Monday, May 24, 2010

Then and Now: 818-820 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia

1963-2010

Though not quite obvious from its current appearance, this vacant storefront on a quiet block of Chestnut Street gave birth to a true icon of 20th century American dining. In 1902 the Horn & Hardart Baking Company opened their first automat on the ground floor of the Pierson Building at 818-820 Chestnut Street. The automat, where diners purchased food and drink entirely from coin-operated machines, was the first of its kind in the United States. Horn & Hardart expanded rapidly in the decades that followed, developing a legendary presence in Philadelphia and New York before falling into obscurity at the end of the century.

The original Chestnut Street automat was enlarged and renovated during the 1930s, with design work done by architect Ralph Bowden Bencker. During the 20s and 30s, Bencker completed over thirty commissions for Horn & Hardart stores and offices, most of them in Philadelphia. After the original automat shut its doors in the late 1960s, the location operated for some time as a pharmacy. Although the original metalwork has been painted over, the exterior fa├žade appears to be intact, save for the doorway. I've never gone through an exhaustive list of Horn & Hardart's former locations, but it's safe to say that this is certainly one of extremely few preserved storefronts of theirs left in Philadelphia.

Meet me at the automat [Smithsonian magazine]

Source: Philadelphia Architects and Buildings
Original photo: "Historic Commission-12210-48." 1963. Philadelphia City Archives. PhillyHistory.org. Philadelphia Department of Records. 4 Apr. 2010. http://www.phillyhistory.org/PhotoArchive/MediaStream.ashx?mediaId=114811.

3 comments:

Gabby said...

I love that storefront. It's actually been occupied sometime recently, I think by medical offices.

nathan said...

This comment isn't apropos of any one posting; I just wanted to voice my conviction that this is probably the best blog ever. Totally makes my day. Keep it up Brian!

Ben Leech said...

I few months ago, I went looking for a book about Automats at the Free Library. It was a reserve book from the call desk, and when the librarian saw what it was, she gasped, LOUD, and then went on an excited fifteen minute monologue about all her girlhood memories of the Horn and Hardarts in center city. What the little boxes smelled like when you opened them up, the cool breeze that came out of the coconut pie cases, the classiness of the place. The whole reading room was listening, because she was so passionate, (and also not using her "inside voice.") I almost felt bad checking the book out, taking it away from her.
There is another great Horn and Hardard storefront on Market Street a block or so east of the 69th Street terminal. Think its a Crown Chicken now. Would love to find all the survivors.
p.s. great blog.