Peeling back time

After 35 years of being seemingly frozen in time, the mid-century facade of the old Imperial Hardware Co. store in downtown Riverside is no more.

June 2007 - Work begins
June 2007 – Work begins

The city, which recently finalized purchase of the long-shuttered building, began dismantling Imperial’s modern false front early Monday. By midday, nearly three-fourths of the aluminum covering had been removed, revealing the 1930s Art Deco facade of the former Westbrook’s Hardware, which looked to be in surprisingly good shape.

The building itself dates back to at least 1900 when Franzen Hardware opened within the current building located at 3750 Main Street. Owned by Henry and Chris Franzen, the hardware store was later sold in 1921 to R.H. Westbrook, whose family had become partners with the Franzen’s in 1908.

June 2007 - Peeling away
June 2007 – Peeling away

Following a 1935 fire that wiped out most of the store’s stock, the building was refurbished, restocked and renamed Westbrook’s Hardware. Part of the post-fire remodeling included the now-uncovered Art Deco facade.

In 1959, the operation was again sold, this time to El Centro-based Imperial Hardware Co., a small chain of hardware & housewares stores in Southern California. Along with the sale soon came the now gone mid-century false front.

However, with the retail landscape in both downtown Riverside — and America — on the brink of change, Imperial’s fate was soon sealed. By the mid-1960s, long-standing downtown stores, such as Sears, had mostly moved into larger buildings located in suburban settings, sending downtown’s retail landscape into a tailspin. From what we’ve been able to gather, it appears Imperial succumbed sometime in the late 1960s, leaving the building to sit patiently for re-use that has yet to materialize. (Updates: According to a June 19th article in The Press-Enterprise, Imperial Hardware closed the downtown store in 1972. Later research found that Imperial closed and moved to the Tyler Mall, which opened in 1970.)

June 2007 - Twisted metal
June 2007 – Twisted metal

And yet, because the building’s front remained unchanged for a number of years — all the while other storefronts nearby had been refurbished — the modern Imperial facade had become an iconic landmark of downtown in its own right. In essence, the facade stood as a relic harkening back to when downtown was still the epicenter for shopping. In recent years, the former store’s front entrance has been adorned with colorful murals and art.

Though we admit to initially having mixed feelings about the loss of the modern Imperial facade, no doubt what lurked beneath is quite a blessing itself. And if refurbished, will indeed add historic character to Riverside’s pedestrian mall. Our hope is that the city, which has been courting potential retail and dining uses, is able to retain the Art Deco facade into any re-working of the building.

June 2007 - Uncovered facade
June 2007 – Uncovered facade

Without a doubt, the spot near the center of the pedestrian mall offers a very unique opportunity, possibly for just the right national retailer — such as a bookstore or mid-level restaurant — which could help in drawing a larger presence to the resurgent pedestrian mall. We even feel a mixed-use development incorporating ground floor commercial topped with residential uses would work very well — so long as much of the existing building’s historic character could be worked into such a plan (which would greatly add to both nighttime and weekend activity along the pedestrian mall).



Sources: City of Riverside, The Press-Enterprise, “Riverside in Postcards” (Steve Lech), “Riverside – 1870-1940 (Steve Lech)

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