Saturday, November 19, 2011

More Terracotta: Rite Aid (Former Woolworth's) on South Salina Could be Beautiful

Syracuse, NY. Former Woolworth's Store (photo: Samuel D. Gruber, 2011)
Syracuse, NY. Old postcard view of South Salina Street with
Woolworth's on the left.

More Terracotta: Rite Aid (Former Woolworth's) on South Salina Could be Beautiful

After posting about the Byrne Square Building, I've been asked about other terracotta buildings in Syracuse. There are several, but the best known, but also most forlorn, is the 70-year-old former F. W. Woolworth's store, built in 1941 at South Salina and East Fayette Streets, where it replaced an earlier Woolworth store. The store closed in 1979 and was sold to the Rite Aid Drugstore chain, which still occupies the structure.

Much of the terracotta skin of the building remains visible, and some of the molded terracotta decoration. More of the facade and original trademark clock may still survive beneath the wraparound Rite Aid sign. The building was included in the recently (October 2009) designated South Salina Street Downtown Historic District. Listing, however, has not yet brought any change to the facade, though it may encourage repair and replacement of elements the next time the property changes hands.

The architecture of Woolworth's was all about the skin. Inside, was a large space (created by the steel frame construction) that allowed changing displays. Still, a lot more care went into the decor of the 1940s five and dime - with its display counters and long soda fountain - then we'll ever see in any new Family Dollar or other contemporary drug or discount store. Perhaps the best way to experience that old-style interior now is to watch The Best Years of Our Lives for the scenes where Dana Andrews is working as a soda jerk. Those long counters with stools on poles are now cultural icons, still replicated for new style diners and hamburger joints. They were also battlegrounds in a changing society - the scenes of sit-ins during the civil rights movement. The students who sat-in at the Woolworth's in Greensboro, North Carolina turned drugstore design into social action, and led to the desegregation of the Woolworth's counter.

By comparing the old postcard with the recent view, you can see how much more appealing the old street level storefront windows were. They were scaled to the passing pedestrian, and decorated to lure the passersby to stop, stare and then enter the store.

The Art Deco facade of Woolworth's was considered stylish and jazzy when it was built. In the 1940s, just before America went to war, the country was beginning to build again, and for the most part what was "modern" just picked up where building had stopped with the Great Depression (think State Tower Building). Woolworth's had fared better than most companies in the Depression. Woolworth's sold things people needed - at an affordable price.

The new Syracuse Woolworth's store opened on January 29, 1942, less than two months after the United States entered World War II. Commercial construction was again mostly halted as the country directed resources to the war effort. When building resumed after 1945 a new form of modernism was ascendant - linked more closely to the functional industrial architecture of the interwar years as than the flashy glamor of Art Deco and Art Moderne.


  1. Good, clear observations on a handsome building. I fully agree that this building is worth restoring to its original exterior decor. Now if you could only persuade Rite-Aid to do it (and pay for it). They might even realize that their sales would benefit from it.

  2. As this building is directly on the Connective Corridor, perhaps the project could be made possible with one of the Corridor's facade grants?

  3. This is so weird. just brought an old letter on ebay. the letter was from f.w.woolworths co. the woolworth building was in syracuse, new york. the letter gives me a full list of people who worked at the woolworth store.