Suburban Square: A Constant For Many Decades, Responding to Fashion and Food Trends
"If Walls Could Talk" takes a look at a longtime consistent shopping hot spot, one that has been changing the way Main Liners spend their cash for over 80 years.
It has been there since before the Great Depression, through World War II, the consumer and baby booms of the '50s and '60s, the rapid expansion of the suburbs, and the various national economic recessions that have come and gone through all of it.
Suburban Square has always been the "it" place to shop. But in 1927, residents of Ardmore were up in arms when the shopping center was being developed. An increase in traffic was a major concern, which is maybe not a big surprise today, when citizens get cranky about a lack of parking spots when dropping by the Ardmore Farmer's Market to pick up a last minute dinner.
The popularity of this favorite shopping Mecca might be nationally overshadowed by the nearby King of Prussia Mall, but locals embrace the expanding markets and its lineup of high-end stores. No ordinary shopping center, it is neither a mall nor a strip mall. No less an authority on things historic as the Guinness Book of World Records recognizes Suburban Square as America's first shopping center.
Razing, and Raising a Town Center
Back in 1881, the land that would be Suburban Square was like many plots in Ardmore and Lower Merion; there was a mansion on it. Architect George Hewitt (Maybrook, Drum Moir, Philadelphia's Bellevue Stratford Hotel) had designed the original home, which changed hands several times from 1881 to 1926. The place was bought by Philadelphia builder Allen B. Rorke at one point to be used as a summer home, and Rorke named the house "Thorncraft ," a nod to the lineage of his wife, Elizabeth Thorncroft Rorke.
The final owner sold the seven-acre property in 1926 for $365,000 to the Suburban Company, a syndicate of Main Line real estate, banking and finance businessmen. Led by developer James Stone, the firm hired architectural firm Dreher and Churchman to design a shopping center that was to consist of two tall buildings centered around a bank, shops, a post office, and a movie theatre.
Fredrick Dreher was more than just an architect to Suburban Square; throughout the planning he carried the concept of convenient and comfortable shopping. His idea was to create a place people could shop for food, home goods and clothing, all in one area. According to some historical accounts, his devotion to the idea of comfort may have stemmed from his childhood, when he had to help his widowed mother with shopping and chores.
The shopping center was designed to be the pinnacle of modern architecture from the beginning. According to Lower Merion Historical Commission Chairman Christian Busch, "Suburban Square opened in 1928, only three short years after the International Exposition of Decorative Arts was held in Paris, which spawned the birth of the Art Deco Style."
The clean modern angles are still apparent in the Times building as well as some of the decorative art deco stone work. When the project was completed in 1931, the shopping center was called Hestobeen Square, after three of its developers. Within two years money became tight and the banks stepped in, but hired Deher to manage the property—in 1936 he was named president of the Suburban Company. In this same year a contest was run to renew interest and rename the square. The winner: "Suburban Square."
The two main buildings of Suburban Square consited of the Strawbridge and Clothier store outside the city, along with the Times Building, built for the recently established Main Line Times. The building also was used as a medical center that brought more doctors closer to their Main Line clientele. It was the tallest building outside of Center City Philadelphia.
"The earlier buildings are more austere and 'classical' in their treatment—almost neoclassical revival in some aspects," explained Busch. "The core buildings, including the Strawbridge & Clothier store and the signature high-rise, are commonly considered to be Art Deco, though not nearly as lavish and ornate as, say, the WCAU Building in Philadelphia that opened the same year."
Through the years there have been some changes, but not many. In 1979, when Suburban Square turned 50, it received a major facelift. The project took three years and cost $3 million. The new owner at the time, Intershop Holding Ltd., which purchased Suburban Square in 1977, sought to expand the existing 35 shops into 60. Developers Williams and Jackson, who also worked on the downtown Gallery at Market East, devised a plan to separate "daily shopping" from the specialty stores.
The later part of the 20th century saw the disappearance of many locally owned businesses, but the emergence of more high-end stores ensured the health of Suburban Square, which had grown to 18 acres over its lifetime.
In 1996 Strawbridge and Clothier, the Square's first tenant, was bought by the May Co. Two years later, Intershop Holdings sold Suburban Square to DRA Advisors for $49 million. Its current owner is Kimco Realty Corp.
The last major addition was built in 2003, the 75th anniversary of Suburban Square, when the denizens of Ardmore were treated to their own high-end Farmers Market and Trader Joe's. In 2006, the Strawbridge name was officially removed from the big department store, and replaced by Macy's.
A classic within a 'Classic'
In the end, Suburban Square's modest expansions—by design or by default—have been fortuitous. At about 370,000 square feet of leasable space, it is a third the size of an average shopping center or mall, far smaller than the King of Prussia Mall (2.8 million square feet) or the Plymouth Meeting Mall (891,000).
In early June, Suburban Square General Manager Mark Bachus told Patch that the center's occupancy rate is currently 98 percent, and this in the midst of a prolonged recession.
Smart growth and a retention of the original look and feel has also reaped other rewards, as the age of the mega-mall recedes.