The year 1959 was the 100th anniversary of A&P, the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company. Eisenhower was president. America was atop the world, as was A&P, which at that time was the largest grocery chain in the world. The company, never looking back except to evoke its own greatness, answered with the Centennial store, which graced the periphery of downtowns across the nation.
Today, the stores remain in hundreds of locations, with different brands, but often still as supermarkets.
The design was a complete rebuild of the A&P format. For those of us who remember it, the biggest element were the coffee grinders at the ends of the checkout lines. The grinders were a reminder that this was the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, and the transportation of important teas and coffees was the base of their operations.
The architecture echoed Colonial Williamsburg, without being retrograde. A&P even had a location in Colonial Williamsburg. The stores each had a cupola and windvane at the center, and a pediment over the main door entrance. The facades were brick, and they blended in well with most of the United States, a part of the landscape.
The 1859 founding date appeared in giant type across the front. The message? This company was born before we fought a North-South war. Tea was part of the story too. After all, the beverage was an essential part of the Revolutionary War, and we Americans now had every type of tea we liked, cheaply and with great style.
Not all the stores were of the exact same design. There were more modern versions in California, of course, as everything in California was new. But across most of the older areas of the U.S., it was cupola and pediment everywhere.
On a Taxpayer Strip
Before the centennial stores, locations were typically on the edges of downtowns, but still in town. With the centennial store, of course new stores were built in suburban areas, but the chain tended to replace these periphery stores with larger stores just on the edges of the city. So, for instance, in Virginia Beach, the store moved to Laskin Road, and in Richmond, Carytown.
Writer Chester Liebs in his Main Street to Miracle Mile book discusses the “taxpayer strip” which were buildings just outside downtown where simple one-story buildings were constructed to pay taxes. The expectation was that greater things would be built later on in their place. The early Main Street A&Ps just moved, not quite out to the Miracle Mile.
The Centennial design became a sort of trademark for the company, even as A&P’s round logo changed to a bulbous oval, the cupola’s blew off in storms, and the company changed brands, from A&P to crazy things like Super Fresh and Farmer Jack.
The stores did not all get built in 1959; it would take another half decade to get them all completed. By the time it was done, Safeway had built hundreds of more modern stores, further out, and chains like Food Fair, Pathmark, Publix, Kroger and dozens of others began to take market share from A&P.
A&P went through German ownership, and more recently bankruptcy. The design was never really updated, though the company did come up with redesigns for Super Fresh spin-off brand, and the Farmer Jack fiasco.
Jane Parker Inside
The website Pleasant Family Shopping describes the debut of the centennial store design:
The Centennial store made its “official” debut in mid-March at New York’s International Flower Show, where a special A&P 100th Anniversary exhibit was…uh, exhibited. An 18-foot tall, four-tiered cake was the centerpiece of the exhibit, surrounded by a Victorian garden. A mock-up of the original A&P store on New York’s Vesey Street was on display, along with dioramas depicting A&P’s Jane Parker bakery and Eight O’Clock coffee operations. The last display featured the Centennial prototype, a colonial architectural design that A&P would soon begin rolling out all over, and of which they were justifiably proud.Pleasant Family Shopping
The designs are everywhere, still. The website Forgotten New York tracked them down across New York City. There, the stores had to front along the sidewalk, without setbacks. Even still, the pediments remain.
Writer Andrew Turnbull also documented dozens of the stores across the nation, and even Canada. They are now locations for Family Dollar, Goodwill, Advance Auto and dozens of other chains and independent retailers. They are also used for churches and operations centers.
Elements of the brand survive in other ways. For instance the Jane Parker bakery brand has been reinvented as a mail order specialty.
Below, images of the designs today. Below, stores in Virginia Beach and Kilmarnock, Virginia. At bottom, take a look at the Richmond Carytown A&P, which has had a number of owners since the A&P chain closed in Richmond markets. And compare it to the current Sav-a-lot in Sarasota, Florida. Both continue to be used as grocery stores, half a century after their opening.