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Development of Traditional Storefront Designs in America’s Historic Downtowns

Development of Storefront Designs in Historic Downtowns | Wisconsin Historical Society

If you walk around your downtown and look closely at the older commercial buildings, you might become aware of the wide variety of storefront designs. Some designs might look original to the age and character of the building. Other designs might reflect remodeling that took place many years after the building was constructed. Even though storefront designs have changed over time, they still have the same purpose: to advertise the business and display enough merchandise to convince shoppers to go inside.

If you would like to restore your own building storefront, you may find it helpful to understand how storefronts were originally designed and how they have changed.   

Traditional Storefront Development

EnlargeSaloon storefront

Stevens Point, Wisconsin. Historic photos are invaluable when planning a storefront restoration or reconstruction. Source: WHS - Archives. View the original source document: WHI 56215

What you probably think of as a “storefront” really did not develop until the early 19th century. Shops and businesses were often located on the first floor of a building, which doubled as the shop owner’s residence. Buildings constructed solely for a commercial purpose were designed so their first floor resembled those of adjacent dwellings, with simple door and window openings. Technological advances in glass making, cast iron casting and the development of distinctive commercial architecture led to what we now consider a “traditional” storefront design.

Traditional storefronts are composed of display windows, support elements such as brick piers or cast iron columns, and other features such as bulkheads or transoms. Bulkheads are the panels that the display windows rest on, while transoms are secondary glass panels above the display windows. Advances in glass making in the 1840s and 1850s led to the economical production of large sheets of glass for display windows. These could be installed in masonry buildings between brick support piers, or in wood frame buildings between wooden support posts. Storefronts were designed with either fixed wood or metal awnings, or with retractable canvas awnings to shelter pedestrians from the elements. This type of traditional storefront design became widely popular across the country by the mid-19th century.  

The advances in glass production coincided with the use of cast iron as a structural material. Narrow but strong cast iron columns or pilasters were added to storefronts to support the weight of the front wall of the building. With only narrow cast iron elements necessary to provide support, the rest of the storefront could be composed of glass to display merchandise. Cast iron made it possible to build a multi-story masonry building that still had a traditional storefront design. The popularity of cast iron as a structural material led to the creation of iron foundries throughout Wisconsin that produced decorative columns and pilasters for storefronts.

EnlargeCommercial storefront

Bayfield, Wisconsin. This building in Bayfield is a great example of a recessed storefront. Note how this design takes full advantage of clear glass to highlight merchandise for sale. Source: Photographer Margaret Thayer.

The traditional storefront design for commercial buildings became standardized throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Several companies had a brisk mail order business selling traditional storefronts. These storefronts were shipped by rail throughout the state. While the overall design of storefronts remained consistent, materials often varied. In the late 19th century, bulkheads were made of frame, brick, marble, pressed metal or tile. Square or hexagonal tile floors were common in entryways. Transoms were most often made of clear glass, but the use of small, tinted prismatic glass in lead frames became a popular addition by 1900. The Luxfer Prism Company was a major manufacturer of this type of transom.

Storefront Changes in the Early 20th Century

Variations in traditional storefront designs began to emerge in the 1910s, with a new emphasis on marketing and the introduction of new materials and styles. Studies were done on the best ways to get the attention of shoppers, and new approaches were developed for displaying merchandise. Some storefronts were given a deeply recessed entryway and a number of angled display windows. This design provided a sheltered area for customers who could view a much wider selection of merchandise.

The new materials that came into widespread use during this time included aluminum, stainless steel, pigmented glass, terrazzo and porcelain. These materials were particularly adaptable for the Art Deco and Art Moderne styles of the period, which emphasized angularity and smooth, curved walls. The new metals were used for display window frames, bulkheads and decorative elements on storefronts. Terrazzo, a composite of stone chips and cement, was poured into place and polished as a floor surface in recessed storefronts. Porcelain panels consisting of a ceramic coating on metal were used for bulkheads and other decorative elements.

EnlargePrism glass transom.

C.J. McCoy Building, 1921

Madison, Wisconsin. Prism glass was used above the clear merchandise windows to allow diffused daylight into the store. Source: Photographer Mark Fay. View the property record: AHI 88410

One of the most important storefront changes introduced in the early 20th century was tinted glass panels. Glass panels of various colors were manufactured under various trade names. The most popular names were Carrara glass and Vitrolite glass. The rectangular glass panels were used on bulkheads to frame a storefront, and in some cases to sheath the entire front of the building. Glass panels were widely used not only on new buildings of the period but also to “modernize” the storefronts of 19th-century buildings. Traditional storefronts were sometimes replaced or concealed with glass panels in an attempt to update these older buildings. Black glass panels were the most common, but other popular colors were tan, green and red.

Storefront Remuddling and Restoration

EnlargeRestored storefront

Fritz Hoppe Building, 1907

Platteville, Wisconsin. After the rehabilitation, the storefront was recreated using the original cast iron columns and recessed ceiling as cues for the new design. Source: Photographer Mark Fay View the property record: AHI 45623

In the decades following World War II, downtowns lost many businesses to suburban shopping centers and malls. Business owners who remained downtown sometimes felt they needed to update their older buildings in order to attract customers. Traditional storefronts were thought to be out of style. As a result, many original storefronts were replaced with new designs and materials. Some new designs were consistent with the traditional storefront arrangement but used new materials like Formica and vinyl. Other storefronts were enclosed with brick, wood panels or sheet metal. The new storefronts often had no relationship with the historic architectural qualities of the rest of the building. This type of inappropriate remodeling came to be characterized by the derogatory term “remuddling.”  

The rise of the historic preservation movement and downtown revitalization efforts reemphasized the need to restore, preserve and maintain original storefronts. As part of the Main Street Program approach to historic downtowns, property owners and merchants are encouraged to highlight their building’s architectural character and rebuild the traditional storefront design if it has been removed. Federal and state tax credit programs available for commercial building rehabilitation also encourage the preservation and restoration of storefronts.