Thursday, March 14, 2013

Best Products and SITE; The Showrooms. Part 1

In my previous post, I discussed my own connection to the Best Products showrooms created by the Architecture firm SITE Inc.  Starting with this post, I want to start exploring the buildings themselves (or at least photos of them) as well as exploring what happened to them over the years.

The Peeling Project

Built: 1971
Location: 5400 Midlothian Turnpike
Richmond, VA 23225

This building was the first Best/SITE collaboration.  Best operated at this location before the façade was transformed by SITE (this is different from later collaborations that were built from the ground up).  The building was considered boring and the company wanted something that would stand out and draw in shoppers.  SITE worked out several plans for the project, and the one the Lewis family originally picked looked like this:

But, it was soon discovered that the structural components of the pre-existing building wouldn’t support the elevated ribbon of brick (The Architectural Record, February 1972, p. 102).  Therefore the peeling brick plan was chosen.  Both the curving wall on the left side of the building and the folding corner on the right side were integrated into the existing brick façade.  These construction photos provide insight into how the walls were created.  

What’s interesting about the curved wall (that isn’t always visible from photos) is that it didn’t touch the pavement: the bottom edge appeared to float a few inches off the ground.  In this photo this is clearly visible (there appear to be thin bars holding the wall up at the bottom).  This helped contribute to the precarious appearance of the walls.


The Fate of the Peeling Project

Sadly, it’s gone (at least the parts that SITE designed). After Best went out of business in the late 90’s, the building became a pawn shop.  The peeling brick embellishments were removed sometime after that. I couldn't track down an exact date for the demolition, but Best went out of business in 1998, so it would have been shortly after that. The building still stands and operates as the Daily Pawn Shop.  In this Google Maps photo, you can clearly see where the brick walls on either side of the entrance were removed and repaired.  The concrete pad that was originally under the curved wall is also still in place and can be seen in this photo.

The concrete pad is circled.  It gives a sense of how far the curved wall protruded from the building.
This side-by side comparison shows how the site has changed over the years.  The period photo shows the Peeling Project as it nears completion (Best’s sign has not yet been installed above the door and there appears to be workers clustered around the curving wall).  The photo also shows some residential areas in the background.  In the contemporary photo taken from Google Maps, the basic building is unchanged and the pawn shop seems to be using the same lighted sign over the door as well as the same sign post in the parking lot.  The area has since been completely built up with commercial properties and is no longer a residential area.

Period photo on the left, c. 1970, 2013 view taken from Google Maps on right

Indeterminate Façade:

Built: 1975
Location: 10765 Kingspoint Road
Houston, TX 77075

The Indeterminate Façade was arguably the most well-known Best/SITE collaboration.  It was conceived as two large false walls constructed above the roofline on the east and south sides of the store.  The two walls appear to be crumbling, depositing a mound of debris on the awning above the front door.  The building was visible from a nearby freeway and became somewhat of a Houston landmark.  The city included it on sightseeing tours and architecture aficionados traveled to Texas to see it, sometimes taking a souvenir of their visit.  In the May 1985 issue of The Architectural Digest, James Wines recounts that he was sometimes asked to autograph white bricks that architecture students had snatched from the debris pile over the awning.  This design was reproduced in many art history books in the 80s and 90s, contributing to its notoriety.  

The fate of the Indeterminate Façade:

Like the Peeling Project, the SITE designed elements are gone.  The building still stands, and according to Google Maps is occupied by a business called Gold Taste Foods Distribution.  According to reports I’ve read on the Internet, the building survived relatively intact until 2003 or so, but eventually the false walls were torn down.  As can be seen from these contemporary photos, the awning over the doors is still there, but the building has been painted beige.  A fence has also been constructed around the parking lot, partially obscuring its view from the road.

The once mighty Indeterminate Facade.  Little evidence of its former glory remains.

The Notch Project

Built: 1977
Location: 1901 Arden Way (at the Arden Fair Mall)
Sacramento, CA 95815

This design was arguably the most ambitious project that Best and SITE completed.  The otherwise unassuming concrete block façade appeared to have a large crack on the southwest corner.  For earthquake-plagued California, this must have seemed especially subversive.   When the building opened in the morning, a motor and cables would pull the cracked section away from the larger bulk of the building, slowly revealing the entrance hidden within.  At the end of the day, the process would be reversed, sealing the entrance once more.  This must have been quite an event every morning, and this Youtube video clearly shows the curiosity displayed by onlookers as part of the building slowly rolls to the side.  At the grand opening, the crack opened and released hundreds of balloons in to the sky.  Film footage of the balloon release was shown on the Ripley’s Believe it or Not television broadcast that featured SITE, Inc.

The fate of the Notch Project:

Again, it’s gone.  The building still stands and is now occupied by Best Buy (not affiliated with Best Products) and Linens n Things.  When Best Buy moved in, the sliding notch became a victim of corporate conformity.  Best Buy has strict standards on how their buildings must appear, so the sliding entryway had to go.  The entrance is still located in the same place, though, right on the southwest corner.  The concrete pad that held the smaller section while the building was open has been completely removed, as can be seen from this contemporary view.

The red line on the left approximates where the sliding notch once opened and closed.
 At this point, any reader is probably sensing a pattern when it comes to the fate of these designs.  In the next post, more ambitious showrooms are built as the Best Products/SITE collaboration moves in to the 1980s.




  1. I visited the Notch Project twice as a child-- the first time, I got to see the notch open, and the second time it was permanently in the open position because it had jammed.

    According to a site on the internet, the Indeterminate Facade's false walls were actually knocked down late at night by the owner, who was worried that a historical society was going to convince the city government that it was a landmark and he would be not allowed to remodel the building (it had been in and out of occupancy for years)

  2. In the summer of 1980, "That's Incredible" did a segment on this location. I remember because the building fascinated me as a child - specifically because of the corner that moved - so when "That's Incredible" did the story it caught my attention. Apparently the location is/was said to be haunted. If I remember right, there used to be an orchard at that location where someone had died.

    1. You are slightly wrong. The haunted store with the orchard was the Toys R Us in Sunnyvale. :)

    2. That store is about 1 mile from my house and according to employees it is indeed haunted. It has been remodeled twice since the story broke and the weird effects still occur.

  3. By the way, the youtube video showing the notch project has been removed.

    1. Thanks for the info- I'll take care of the link, and too bad it's been removed. I remember "That's Incredible" well- I think they showed footage from the grand opening of the Notch showroom. The notch opened and balloons poured out.

  4. really wishing for that notch video :(

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