It’s been a tough decade or so for the American retail scene, a condition I’ve explored numerous times in the past. Social turbulence, exacerbated by a pandemic and the erratic response to it, only further maimed an already hobbled industry, facing persistent pressure from online commerce. The fact remains that people just don’t go out to shop like they used to, and since goods-oriented merchants have long comprised the lifeblood of shopping centers, it should come as no surprise that we’re facing a glut of underused or completely vacant old strip malls. And it’s likely to deteriorate more in the years ahead, as even the service-oriented businesses that had become the second-most common tenant are also retracting. After all, the pandemic proved that considerable numbers of businesses can operate perfectly effectively with many of their workers remaining at home on their laptops. They don’t need that extra office space.
Nonetheless, successful shopping centers do still exist, and these survivors often warrant recognition for whatever features might help them buck the trend. Take Marchwood Shopping Center as an example. Buried thick within the expansive Philadelphia suburbs (in the unincorporated community of Exton, specifically), it occupies an unassuming, low-lying point amidst the comparatively gentle hillocks of Chester County, next to a branch of the Valley Creek.
Even this zoomed-out photo, featuring about two-thirds of the structures that comprise the property, should make it clear: Marchwood Shopping Center isn’t new. It offers more than a few dead giveaways: the overwhelming beige, the gabled roofs, the faux-neoclassical columns. And the centrality of the parking: more than an acre’s worth of pavement, almost completely absent of landscaped islands.
I suspect the center dates from the late 1960s or early 70s, given the style of housing developments in the immediate area. Several larger, newer, more prominent power centers stand just a mile to the south, along Pottstown Pike (State Route 100) and its intersections with more prominent Swedesford Road and Lincoln Highway (U.S. 30 – Business Route). And Marchwood Shopping Center is hardly a top-tier destination. It’s not thriving, but it’s not kaputt either; it’d estimate it had about a 75% occupancy rate during my spring 2021 visit, certainly an above-average status given a year of lockdowns and hundreds of thousands of small business closures.
Perhaps most perplexing about the tenancy at Marchwood is the mix: a combination of local entrepreneurs and low-profile national chains.
To the left of the above photo are three establishments that can unequivocally claim local origin: a property management company, a butcher shop, and a shoe repair (nearly always a family-run business). Pivot 180 degrees and it’s a similar array, but with some familiar logos.
Aside from a Japanese restaurant taking the largest lease, one encounters a veterinary office, a music store (mostly guitar lessons). a hairstylist, a chocolatier, a purveyor of various jerky products, and a travel agency. All local, all mom-and-pop. But also tucked in this row is Kumon, part of the national chain of tutoring and educational instruction, using a method pioneered by the individual who gave the company its name. Pivot a bit to the right and we encounter one of the largest tenants, a hardware store under the True Value name.
True Value has historically functioned as a cooperative, like other well-known brands Ace Hardware and Do It Best; these companies have typically targeted humbler retail footprints in smaller, often less urban markets, or in less fiercely competitive (cheaper) real estate than such big-box corporate brands as Home Depot or Lowe’s; in other words, a place like Marchwood Shopping Center. But in 2018, a Washington DC-based private equity investment firm, ACON, purchased a controlling interest in the company. Though its scope and mission may still resemble Ace more than Home Depot, True Value’s affiliation is corporate and its scope is national. Plenty of older, mid-sized shopping centers across the country would kill for an anchor tenant like this. Juxtaposing True Value with the other tenants in that adjacent strip and we have all the tenancy of a successful block in an urban main street. One can easily contemplate a fashionable neighborhood strip in South Philadelphia boasting a chocolate shop, a jerky manufacturer, a sushi bar, a butcher shop, etc.
The other well-tenanted elements of Marchwood Shopping Center function largely in the same vein.
It offers a medium-sized Indian grocery, a smaller Asia-Pacific grocery, and various other ethnically oriented retailers. While these hardly indicate a high-rent district, in a lower-density suburban area like Exton, they face fewer competitors nearby and often have considerable staying power. Rounding out the small retailers are a karate studio, a tobacconist, a nail salon, a pizzeria, a Chinese restaurant, a vacuum cleaner supply store, a pet groomer, a mom-and-pop pharmacy, a dentist office, a wine and spirits shop (state-run in Pennsylvania), and Marchwood Tavern, a sizable middle-tier restaurant with outdoor seating. I recognize these types of tenants can come and go quickly, and this portfolio could be radically different a year from now. But this is the mix at the end of the COVID-19 lockdowns, one of the most troubling economic periods for small businesses in the last half century—a period as devastating for retail as the Great Recession was for homeowners. As of May 2021, they’re still chugging along.
