercial areas.

Two-Part Commercial Block, Georgetown, District of Columbia, 2019.

The rapid growth of commerce and manufacturing after independence led to a proliferation of the shop-house form in both new buildings and existing ones altered so that their commercial purpose was clearly indicated on the exterior. Shop-houses prevailed in emerging commercial centers of cities and towns alike through the early decades of the 19th century. Examples can still be seen in areas that have not experienced radical change, even though the shopfronts themselves have almost always been altered. The shop-house form continued to be used through the early 20th century its upper section retaining a domestic character. In some cases, this section encompassed a single residence; in many others, it housed apartments. Examples are most often found in towns and neighborhood commercial areas that developed along city streetcar lines.

Two-Part Commercial Block, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2019.

The gradual abandonment of the shop-house as the dominant form of commercial architecture was due to the ever-increasing demands for trade and professional services along with a corresponding increase in land values, all of which fostered the design of buildings used entirely for commercial purposes. Early two-part commercial blocks, erected mostly during the 1840s and 1850s, look quite similar to their shop-house ancestors. However, these newer buildings tend to be taller (four or even five stories) and were built in uniform rows or as large blocks. Their facades are treated in a very simple manner, reflecting tastes of the period and the attitude that commercial buildings performed essentially a practical function. The lower zone is usually divided by closely spaced stone piers supporting the masonry wall above, where windows appear like incisions made into the wall surface. Little or no applied ornament is present. At the time of their construction, such buildings generally contained retail stores at street level and small offices, light manufacturing activities or storage areas on the upper floors.

Victorian versions of the two-part block, which were most popular from the 1850s through the 1870s and continued to be built for another decade, differ in several respects. They are more ornate. The cornice is accentuated, serving as an elaborate terminus to the whole building. Windows are frequently embellished by decorative surrounds or caps. Ornamental framing may occur in the form of a stringcourse or cornice between each floor of the upper zone, with differing vertical treatments on the sides (13). Underlying all such changes was a new taste for decoration and the increasing desire to have the buildings themselves perceived as ornaments to the community. An analogy was often made between these new commercial “palaces” and the palaces of merchant princes in Renaissance Italy. Technological developments, such as the mechanization of stone and wood cutting and the casting of iron, facilitated widespread adoption of adornments. These manufacturing processes also added to the variety of readily available elements a designer could use. In most cases, the upper zone remained of masonry construction; however, by the 1850s, some facades were made entirely of cast iron. These fronts were expensive but appealing because they were both ornate and thought to be fireproof. In towns and neighborhoods where no fire laws existed, all-wood construction was still frequently used. New building products and construction techniques also allowed the use of low-pitched roofs, eliminating the attic story and its domestic associations.

Another change that occurred during the mid-19th century was an increase in scale. Each story is often higher and the elements on its facade larger. Many buildings also are taller (five or six stories) and occupy more street frontage, responding to the ever-increasing demand for commercial space and rise in land values. At first glance, the large two-part commercial block of this period may appear to be very different from its predecessors, yet the two are closely related. The overall composition of the upper zone remains additive, that is, comprising individual elements placed next to one another with little or no regard for the actual number of them used. Facade treatment thus has little to do with the dimensions of the building front.

Two-Part Commercial Block, High Bridge, New Jersey

The third change in the two-part commercial block during the mid-19th century was diversification of use, which resulted in a greater variety of particularized façade treatments. On the lower zone, retail units often have large windows to display merchandise, made possible by reduced costs in the manufacture of plate glass. Sometimes the entire storefront is glazed, interrupted only by window frames and thin cast-iron columns supporting the wall above. Frequently too, this section is topped by its own cornice, further accentuating the difference between lower and upper zones.

Banks, office buildings, hotels, theaters and fraternal halls also commonly took the two-part form during this period. Banks rank among the most elaborate examples and are further distinguished by having greater consistency in the treatment of all stories. Hotels may have more widely spaced windows in the upper section and shopfronts designed to harmonize with the floors above. Theaters sometimes occupy most, if not all, of the building’s volume, or they may be relegated to an upper level. The latter configuration is also common for fraternal halls. The presence of either function is generally indicated by one or, less often, two stories that are much taller than the norm. Shops, and sometimes offices above, were included as part of the package to generate additional revenue; with few exceptions, the overall character of these buildings is thoroughly commercial. In fact, when the depth of a lot permitted, a theater may have been situated at the rear of retail and office space, so that little indication of its presence is given save an embellished entry area and signs.

During the High Victorian era, the two-part block experienced further modifications that are conspicuous, if not radical. Work of this order generally dates from the 1870s and 1880s, but continued as late as the 1900s. The principal change is an increase in the amount of ornament and the variety of elements and materials employed. Often a much larger portion of the wall surface is covered with decorative patterns in wood, stone, brick, cast iron or, by the 1880s, stamped iron. Two or more of these materials may be incorporated into the same facade. Windows and entrances are frequently of several shapes and sizes. Sometimes turrets, towers, oriel windows, gables and attic stories with high-pitched roofs are employed to generate picturesque effects. At the same time, numerous examples are relatively simple, with only a few surface details or large, ornate elements to suggest their period.

By the late 19th century another transformation began to occur, this time under the influence of the French academic practice fostered by the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and newly created American architecture schools. This tendency emerged during the 1880s and early 1890s, became dominant from the turn of the century until the late 1920s and maintained a strong following for at least another decade. The shift to an academic approach affected both appearance and size. While Victorian buildings are characterized by additive compositions and often by an exuberant variety in their parts, academic work tends to emphasize unity, order and balance. The importance given to these qualities reflects two allied concerns. First was the conviction that the classical tradition provides the basis for principles of design. Second was the belief that these principles apply not just to individual buildings, but also to groups and indeed to most forms of settlement. Based on this premise, commercial buildings should be dignified contributors to a coherent urban landscape. While each facade may possess its own identity and some should stand out as landmarks, most examples should be restrained and relatively unobtrusive. The overall visual effect should be more analogous to polite conversation than to strident competition. These basic changes did not occur all at once.

