As always, there was a nice variety of clinics, but one really stood out for me this year - "The Modernization of Main Street" by Jim Sacco (who also does a phenomenal job of organizing the annual Jamboree). Jim is the owner and creator of City Classic building kits, which is celebrating their 25th year in business. City Classics offers a variety of detailed kits of urban structures, most based on prototypes right here in Pittsburgh.
As a student of urban architecture, Jim knows architecture very well and his recent design of two structure kits led to his interest and this clinic, which told the story of the Modernization of Main Street. This was a program in the 1930's of the Federal Housing Administration that made billions of dollars available to business owners to update their store facades in the hope of luring shoppers inside and jump starting spending after the Great Depression. Frequent reference was made to a book written by Gabrielle Esperdy, an architect who has studied this period of American architecture.
Jim explained that the "modernism" architecture of the time drew heavily on streamlined design and nautical shapes, which was also reflected in automobile design and even the streamlined steam locomotives of the day. This movement affected almost every aspect of American culture and continues to the present time. Structural glass, rounded shapes, polished metal extrusions, and even glass block were common elements of these updated storefronts. Doorways were recessed back into the buildings with wrap-around display windows to lead customers in off the sidewalk. Jim shared advertisements of suppliers, including our own Pittsburgh Plate Glass (PPG), promising business owners increased pedestrian traffic if they updated the look of their store fronts.
Restaurants, shoe stores, dry cleaners and all types of merchants took advantage of this program to update their businesses, but typically just the first floor at street level. Many of these facades still exist today on city streets, and some businesses have even recently recreated this look to achieve a "retro" appearance. Finally, Jim showed photos, many "before" and "after," of buildings that had been updated, including many in Pittsburgh.
As a city planner, I thoroughly enjoyed this clinic, which blended history, architecture, urban planning and modeling into a most interesting hour. Jim will be giving this clinic again at the NMRA National Convention in Cleveland in July 2014. I can't recommend it enough - if you like urban scenery as I do, this clinic is a must.