The eastern edge of Marchwood Shopping Center, closest to State Route 100 (but no access to the highway) merits separate consideration.
There in the distance, on the right (with the cars out front), is a Goodwill Store and Donation Center. While hardly an indicator of pricey real estate, it’s at least a nationally recognized, reliable tenant. And to the left, in the two-story facility, are a series of service-oriented offices; this photo came after their normal operating hours, so it’s difficult for me to judge their occupancy level.
Nearby, one can witness two larger structures that would host anchors akin to the True Value and Goodwill.
The strange massing of this building—its unusually high gabled roof, its breadth—and the ornamentation (an arcade entrance) or lack thereof (no windows) would suggest a pavilion or showroom, except that those aren’t normal features for a suburban strip mall. Tucked within that arcade are several blank vertical panels, suggesting the display posters for an old movie theater. And perhaps those massive red panels to the left and right of the arcade once hosted the listings in the style of a marquee. Makes sense. It’s not a movie theater anymore; it’s a gym with a large CrossFit element. For the scale and tenant mix of a place like Marchwood Shopping Center, this would likely pass as an anchor tenant—certainly no more or less of an anchor than a six-screen movie theater. The final structure is probably the largest and most glaring vacancy:
From the glassed entrance to the protective bars along the canopied sidewalk, numerous features make it clear that this once was a grocery store. It turns out Swann’s Pantry—barely visible on that sign—was a mini-chain of discount grocers with three locations, run by the Swann family for almost thirty years, forced to close due to flagging sales in early 2020, before awareness of the pandemic had reached full throttle. In other words, it gave Marchwood another anchor tenant, and one that was long-lasting enough to border on “institution” status.
I recognize at this point that I may need to check my own biases toward Marchwood Shopping Center, a place I can recognize most people would find drab, dated, and not particularly appealing. Though it seems well-maintained, some people might nonetheless deploy the adjective “run down” simply because it has so obviously received few or any aesthetic refreshes in its half-century of operation. Not much more than a new coat of paint and an occasional resurfacing of that enormous parking lot. And perhaps my reasoning through these preceding paragraphs suggests an inexplicably favorable disposition on my part. For some reason I like this place, perhaps in defiance of sound judgment. And perhaps I’m rationalizing its success. After all, these tenants don’t suggest a shopping center of such regional significance that it is “too big to fail”: a shift in the winds could put a half-dozen out of business, and then I might be forced to sing a different tune. Aside from Goodwill and True Value, these aren’t what the industry would call “credit tenants”. Most of the others are the type that fold within five to ten years.
The reality is that I can still maintain, almost two months after visiting Marchwood, that it seems to be holding its own, after a punishing economy and against all odds, given how little the property owners have invested over the years to help it change with the times. It’s almost retro-chic. And its location is hardly a selling point: sure, the area is fairly affluent with stable single-family and multi-family housing in all directions, but the very name is an obscurity outside of the most immediate area. Marchwood. It’s the street that intersects Pottstown Pike and provides access to the shopping center, but that’s about it. It might be three-quarters of a mile long at most, and its only other function is to access a large single-family detached neighborhood just west of the commercial properties near the Pike. This Google Street View shows almost Marchwood Road’s entire length, with the shopping center in the lefthand periphery. It would barely pass as a minor collector road. Therefore it’s a strange naming choice upon which to build a brand. But while the location and appearance may not be doing Marchwood Shopping Center any favors in 2021, it boasts a smartness to its design that borders on prescience. Take a look at it from Marchwood Road, down the slope.
It’s almost like entering some sort of hillside hamlet, with a mass of pavement in the middle instead of a town green. The diversity of architectural styles supports a diversity of uses. As is frequently the case in land development, function follows form. Those intermittent second stories can support purely service-oriented offices, while the generous fenestration on the lower level are more conventional storefront retail. The setbacks between the parking and the buildings themselves offer space for outdoor dining, or yard-sale clearances, and they provide a variety of aesthetic options, depending on what the tenant prefers. It’s not fully attached—some buildings are autonomous, while others function as minor clusters of tenants. The U-shaped configuration gives unity to the entire thing, and it’s all equally visible as one approaches it from Marchwood Road. Heck, some of these upper levels might even work as apartments.
