Art Deco Enclave In Upper Darby A Display For The Ages

 

The McClatchy building is now home to Bank of America and H&M. When it opened in 1928, the first floor was occupied by Saks Fifth Avenue. | Photo: Starr Herr-Cardillo

As you pass from Philadelphia County into Upper Darby, right where the El terminates at 69th and Market Streets, you’ve probably noticed a building that will stop you in your tracks. It’s a wild Byzantine Revival shopping palace encrusted in hundreds of thousands of glazed yellow and cream terra cotta tiles in an array of shapes and motifs. It looks startlingly out of place in the suburban landscape. As you hone your vision past all of the modern visual clutter and begin to focus in on the bones of the surrounding buildings, you will notice that this particular intersection is home to a whole spectrum of Art Deco and early 20th century commercial architecture.

Real estate developer John H. McClatchy had a big vision for this fetching little enclave. After building homes in West Philadelphia just after the turn of the century, McClatchy turned his attention to Delaware County and set out to transform the area around 69th and Market Streets from farmland into an outdoor suburban shopping center. McClatchy saw the potential for development, thanks to the extension of the Market-Frankford Line in 1907, which made it within easy reach of city dwellers, residents of the township, and of neighboring suburbs. McClatchy purchased 50 acres on the south side of West Chester Pike for $6,000 per acre in 1920. Within a decade, the population of Upper Darby increased more than fourfold, with over 46,000 residents calling the township home by 1930.

Postcard of the McClatchy Building with its colored lights, 1930. | Image courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

After some early attempts to sell off parcels for development fell through, McClatchy set out to build what would become the cornerstone of his shopping district right across from the 69th Street Transportation Center. In 1928, the exuberant, four-story McClatchy Building was complete. Faced entirely in glazed terra cotta on its 69th and Market Street sides, the tiles themselves represent a variety of revival motifs including Mayan, Heraldic, and Egyptian. They are laid in repetitive patterns and bands, creating a mesmerizing, complex surface. Backlit pilasters made of architectural brass and colorful stained glass punctuate the façade and offer a glimpse of the building’s former glory: a 10-minute theatrical light show used to play out across its walls each hour. A Philadelphia Inquirer article from 1933 described 69th Street as a “Little Broadway” so named for the abundance of “architectural and lighting effects” present in the area.

Left: View of 69th Street shopping district, 1963. Right: View of the Lit Brothers building at 69th and Ludlow Streets after a snowstorm, 1966. | Images courtesy of the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

The shopping district was successful well into the second half of the 20th century and was home to big names like Gimbels, J.C. Penney Co., and Lit Brothers over the years. When McClatchy first opened his namesake building in 1928, he rented the ground floor retail to Saks Fifth Avenue. Before business began to slow towards the end of the 1960s, the 69th Street shopping center was the top shopping destination outside of Center City Philadelphia, grossing the second highest retail sales in the region. McClatchy’s impact on commercial development in Upper Darby was prodigious, but he continued to develop housing as well, building somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 homes in Delaware County during his lifetime.

McClatchy’s family continued to manage the 69th Street corridor long after he passed away in 1960. According to the Inquirer, in 1986 the McClatchy family contributed a total of nine percent of Upper Darby’s total property tax income due to their massive amount of real estate. In 1987, the McClatchy’s sold the majority of their holdings—four blocks along 69th between Market and Walnut Streets—to Morris S. Willner, a developer specializing in the renovation of older shopping malls. Willner planned extensive renovations to the stretch, declaring to a reporter for the Inquirer in 1987 that “there’s nothing that will be untouched on this street as far as renovations go.”

“Take the El!” sign in front of 69th Street Transportation Center at 69th and Market Streets, 1975. | Images courtesy of the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Today, the majority of 69th Street that Willner purchased looks much like any modern outlet mall, its retail spaces occupied by the usual big box chains with unremarkable façades. There are, however, a number of traces of the area’s earlier phases of development tucked in along Market Street and Garrett Road. These, along with the magnificent McClatchy building, make the 69th Street Shopping District in Upper Darby a worthy destination for any Philadelphian looking to explore just a hair, and a quick train ride, outside of the city.

***

Dive into Upper Darby’s Art Deco district. Photographs by Starr Herr-Cardillo.

The John H. McClatchy building was completed in 1928.

Copper and stained glass entryway.

Details of the terra cotta facade.

A two-story stained glass window is visible inside H&M. The window was made by D’Ascenzo studios in Philadelphia, who coincindentally, also designed windows for the Horn and Hardart Restaurant chain.

The McClatchy building sits next to the former 69th Street Title & Trust, both located within “J. H. McClatchy Place” as indicated on a 1929 Atlas of Delaware County.

The Tower theater, built in 1927 has witnessed performances by Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, Smokey Robinson, Al Green, David Bowie, Paul Simon, Sheryl Crow and many more.

A former Horn & Hardart Baking Co. at 6816-6818 W Chester Pike now hosts Crown Fried Chicken.

The building was designed by Ralph Bowden Bencker and also featured windows by D’Ascenzo Studios, though they have since been replaced.

Colorful Art Deco shopping strip with glazed terra cotta tiles and parapet along Garrett Street.

Facade details of 45 Garrett Road.

Sequi Cleaners on Garret Road has a charming Mid-century Modern facade of textured red panels set in gold-colored alumninum frames.

Art Deco architecture in the area ranges from subtle and austere to bold and exuberant.

A striking glazed terra cotta cornice made of vertical, U-shaped tiles with polychromatic floral pattern hides behind modern signage at a shopping center along Terminal Square.

