Forgotten but Not Gone

By Jeffrey Karl Ochsner

In 1959 a grocery store in Burien won a national AIA Merit Award. The previous year, the store received national attention as the subject of an article in Progressive Architecture, and subsequently it was briefly mentioned in Pacific Architect & Builder. Designed by the office of Welton Becket for the Tradewell chain, the store was notable for its roof of thin-shell concrete saddleback barrel vaults and its all-glass front. Today, while the building survives, it has largely been forgotten. It is still a grocery store, but its award-winning design is no longer apparent.

The Burien Tradewell was intended as the first of several new stores in the chain’s expansion that was planned by Monte Lafayette Bean (1899–1982). In 1939, Bean became the president of the struggling Eba Mutual Grocery stores. Initiating a program of modernization, Monte Bean closed some stores and reconfigured others and chose the name Tradewell Modern Food Stores to signal the new direction. Within a few years, the chain returned to profitability. In the postwar years, Tradewell regularly added new stores to respond to suburban development.

The exterior vaults in the Tradewell roof.
Tradewell store in Burien, February 1957. Images courtesy of University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections [Pearson 8572-41]

When construction of the Burien Tradewell began in July 1956, Bean called the design “revolutionary.”

The following February, to celebrate the store opening, Tradewell published full-page advertisements in Seattle papers touting the modern architecture, claiming it was “so advanced in design that all of our friends in the Puget Sound Area should know about it.”

The announcements also highlighted the designer, “the nationally known architectural firm” Welton Becket & Associates. Welton Becket (1902–1969) was born in Seattle and received his architectural degree from the University of Washington in 1927. Although he initially opened a practice in Seattle, by 1933 he had relocated to Los Angeles where he entered into a partnership with UW classmate Walter Wurdeman and Los Angeles architect Charles Plummer. Following the unexpected deaths of Plummer in 1939 and Wurdeman in 1949, he reorganized the firm as Welton Becket & Associates. Over the next two decades, the practice was responsible for notable modern works and became one of the largest and best known design firms in Los Angeles.

It is not known why Bean selected California-based Welton Becket as Tradewell’s designer. At the time, architects in Seattle were working with local structural engineers, particularly Jack Christiansen and Peter Hostmark, creating innovative buildings with thin-shell concrete roofs. Still, it’s possible Bean saw Becket’s Los Angeles architecture as more attuned to the emerging car-oriented suburban culture than contemporaneous work by Seattle designers, and Tradewell committed to Becket for its new look. Becket was responsible for the remodel of the Crown Hill Tradewell that opened in September 1956. The Burien store was the firm’s first completely new Tradewell. The partnership Rushmore & Woodman, based in Bellevue, was the local supervising architect; John Rushmore and Jack Woodman were UW architecture graduates of the late 1940s. The structural engineer for Becket’s designs was Richard Bradshaw (b. 1916), an expert in thin-shell and other unusual concrete structures, who was responsible for many expressive designs for leading southern California modernists.

The interior of the Tradewell store.
Tradewell store in Burien, February 1957. Images courtesy of University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections [Pearson 8572-42D]

The Burien Tradewell measures 160 by 140 feet; eight saddleback thin-shell vaults, each 20 feet wide, extend from front to back, supported on steel columns and cantilevering 12 feet beyond the glazed storefront to shelter the adjacent sidewalk. The dramatic character of the front elevation was originally further enhanced by a tall pylon sign over the primary entrance. In May 1959, after the Burien store’s design received national recognition, Monte Bean suggested that 30 additional stores based on the Burien design could be built. However, only three were actually constructed: stores in Richmond Beach (1956–57, altered, now Rite Aid), Kenmore (1957, destroyed), and Columbia City (1957–58, destroyed). By mid-1959, Tradewell began constructing new stores with conventional roofs. The Becket office designed one such store in Wedgwood (1959, altered, now QFC), but thereafter received no more store commissions. As noted by local author Rob Ketcherside in a blog post about the Tradewell store, some later locations retained the signature arches over the front walkway but omitted the thin-shell roof. By the end of 1959, Monte Bean had resigned from the company.

An image of the Tradewell building, now a Grocery Outlet.
Now a Grocery Outlet, the Tradewell building’s original thin-shell roof is visible behind the missing awning at the right. Photo by Jennifer Papuga.

Washington-based Tradewell survived as an independent company until 1988. Thereafter, individual stores passed to other owners. Today, the Burien Tradewell is a Grocery Outlet. The tall pylon sign has been reduced in height and a continuous canopy conceals the cantilevered arches over the front sidewalk. Likely few patrons realize this store was once considered a notable example of advanced design.

Jeffrey Karl Ochsner is a professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Washington who currently serves as associate dean in the College of Built Environments. He thanks Robert Pearson for granting permission to reproduce photographs of the Burien Tradewell taken by his father Charles Pearson in the late 1950s.