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“Main Street”

Playing by the rules…and with them

Four blocks of Broad Street (two north of the civic squares; two south of them) are divided in twenty-five-foot wide increments, each 140 feet deep. These were standard building blocks of commerce in any city west of the Appalachians. Their rhythm is ubiquitous, unfailing, so much so that when it does deviate, we notice — like adhering to the cardinal points of the compass, until you don’t.

What was built on them followed an unspoken set of rules governing each storefront’s appearance: central or side entrance; show windows parallel with the street or angled; a secondary door giving access to stairs leading to the upper floors. They accommodated signage, though none of them needed a neon notice that the shop was “Open” because you could easily tell that it was. Protection from sun or rain swung out to form colorful canopies. The material palette included wood, pressed metal, brick, stone, and cast Iron. Glass was in large sheets (at least during Agincourt’s history, they were), but might also include patterned or stained glass transoms (and another opportunity for advertising). As a designer, there might as well have been a drop-down menu and default settings.

I can’t say when those rules ceased to be acknowledged or when they were forgotten or ignored. But the affect on our historic commercial cores has caused a subtle shift.

I chanced to find this image of a business front in Tonganoxie, Kansas, and was shocked by its sophistication. This was no vernacular exercise; a designer’s hand is clearly evident. What seemed remarkable was the inclusion of iconography, symbols representing the virtues of thrift and its part in achieving the American Dream. The Tonganoxie Building & Loan probably dates from the early 1920s and (I’m guessing here) may have been the work of Kansas City architect Ernest O. Brostrom. There is also a particular reference to the famous Woodbury County courthouse in Sioux City, Iowa, designed by a consortium of local architect William L. Steele and his collaborators Purcell & Elmslie. Take a look at the courthouse entry and tell me I’m wrong.

This tells me that the rhythm of commercial fronts along Broad Street can be a good deal more creative than long blocks of purely vernacular design. The “rules” still apply but not without some wiggle room for personality to emerge.

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