Until the past couple of decades, virtually no research had been done on the form of commercial structures. Richard Longstreth developed pioneering studies into commercial architecture typology in the mid-1980s. For this guide we have drawn from those studies and have expanded his typology to include public as well as commercial architecture.
Longstreth’s system of classification is based upon form, and more specifically on the façade, that portion of the building intended for public view. His analysis does not deal with the interior plans of commercial buildings, since they are usually flexible in arrangement and subject to continual change. His analysis includes a range of commercial functions, including banks, retail stores, office buildings, hotels, and theaters.
Because of the prominence of public buildings in a majority of Utah communities, we have expanded Longstreth’s typology to include city halls, city and county buildings, post offices, and court buildings. The major types of commercial and public buildings found in Utah include what Longstreth calls the one- and two-part commercial blocks, the enframed window wall, the two- and three-part vertical blocks, the temple front, the vault, the central block with wings, and the enframed block.
Commercial and industrial architectural design changed very little over the course of the 19th century. However, toward the end of the century technological progress in materials, particularly concrete and structural iron and steel reinforcement, made larger buildings possible.
Early commercial buildings typically had a narrow street façade and an enclosed rectangular floor plan that could be divided according to the needs of the user. This worked well when several buildings were tightly lined up along a main thoroughfare within walking distance from residences, and the primary source of transportation was the horse. However, one invention had more influence on commercial architectural design than anything else, the automobile. Now that people were driving rather than walking, changes to both building and site were necessary to accommodate vehicle parking and customer service.
Several building types emerged in response to increased automobile usage, including motor courts, motels, commercial courts, drive-in restaurants, supermarkets, service stations, and service-bay businesses. By the early to mid-20th century there were more advances in commercial design than any other type of architecture, and the trend in Utah was similar to most areas of the country. Listed above are descriptions of the most common types of commercial and industrial architecture encountered in the state.
The one-part commercial block is a single street-level structure. In the late 19th and early 20th century, many such buildings were constructed with large plate-glass display windows for use as retail stores. False-façade buildings common to smaller communities in the western United States are generally one-part blocks as well. One-part public buildings are also widespread in Utah, including public libraries and city offices. “Block,” by the way, was a common turn-of-the-century term for even the smallest commercial structures.
This is the most common commercial structure found in Utah communities, often in the form of the local “merc” or mercantile. Composed of two distinct zones, the building may range from two to four stories in height. The first part of the structure is on street level and is made up of public spaces such as stores, offices, or banking rooms, often visible through large plate-glass windows. The upper zone contains more private spaces such as apartments, offices, or organizational meeting rooms.
Enframed Window Wall
The enframed window wall is a composition in which a border surrounds or enframes the entire
açade or the central section of a small commercial building of one or more stories. Small movie theaters often make use of this design. This type is rare in Utah.
Two-Part Vertical Block
One of the more popular tall commercial building types, the two-part vertical block contains a street-level zone, which may extend to a second story, and an upper, multi-storied portion. In contrast to the two-part block already discussed, the two-part vertical block has two distinctly different facades and consists of at least four stories in all.
The street level of the façade usually contains large window bays of glass to encourage retail business or to display banking functions. The upper zone is distinguished from the street level by the window pattern or by framing the windows with engaged columns or pilasters.
Corners are frequently reinforced by decorative masonry patterns such as quoins. The top of the façade usually terminates in a cornice or stringcourse of decorative masonry to differentiate it from the lower stories.
Three-Part Vertical Block
Popular at the same time as the two-part vertical block, this type is differentiated from it by the treatment of its uppermost stories, giving the building three separate and distinct zones of design. The third part often had a greater variety of decorative treatment than the middle or street-level zones. In early 20th-century commercial blocks, lightweight terra-cotta was a popular material for creating the differentiation between these zones.
The temple-front façade is derived from classical architecture, particularly Greek and Roman temples. This type may be found in the designs of public, religious, and institutional buildings, but in commercial use, the temple front was usually a small bank building.
Two façade designs were most popular: one with a portico and pediment (prostyle), the other with an entrance framed by columns and by the end walls of the building (dityle in antis). License was taken by many designers; if a pediment was not used on the façade, a parapet or balustrade took its place. Buildings situated on corers were often designed in such a manner that the side along the street repeated the pattern of the façade columns though the use of engaged columns or pilasters.
The vault has a rectangular façade punctured by a large highlighted entrance. It may also contain small windows on either side of the entry. A number of Louis Sullivan’s Midwestern banks from the 1920s follow this design. We include, too, similar buildings in which the entry is to the side of a central monumental window.
Central Block with Wings
This type is a symmetrical composition of a dominant central block flanked by identical wings. The central block is accentuated by its size, decoration, and projection from the wings. In contrast to the three-part block previously discussed, the flanking wings are generally lower and recessed from the central portion. This type was common for banks, public and institutional buildings, and railroad stations.
The enframed block has a rectangular façade containing classical columns or pilasters in the form of a colonnade, which is framed by substantial corners, bays, or end walls. As in some versions of the temple front, the colonnade has an entablature with a projecting cornice and a parapet or balustrade. This type is frequently seen in the designs of banks, post offices, courts, and institutional buildings.