A number of buildings erected between the late 1880s and the early 1900s are transitional in nature. They possess some of the agitated qualities of High Victorian design; however, their ornament may be more restrained and some of their elements more closely related to one another. By the turn of the century a sense of order and unity prevailed in most work. The means of expressing these values became even more diverse than in previous decades.

Many examples have a classical sense of order but contain few, if any, references to past periods. Some buildings are extremely plain, bearing certain affinities to their early 19th-century predecessors. Others celebrate new construction techniques, expressing their steel or reinforced concrete frames on the facade. At the same time, a great many buildings make more overt reference to past periods than do Victorian examples, drawing from a wider range of sources and using them in a greater variety of ways. The effect may be elaborate or simple. Historical references are often loosely interpreted, on other occasions, they are rendered quite precisely sometimes creating idealized versions of the traditional shop-house found in European communities. Examples of all these versions abound in the commercial cores of city and town alike. They are also prominent fixtures in many neighborhood retail areas and, by the 1920s, in planned retail developments — shopping centers — catering to an affluent suburban clientele.

Diverse expressions in design were achieved by a steadily growing array of building materials. Brick came in numerous colors and textures. Thin stone facing was mass produced, making it more affordable and accessible in areas poorly endowed with quarries. A number of substitute materials appeared on the market, including art stone and concrete block. Terra cotta, which could be cast into any form and fired in almost any color, was considered an elegant substitute veneer and became widely used. Improvements in stucco made the application of that material widespread, especially where allusions to Mediterranean architecture were fashionable.

The division between upper and lower zones is still pronounced in most examples from this period. Retail storefronts may possess little more than a wall of plate glass at street level, a solution made possible by the development of steel and concrete frame construction and lightweight steel trusses (47). Larger areas of glass are also common to numerous hotels, especially those in towns. With banks, treatment of the lower zone becomes highly varied (48-50). Most of the upper zones of many narrow-front buildings are penetrated by large windows, sometimes resulting in a less unified effect than in Wider versions of the type (51).

Further modifications of the two-part commercial block took place between the two world wars under the influence of European modernism. Now known as Art Deco or Moderne, this work avoids the use of historical references but employs much the same methods of composition as academic examples. The initial phase of Art Deco design, popular during the late 1920s and the 1930s, is characterized by a sculptural use of rectilinear geometric forms, dramatizing more than actually reflecting the structure beneath. Verticality tends to be emphasized by piers spaced at regular intervals and extending the full height of the facade to form a jagged silhouette. In some cases, smaller piers further divide the upper zone to enliven the staccato compositional rhythm. Often striations and abstract relief ornament embellish the wall surface. Some buildings use these motifs in a purely decorative manner without any sense of structural expression. A number of other examples employ the Art Deco vocabulary with minimal differentiation between vertical elements and planar surfaces, echoing treatments found in English neoclassical design of the early 19th century.

The second, or streamlined, phase of Art Deco design was introduced during the 1930s and 1940s. Its slick, machine-inspired imagery became a popular means to create a new appearance for businesses during and after the Depression. In contrast to examples from the earlier phase, these buildings emphasize the facade’s horizontality with such devices as decorative banding, long stretches of windows, smooth wall surfaces and rounded corners. New materials such as Vitrolite and Carrara Glass are widely used, often in bold color combinations. Applied ornament is seldom found; however, signs may be treated as an integral part of the whole scheme. Some examples from the 1930s combine the verticality and ornamental richness of the first phase with the sleek, machine imagery of the second. By the 1940s, on the other hand, designs are often more reserved, still imparting the idea of architecture as a practical art enhanced by industrialization, but without the ebullient character wrought by streamlined massing and details.

Between the two world wars, the two-part configuration was adapted to meet the needs of a new function, the interstate bus depot. Unlike railroad stations, which generally have to stand on the periphery of commercial centers and almost always have an image associated either with public buildings (when in cities) or residences (when in towns), bus depots are located well within the central core and are designed in a manner compatible with their surroundings. Early examples differ little from retail stores, except in some cases where a wide portal leads to interior loading docks. By the mid-1930s, however, the “island” form became standard, with open-air loading at the rear of the building and a streamlined facade enunciating its role as a transportation facility.

Other distinguishing features were developed beginning in the 1910s for small and moderate-sized movie theaters. Continuing the 19th-century practice in legitimate theater design, many of these buildings include retail and office space. But now the presence of the theater becomes much more prominent, with a wide lobby sheltered by a large marquee and an elaborate vertical sign above. These appendages provide a conspicuous advertising medium that in most cases is markedly different in character from the building itself yet is integral to the concept of the motion picture experience and clearly distinguishes these facilities from their predecessors. A more basic modification to the facade proper can be found when the auditorium and its adjacent spaces extend to the front of the building. With no offices above, the upper zone serves as a great ornamental wall, in some cases penetrated by a few windows. Art Deco examples from the 1930s are similar except that decoration is generally set at a bolder scale as abstract patterns extending across the surface. Postwar theaters continue in this vein and are often marked by a strident asymmetrical composition.

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About Isaac Kremer

Isaac Kremer is a transformational leader with a track record of success revitalizing downtowns in the United States. He has written and spoken extensively. He's always on the lookout for new and innovative ideas to unlock the potential of downtown areas.

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