Simon Wolf and Dolph Wile began a mercantile business together in 1912 on West Main Street between Mill Street and Broadway. They moved their business to this new International Style store at 250 East Main Street, at the corner of Quality Street, in 1949-1950. The four-story building is the product of collaboration between the Lexington architectural firm of Frankel and Curtis and the New York firm of Amos Parish and Company. The department store closed in 1992 and the building was subsequently repurposed by the James N. Gray Construction Company as a corporate headquarters. The structure is listed on the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places.
The modern design movement, of which the International Style is emblematic, emerged in Europe in the 1910s and 1920s. As advocated by prominent architects such as Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, Richard Neutra, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, modern buildings were conceived to be three-dimensional and relate functional interior use to external appearance through the use of horizontal and vertical planes and wall extensions, and expansive glass doors and windows to visually link the outside with the interior.
The International Style rejected exuberant exterior decoration that had characterized the Beaux-Arts and Art Deco designs of the 1920s and 1930s in favor of simple, functional exteriors whose appearance was directed by the interior spaces. The store’s large front windows and glass doors not only presented another form of horizontal plane but also linked outside and interior.
A 45-foot vertical pylon is faced with rock-faced Tyrone limestone blocks laid in broken range coursing. The pylon carries the store name in black vertical letters and extends to the sidewalk’s edge which gives the illusion of projecting into the public walkway. The upper wall is finished in polished granite panels which mirror the black lettering.
Three fluted stainless steel columns, flared from bottom to top, support the entrance canopy. Try to imagine the visual impact of geometric columns as canopy supports. That option would have created a monolithic entrance dominated by relentless squares and rectangles. Instead, the fluted columns give the illusion that the canopy is supported by delicate cones while their stainless steel finish subtly links to modern architecture aesthetics.
The former display space inside the front windows has been repurposed and is now a meeting area where modern bentwood-style mid-century chairs await visitors.
Next time you’re downtown, slow down, indeed stop and linger, at the Wolf Wile Building and cast your eye discerningly upon this magnificent edifice, an icon of the early modern period of American architecture.
I would be remiss if I did not salute Gray Construction for preserving the Main Street facade of the Wolf Wile Building after the company bought the structure for use as its corporate headquarters.
Finally, I cannot resist the opportunity to reproduce here my playful photographic fantasy – a softening of the building’s masculine facade, which serves as the company’s formal entrance at the rear of the Wolf Wile Building.
[The architectural descriptions in this post are borrowed from a narrative written by Dr. Karl Raitz (Professor Emeritus, UK Geography Department)].
[photographs by Rich Greissman]