Although the Warehouse type has been around since the mid-19th century, major innovations were not made until the first decade of the 20th century. These large, multiple-story structures typically feature a ground-level office area that usually occupies only a portion of the floor, with the rest of the building being open floor space devoted to storage and manufacturing.
The buildings are primarily utilitarian in design and might have basic stylistic embellishment on the street level or just at the main entrance. Early examples featured heavy timber framing as the primary structural support. The thick timbers allowed for a slower burn time in case of fire, to which these buildings were prone.
In the early 20th century, iron, steel, and reinforced concrete replaced timber as the main structural components. There are usually several large windows located around the exterior of the warehouse along with rooftop light monitors to allow as much light as possible inside the open spaces.
Water towers for fire suppression systems and elevator and stair towers that project above the roofline are other common features. On the main level, usually at the rear or sides, are located loading docks and bays for trucks and freight trains (for those located on railroad spurs).
Warehouses are usually, but not always, grouped in industrial areas on the outskirts of cities where the rail lines or roadways provided easy accessibility.
Like the warehouse, the commercial/industrial block type is distinguishable from other commercial types in that it has no major architectural features. Lacking any type of storefront or service bay, this type is basically what the name implies—a large commercial or industrial-use building with a utilitarian appearance.
Entrances and windows, for the most part, are simple and functional and don’t exhibit any stylistic influence. This building type can range from one to a few stories tall, and construction can be from a variety of materials, including brick, concrete block, concrete, or stucco panels. The interior might be divided into office space and open space for storage or work areas.
The commercial court might be considered an early version of the strip mall because it contained more than one commercial establishment, usually food markets. This type typically had an L or U plan, creating a court-like parking area. The building itself was very simple and utilitarian, consisting of open storefronts, usually with a canopy running the length of the storefront, and side and rear walls with no fenestration.
Commercial courts were little more than open-air markets. Some provided curbside service so that motorists would not have to leave their automobiles. They might also have had a smaller stand-alone building, such as a filling station or other retail establishment, in the corner of the parking lot. More common earlier in the 20th century, most of these have been demolished or later altered with glass and partial-wall storefronts.
Although the drive-in restaurant concept evolved earlier in the 20th century, it really came into its own in the 1950s with the post-war popularity of the automobile. These rather small, simply constructed buildings situated in the middle of a parking area basically function as a kitchen, with the restaurant “seating area” being the parking lot, where customers eat in their cars or maybe at a picnic table.
The drive-in usually has large windows on three sides and a walled-in rear section that contains the cooking area, refrigerator, and storage areas. The building is typically a box with a canopy extending out from the front and possibly the sides to shade customers who order from an exterior window. Sometimes the canopies are swooped and the exterior walls splayed out. Some drive-ins also contain an extension with stalls for cars to park and order via intercoms.
Service-bay businesses are easy to distinguish by their combination of a large vehicle bay with its own entrance and attached office space with a separate pedestrian entrance, usually both on the primary facade. Unlike service stations, where the bays are used for vehicle repair, these buildings typically housed businesses that utilized a service or delivery vehicle of some type.
Examples from the early 20th century were oftentimes existing commercial buildings with a garage added to the side with swinging doors; these buildings were commonly quite small. Later examples from the mid-20th century are larger with a fully integrated bay or set of bays that have overhead garage doors and larger office and public space.
All types of construction materials are implemented including concrete block, brick, and metal siding. They can be found in the smallest towns and larger urban areas throughout the state.
The transition from horse and buggy to the automobile posed some interesting challenges, such as how to park, how to handle increased and faster-moving traffic, and how to provide fuel for motorized vehicles. Early filling stations became common as automobiles gained popularity, and generally consisted of a gas pump next to a small building (there are a few of these still around).
Service stations followed soon after, but really took off in the post-WWII economy to service greater numbers of automobiles. Providing both fuel and mechanical repair, the service station consists of a main building housing the retail portion, where customers pay for services, along with one or more service bays, where mechanics repair vehicles.
Fuel pumps sit away from the main building, sometimes sheltered by a canopy, which is either attached to the main building or is freestanding. In the 1950s and 1960s, these buildings and canopies commonly took on an angular, swooping form, similar to drive-in restaurants of the era.
The supermarket combined several food-related shops under a single roof, providing “one-stop” shopping for a suburban, automobile-oriented society. For their time, they were the largest shopping venues around and provided the origins of today’s vast asphalt parking lots, with parking either to the front or side of the building.
Although supermarkets had various formats, depending on the grocery chain, they were typically large boxes, sometimes with an arched front façade. A common feature of this type was an all-glass or part glass/part opaque panel façade. Although once very common, since the 1970s the original supermarkets have become increasingly scarce, being replaced by larger big-box retail stores or adapted for other uses.
In the 1960s across the United States resident populations increasingly fled city centers as interstate highways split neighborhoods, crime rates increased, and blight ensued. Along with the rest of the nation, Utah continued the suburbanization and sprawl that began in earnest following WWII, and small commercial districts lost customers in the process.
Strip malls became the new “commercial district” serving residential sprawl. Several small shops located under one roof with plenty of parking available seemed to be the answer for those wanting to forego the trip to a major commercial/retail center. Developers could put up a strip mall quite inexpensively, often with tax incentives from the local municipality. Low rental rates attracted lessees.
Strip malls come in a variety of formats (usually a box) but are typically distinguished by a unified exterior theme and entries to each individual shop.