In the late 1920s the spreading influence of the 1925 “Art Deco” exposition in Paris inspired restaurants in the United States to remodel their exteriors and interiors in the bold new modern style. A leading trade journal, The American Restaurant, proclaimed in its July 1929 issue that modernism had become a notable trend in the industry.
Modernizing restaurants usually went further than skin-deep decorations and included new ventilation systems, dropped ceilings, concealed lighting, sound proofing, and air-conditioning. Many restaurants badly wanted to renovate their facilities, but by 1932 the Great Depression seriously curtailed funding for building and remodeling.
It didn’t take long for central business districts to decline, looking dowdy and down on their luck. Many towns felt if they could improve the appearance of stores in shopping areas it would have a positive effect on consumer spending. When President Franklin Roosevelt signed the National Housing Act into law in 1934, there was rejoicing on Main Streets across the country. Through government-backed, low-interest private loans, the NHA was meant not only to shore up the housing market but to stimulate improvements to commercial properties.
Towns responded wholeheartedly. In Mansfield, Louisiana (population 3,357), every merchant on the main business street signed up for that town’s 1935 improvement campaign and the local bank approved four loans the very first day. In 1936 sixty-nine New Jersey cities and towns were chosen to participate in Main Street modernization programs, with committees of prominent merchants, bankers, realtors, and building contractors presiding.
Retailers of all types took advantage of the program under the banner “Modernize Main Street.” Through architecture contests and programs sponsored by manufacturers of structural glass and other materials, a style soon developed known retrospectively as Depression Modern. Although it can be traced back to luxurious Art Deco styles, it was simplified and streamlined, and used industrial building materials such as glass and aluminum rather than marble and rare woods. As shown in before and after shots of the Harmony Cafeteria the new style was less cluttered than what had preceded it.
A new facade could be acquired for as little as $1,000 but some restaurants invested far more. For instance, in 1937 Joe Yium, owner of the Shanghai Cafe at 1004 Main in Dallas, sunk $15,000 into a structural glass front of cream trimmed with black, as well as an interior with new furniture and lunch counter all done in cream and deep “mandarin” red. Like the Shanghai, the Bohemian Restaurant in Portland OR [shown above] closed for a month while it was renovated to the tune of $25,000 with a front of black glass and aluminum, increased floor space, new ranges and steam tables, and a pastry department.
Improvements eligible under the program could include interior decor, air conditioning, and other functional modifications, but nothing symbolized hope for the future nor represented modernization more visibly than gleaming new fronts of shiny glass. Colored glass veneers were provided mostly by two companies, Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. which made Carrara Glass, and Libbey-Owens-Ford, maker of Vitrolite [advertisement pictured].
Both companies offered complete storefront packages which furnished all materials needed, whether colored glass, clear plate glass, glass blocks, metal framing, signage, or even services of design consultants. Many of PPG’s model storefronts were designed by Walter Dorwin Teague, one of America’s foremost industrial designers. For luncheonettes, a PPG booklet recommended a design (possibly by Teague) using glass blocks and Carrara glass in orange, beige, and Rembrandt blue whose overall effect was “carefree and attractive” and — as you might imagine — had “high visibility.”
Coinciding as it did with the end of national prohibition, modernization paid off in increased business for restaurants, many of which took full advantage of the program. It confirmed the status of Main Street as the symbol of economic health for cities and towns in the popular imagination. However, as Gabrielle Esperdy points out in Modernizing Main Street: Architecture and Consumer Culture in the New Deal, decentralization of downtown shopping districts was well underway by the 1930s. But the modern transformation of Main Street maintained considerable significance to consumer psychology. The styles remained popular until the start of World War II when they were shunned as obsolete.
Today, in American cities and towns vestiges of Depression Modern storefronts, such as black glass panels above or beneath a show window, can still occasionally be spotted.
© Jan Whitaker, 2012