The turn of the nineteenth century was a period of exciting expansion and opportunity in America, especially with a trend towards greater urbanization and industry than the nation had witnessed before. Architecture reflected this social trend, with an emphasis on larger, bolder, and more specialized commercial buildings serving the needs for office space, industry, and retail. While many think of these architectural approaches in relation to northern cities and the “Chicago Style” of architecture focused on early skyscrapers, such changes to the urban landscape certainly also arrived in the American South and not only in large cities like Atlanta or Houston, but even in modest towns. Not all of the notable commercial architecture of this period was tied to landmark buildings, as even smaller banks and office buildings understandably went with the same aesthetic approaches as their larger cousins in big cities, desiring to convey that they too were on the cutting edge of progress—as were the smaller cities and towns they called home. By the middle of the twentieth century, commercial architecture was again experiencing marked change in the post-war years as the importance of the automobile grew and architecture—especially for retail businesses—responded to this change in how people moved about town.
Moderate-sized cities that are often county seats in the South are good places to look for architecture from both the early and mid-twentieth century periods and to find such left quite intact, often with only modest changes to the original façades. Many of these cities and towns grew due to the railroad and industries that required rail shipping such as crop farming, ranching, timbering, citrus, and naval stores (turpentine) production. By the 1890s, buildings displaying some of the commercial style traits—masonry walls, flat roofs, two or more floors and an emphasis on height (often with retail on the first floor and offices or apartments on the additional floors), and decorative features such as cornices to call attention to the prosperity of the buildings and their owners—began appearing across the nation.
The emphasis of architect Louis Sullivan appeared so much in this period that a whole style—known as “Sullivanesque”—was coined after his approach. Sullivan’s great contribution was in making buildings exceptionally tall for their time—the new skyscrapers—distinct and ornate, separating the visual identity of their composition into three clear parts—the bottom, middle, and top portion—and providing their façades with grand ornamentation inspired by the complex, curvilinear Art Nouveau style popular at the time plus Celtic and Oriental visual arts influences also in vogue. Sullivan’s approach is distinct from that of the Chicago Style in that Sullivan concentrated on complex aesthetic touches to the façades of his buildings almost as a means of countering their height while also making them all the more outstanding from the urban landscape around them. Other architects working within the general Chicago Style were highly influenced by various trends of the late nineteenth century, a period full of robust and varied styles of art and architecture, finding great inspiration from Asian and historical (Egyptian, the aforementioned Celtic, and Greek and Roman) cultures. In smaller locales with more-compact buildings, a blending of all these stylistic approaches sometimes is seen over a clear and distinct use of one special style.
By the late 1940’s the influence of automobiles and post-war boom times was changing the downtowns of many cities. The new, modern, International Style was coming into play with its emphasis on clear, clean, lines, lack of ornamentation, and signage large enough and positioned in a way to be seen easily from a passing car instead of on foot. New advances in building materials and technology also made an impact, with curtain walls, pre-fabricated materials allowing for simple geometry, and new glazing techniques for windows, all meaning that buildings did not need to be confined to the forms of timber or masonry construction seen throughout prior decades. Glass and aluminum were able to provide large windows with minimal framing and the can-do post-war spirit of progress that fueled the Space Age was not just a popular concept or slogan but an actual aspect of technological improvements in architecture allowing for approaches hitherto unseen. The style that grew out of roadside commercial applications of the broader International Style came to be known as “popular modern” or “Populuxe,” with an emphasis on pragmatism and accessibility as well as on luxury and the transmission of cutting-edge materials and ideas to the general population.
In smaller Southern cities and towns, what we often find is that larger, taller bank and commercial buildings hail from the early twentieth century while more of the mid-twentieth-century architecture can be found in retail establishments—gas stations, small businesses, doctors’ and dentists’ offices, and the like. Part of the reason for this is because the earlier buildings were constructed first, obviously, and already had taken up prime real estate downtown. The mid-twentieth-century buildings in contrast did not require or even desire a downtown location in many cases, able to go into isolated locations on highways where they took advantage of passing cars. They were, once again, established at a point where businesses were moving away from downtowns and toward areas accessible by car, yet the advent of the indoor shopping mall had not yet transpired, and so there was little unity in where these businesses appeared. The early twentieth-century buildings, grand, often multi-floor, and attractive were well-liked in general and established—seen as what non-residential buildings “should” be: stately, impressive, welcoming, and landmarks of the locality. This appeal, plus their sheer size and sturdy construction, meant they remained and, while often renovated to some extent, were not torn down and replaced. Many still remain today in the central business districts of most American cities.
In some towns, the early-twentieth-century (and, in cases, later-nineteenth-century) commercial buildings were the first non-residential structures to be lasting ones: even buildings as important as courthouses when constructed of wood often burned down or were otherwise in need of replacement in the nineteenth century, and retail buildings were often just simple one-floor structures. Prior to the late nineteenth century, churches and the better homes were the buildings that lasted in many Southern towns. The fact that fewer goods were for sale on a retail level and many professionals such as physicians and lawyers practiced out of their own homes also meant that there was not until the turn of the century as much need for downtown commercial structures. In towns that were county seats, the courthouse square most often became the center of town, while smaller towns that were not county seats developed in an organic manner, and many grew up around the point at which the railroad came through town with plenty springing up directly due to the coming of the railroad. As agriculture was so important economically in the South, many small railroad towns like Micanopy, Williston, and Lacrosse, Florida, were points where produce could be shipped out via the trains. Even for towns such as Micanopy—which never grew very big at all—a central street became the main street and boasted a few multi-story, masonry construction commercial buildings.
In the specific case of Micanopy, the Otis Laney Feaster Building, built in 1903, is a perfect example of the approach to commercial architecture taken in many towns at this time both in style and purpose. Retail space occupies the first floor, the local telephone exchange was on the second, and Chautauqua events and performances were on the third. These three floors, from the exterior, make the building the tallest in Micanopy and offer an imposing façade for the sleepy small town. The Micanopy Banking Company’s 1906 red-brick building is another fine example of how commercial architecture on a scale smaller than the skyscraper at this point in history commonly was designed. The classical approach with its denticulated cornice and prominent keystones denotes the position of power and respect this building, as a bank, desired to have in the community. In contrast, by the 1950’s, while banks might still have invested in commanding architecture, many commercial buildings and their architects and owners were content with a less elaborate approach. The Darnell Building in Lewisburg, West Virginia, (built in 1950) is a good example of this progression, with a simple façade and a squat two-story approach that has more emphasis on pragmatic use than aesthetics.
When looking at town centers—places that grew up in an organic manner, often around a courthouse square or near the rail depot—we often see how blocks of early twentieth-century commercial buildings really define such spaces. While the courthouse often seems like the defining focus of the space, it is a building most of us do not have daily business in unless we’re lawyers or otherwise employed there. The buildings that developed near the courthouse on the other hand were, prior to the advent of the stand-alone suburban shopping mall, where most local retail would be located. Upper floors would be offices for lawyers, accountants, insurance agents and other professionals. When local rural people such as farmers said they were “going into town,” it would be these businesses that they patronized. From the 1880’s (even before in some areas) to the advent of malls and big-box stores, this was how America did business. The courthouse often had an actual square before it: a park or bricked-in area for community events. Prior to radio and television, this space was especially integral to political rallies, community celebrations, holidays, and the like.
The physical manifestation of these buildings may seem less crucial than it was historically for local identity, but the structures of the early to mid-twentieth century really define many towns in the South. Even after reuse and re-purposing, they still have a central role, and communities are starting again to make the most of their downtown spaces with new businesses, apartments, and other approaches returning these structures to their prime position of place.