Modernism in the ‘hood: The Four Corners Safeway story

Unless you’re a big fan of mid-century modern architecture, the Four Corners Safeway store in Silver Spring, Maryland, probably doesn’t seem like anything special. It’s just the neighborhood supermarket. But if you’re a 20th century architecture aficionado, the neighborhood Safeway store is a true gem.

Located about 1/2-mile north of the National Capital Beltway, the Four Corners Safeway is one of a dwindling number of distinctive supermarket buildings that the chain built in the Washington area after World War II. Architectural historians have dubbed the distinctive curved roofline and vaulted interior space “Marina Style” after the chain’s 1959 prototype store built in San Francisco’s Marina neighborhood.

Four Corners Safeway opening advertisement. The Washington Evening Star, October 4, 1962.

Four Corners Safeway opening advertisement. The Washington Evening Star, October 4, 1962.

Safeway is one of several national supermarket chains that expanded to Washington and the Maryland suburbs in the first half of the 20th century. The Safeway chain was founded in 1915 in American Falls, Idaho. By the mid-1920s, there were more than 400 Safeway stores throughout the United States.

In 1928 Safeway merged with the Sanitary Grocery Company, which operated stores in Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Virginia. The merger created a national chain with more than 1,700 stores stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific and made Safeway one of the nation’s largest supermarket chains, alongside Piggly Wiggly and A&P.

Responding to the postwar baby boom and suburban expansion, Safeway in 1949 embarked on an ambitious expansion plan. According to architectural historian Peter Allen, who has studied Safeway corporate architecture, the company focused on developing distinctive modern supermarkets geared towards selling lots of things in a single open space in buildings that created what he called a “unique visual identity.”

Architectural rendering for new San Francisco Safeway store. Credit: Allen, Peter. “A Space for Living: Region and Nature in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1939-1969.” Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2009. http://www.slideshare.net/pepepedro99/allen-single-space-full-diss.

Architectural rendering for new San Francisco Safeway store. Credit: Allen, Peter. “A Space for Living: Region and Nature in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1939-1969.” Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2009. http://www.slideshare.net/pepepedro99/allen-single-space-full-diss.

That visual identity included a large open space under a single roof and bold signage that incorporated Safeway’s distinctive corporate logo. Architectural innovations included expansive display windows that allowed for around-the-clock views into stores and the curved roof designed to make the building identifiable from roads as a Safeway.

Marina Safeway, San Francisco. Credit: Allen, Peter. “A Space for Living: Region and Nature in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1939-1969.” Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2009. http://www.slideshare.net/pepepedro99/allen-single-space-full-diss.

Marina Safeway, San Francisco. Credit: Allen, Peter. “A Space for Living: Region and Nature in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1939-1969.” Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2009. http://www.slideshare.net/pepepedro99/allen-single-space-full-diss.

Other architectural elements distinguishing the new Marina-style Safeways included the use of exterior stone walls or wood screens (like the ones in the Four Corners store façade). These elements were designed connect the modern architecture to regional building traditions and, according to Allen, to humanize the stores by softening their “feel.”

Historian Allen wrote that Safeway’s corporate branding effort embedded in its architecture was one of the most successful ways modernism spread rapidly across the nation, “bringing modern architecture” within reach of millions of Americans.

Safeway advertisement, Washington Evening Star, October 1, 1962.

Safeway advertisement, Washington Evening Star, October 1, 1962.

Safeway built its Four Corners store on property owned by Barry and Martha Clark. The couple leased the property on the south side of University Blvd. to Safeway Stores, Inc., in July 1962. Construction was completed by October 1962 and the store opened at 9:00 a.m. Wednesday, October 3. The Four Corners Safeway was one of two locations the company opened that month; the second was in Gaithersburg. Shoppers that first day could buy a one-pound bag of Nob Hill coffee for 53 cents or two 12-ounce cans of Bel-air orange juice for 59 cents.

Sanborn fire insurance map (1944) showing location of future Safeway store.

Sanborn fire insurance map (1944) showing location of future Safeway store.

According to advertising in the Washington Evening Star, the new Four Corners store featured a sparkling new design: “High curved roofs, expansive windows, combined with the very latest interior lighting fixtures” created what the company called a cheerful place to shop featuring “wonderful new shopping innovations.”

Four Corners Safeway prior to 2011 renovation. Photo courtesy of Safeway, Inc.

Four Corners Safeway prior to 2011 renovation. Photo courtesy of Safeway, Inc.

The Four Corners Safeway has remained a fixture in our neighborhood for more than half a century. According to one store employee, there are neighbors who have been shopping there since the store opened. One resident told the manager that she could recall a house that once occupied the site, which was moved a few blocks away to Lanark Way to clear the lot for construction in 1962.

Though the Four Corners store retains its distinctive curved roof and arched interior space, the property underwent a major facelift in 2011. That work included replacing the block lettering across the store’s main façade and interior improvements.

Four Corners Safeway, January 2016. Note curved roofline and wood screens with Safeway logo affixed at the corners.

Four Corners Safeway, January 2016. Note curved roofline and wood screens with Safeway logo affixed at the corners.

After the nearby Wheaton Safeway was demolished in 2011 to make way for redevelopment, the Four Corners store is one of the few surviving Marina-style Safeways in suburban Washington. Montgomery County Planning Department architectural historian Claire Lise Kelly described the Four Corners store as a “well-preserved example” in her recent book, Montgomery Modern: Modern Architecture in Montgomery County, Maryland, 1930-1979. Though not designated as a Montgomery County historic property, the Four Corners Safeway is ripe for evaluation as an element of Cold War suburban architectural and landscape history in the capital’s rapidly re-developing inner ring suburbs.

Four Corners Safeway store interior showing vaulted roof. Photo courtesy Safeway, Inc.

Four Corners Safeway store interior (prior to 2011 renovation) showing vaulted roof. Photo courtesy Safeway, Inc.

Note: A version of this post was published in the February 2016 edition of the Northwood News, the newsletter of the Northwood-North Four Corners Civic Association.

© 2016 D.S. Rotenstein

11 thoughts on “Modernism in the ‘hood: The Four Corners Safeway story

  1. That is extremely interesting. I have been going into that Safeway for as long as I can remember and never had a clue to its Architectural History. Now who knows about the Latino style houses a block behind the Safeway.

  2. thank you. I grew up a few houses behind the store. I was there prob once a day for my mom.

  3. This is the most unsanitary grocery store that I have ever been in, in part because the space isn’t large enough for a modern store. Things improved slightly after the renovation, but previously large swarms of fruit flies and gnats would fly up whenever anyone entered the produce section.

    The store should be torn down.

  4. Have lots of stories about growing up around Safeway at Loraine Ave. Lived about Ten houses behind it.

  5. I would like to see this Four Corners Safeway preserved as an Architectural History Treasure that it is.

  6. Grew up across the street from the Safeway on Lorain Ave.in the1970s. New immigrants from Jamaica,we did’nt own a car. As kids we had to push the shopping cart across University Blvd. then returned it every Thursday, The good ‘ole days when you stepped on the mat to trigger the door open.. State of the art technology back then.

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