Facade details of 7030 Terminal Square.

Another polychromatic Art Deco shopping center along Terminal Square is occupied by several ethnic businesses, including Hmart, an Asian grocery, and home goods store with a fantastic food court.

Facade details of 750 Terminal Square.

About the author

Starr Herr-Cardillo is a staff writer for Hidden City Daily. She was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona and is a graduate of University of Pennsylvania's historic preservation program. Herr-Cardillo was drawn to the field by a deep affinity for adobe and vernacular architecture. She is gradually being won over by Philadelphia's overwhelming historic building stock and cloudier climate.



15 Comments


  1. Nice to read a history of these buildings. But the idea that the area now “looks much like any modern outlet mall, its retail spaces occupied by the usual big box chains with unremarkable facades” is a total misread!! Actually a fairly small percentage of the businesses are big chains–it’s mostly stores catering to immigrant populations (from a remarkable variety of places–Africa, Latin America, South and East Asia), along with larger format discount retailing that reflects the adjacent lower income neighborhoods in West Philly and exindustrial inner ring Delco suburbs. And now that the Gallery is gone, this (along with Franklin Mills) is one of the last true mixed-income shopping centers in the region: nowhere else do you get an H&M and a Rainbow in the same place. Actually– a fascinating history of the surrounding areas could be told just through the evolving retail mix of 69th Street, from Saks Fifth Avenue to HMart. The stores say just as much as the architectural details!!

    • Starr Herr-Cardillo

      Izzy, totally agree! Maybe the statement was misleading, but I was referring to the area farther south along 69th that was “revitalized” in the 80’s which really does fall off into bigger box stores (Burlington, Old Navy, Shoe Carnival, Sprint, etc.). Absolutely agree that many of the retail spots around the intersection tell a fascinating story about the evolution of the area!

  2. Mod Betty / Retro Roadmap

    This is a wonderful summary of the architectural gems that are hidden in that area – thanks for bringing them to light!
    Not being originally from the Philadelphia area I only recently discovered the McClatchy building when I was doing some Retro Roadmap Research and was so blown away by the architectural detail that I could not believe everyone on the street wasn’t just stopped dead in their tracks and gawking at it.

    I was glad to see that H&M allowed the stained glass windows to be viewed from the inside, and was THRILLED when I was later walking to the Tower Theatre (to see Elvis Costello) to spy the Horn & Hardart remnant above the chicken place.

    Thank you for sharing these architectural details and history with a wider audience, and so happy to know I’m not the only one to see them and appreciate that they still exist!

  3. What a beautiful building, it would look even better if those billboards were removed. Thank you for the photos and the article.

  4. I wish SEPTA designed stations that complimented their sites.

  5. Dear Starr,

    I Lived in Yeadon, Pa in the 60’s and we did most of our shopping at 69th st.
    Gimbels was my moms go to store along with many others. as a teen I saw many concerts at the Tower
    when it was in its early stages.

    I thought Your article was great, bringing to light not only the beautiful Architecture, but John McClatchys
    Influence on Upper Darby and 69th st Shopping .

    I love old architecture, especially Local Philly and DELCO. Perhaps you could send me some links for
    good reading and pictures.

    Frank

  6. Great article and photographs. I grew up in Lansdowne in the 1960s. 69th Street was the place to go: JC Penney’s, Gimbels, Lits, and all the clothing stores, shoe stores, sporting goods stores. We’d walk there. Don’t remember any places to eat. Even as a kid, I knew that some of the buildings, especially near the terminal, were special. Paradise. Seems as though 69th street survives.

  7. I sent this great HP piece to the Mayor of Upper Darby. Nice job! They should light up that building like the 1930s postcard. Great opportunity for the municipality to celebrate their resources.

  8. Thanks for the great article. I grew up within walking distance and we spent hour after hour walking up and down 69th St, in one store after another. We rarely had any money to spend, but knew the inventories of every place. It is wonderful to re-live those times, and see that many of the buildings are still there.

  9. This area clearly needs to be designated as a historic district to protect these buildings from exterior alterations and demolition.

  10. …so enjoyed this trip back to my home town. We lived in Upper Darby in the 40’s and 50’s so these photos and historical reporting are especially welcome. However, I was too young to appreciate the amazing architectural features…so thank-you!! ..saw my first …. very scary movie at the Tower Theatre… “House of Wax” and spent many…many hours roller skating at Chex Vous…a roller rink, on the second floor of a building that somewhat resembles the building along Terminal Square. Thanks for the trip down memory lane i.e. 69th Street!!

  11. I recall reading that at one time, perhaps in the 1950s, 69th Street had the 5th highest gross sales per square foot of retail space in the world, ranking it with NYC, London and Paris.

  12. just as an aside my grandfather john h. mcclatchy was the first commercial realtor to offer leases that started out low and increased as the stores sales increased.first in the world ,a true visionaryand also a terrific grandfather.

  13. Barbara Mcclatchy Brown

    My grand pop was one of the greatest man I know. He taught me to give without expecting any return I have been very blessed to have him as my grandpop

    • I was from Lansdowne and my parents frequented the
      69th shopping center often.

      Someone recently posted a picture of a large Shoe
      Belonging to the old lady who lived in the shoe. This
      Shoe had a slide on it and was located in front of
      Lit’s. My time there was in the mid 50’s to mid 60’s.

      I do not remember “the Shoe “?

      I was wondering if you could tell me what year the
      Major department stores were built at the top of the
      Hill and the years the shoe was there? Tks

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