Whether intentional or not, the conception of Marchwood Road seems to have ensured its resiliency. It caters to almost all types of commercial uses. Though it may not fit the 21st century definition of mixed-use common to urban planners and real estate developers, it’s hard not to see how it aspires to that configuration, made all the more impressive when we recognize that it probably dates from a time when auto-oriented living was surging, because people couldn’t get away from the cities fast enough. Strip malls built at that era usually lacked any aesthetic function; convenience was king. By the standards of the 1970s, Marchwood Shopping Center actually is pretty nice looking, featuring architectural details that most other strip malls of its time would have spurned. How do we know this? Because virtually all of Marchwood’s competitors are absent from the scene. They’ve either rebranded themselves so completely that they aren’t recognizable as a 50-year-old shopping center, or they faced the bulldozers long ago. So, from a real estate and land development standpoint, I can’t help but tip my hat to Marchwood Shopping Center. I’m biased; so sue me.
11 thoughts on “Marchwood Shopping Center: a granddaddy of suburban Philly retail, yet still in the prime of life.”
I agree it’s “almost retro-chic” or perhaps kitschy, being that it’s relatively well-maintained and competently executed, but it’s in the wrong context, as you said. The buildings don’t front a town square, but a featureless parking lot. It’s nominally commercial mixed-use, which I agree gives it some added resiliency, but that certainly doesn’t make it a town square by any means. The approach drive looks like you’re entering a garden apartment complex. This Potemkin village aesthetic of the 1970s seems to have grown out of second-wave Colonial revival architecture from the same time period (the first wave being the 1920s). It didn’t fizzled out almost as quickly as it sprang up.
There’s a similarly peculiar development in Montgomery, Ohio that goes all-in on this village aesthetic. https://goo.gl/maps/SJW1Z23YVw4aacQs7 A cluster of detached and semi-detached buildings houses restaurants, clubs, pet grooming, and I think a few small offices is surrounded by a ring of parking, kind of the inverse of Marchwood. It’s also tucked behind other retail/bank and car dealerships on the main road. The architecture is passable from a distance, but up close it’s abominable. Very cheap wood construction, frameless aluminum windows, a/c condensers next to front doors, electric service panels masquerading as bay windows, steps everywhere, combined tenant spaces leading to redundant entrances, confusing alcoves and dead-ends. Inside it’s no better. Lots of small chopped up rooms with 8-foot ceilings, drywall, and carpeting. It’s fascinatingly crappy, propped up by being in a very well-to-do suburb. If it were anywhere else it would’ve been bulldozed decades ago.
Yeah, Jeffrey, Marchwood is definitely not a stunner. I try to place it in the context from when it was conceived–a point in time where it never occurred to developers to fill parking lots with landscape or other amenities, because the parking lot itself was THE amenity. Marchwood is old enough that it was likely, to a certain extent, competing with commercial districts in scattershot Chester County downtowns. Otherwise, the emergent strip malls at that time usually consisted of a squat row of stores (no second floor), all set back from the main street for the length of one car (maybe two cars) so that a row of parking and an access lane comprised the off-street parking that, in a main street, would be on-street. It added maybe 50% more spaces, where a full-fledged parking lot in a strip mall added at least 100%. I think of this mostly occupied little 1960s-era row of shops on Lee Highway in Arlington County, VA as the first iteration of an auto-oriented strip mall. https://goo.gl/maps/4rQRTLySaz7QcarS9 Incidentally, these were still fundamentally still pedestrian friendly. What I guess this tell me is that the suburban shopping center design of the 1960s and early 70s at least still made some offhand effort to accommodate pedestrianism, diversity of floor plates (and thus a greater array of small or medium businesses), and sometimes a mixed use…far better certainly than the designs of the 80s or even 90s. Only in the last 20-25 years or so did suburban development (and only some of it) make some effort for long-term resiliency through smart design choices that amounted to more than aesthetics.
As for your Montgomery example, I suppose you’re right that it fits the same conceptual framework as Marchwood. The design of the buildings does look cheap and dated, but, from what I can see, at least it’s almost completely walkable from within once a person has parked? And it seems like it has pretty high occupancy rates even to this day? But it does seem weird to me that, if Montgomery is well-to-do, it should still get propped up through the suburb’s stability; at a certain point one would think the high land values would prompt demolition for a higher and better use.
Either way, your Montgomery example immediately triggered my memories of a similar faux village center design I saw many years ago–in another Montgomery, incidentally. This cluster of Colonial revival shops sat in a part of Alabama’s capital that, while the housing still seemed stable and middle or even upper-middle class, it was too close to rough areas and the viable retail had long been forced into newer developments. Here’s what it looked like several years ago when I was there: https://goo.gl/maps/NjLprLpqYm86B2yJ6 Since then, the vacant shopping center has been completely razed, replaced with a lovely facet of the modern era: more self storage. https://goo.gl/maps/9xxtJqMsz22Y1SVb9
My territory again!
I did two summer internships just up Route 100 from Marchwood and passed it twice daily. (I might have had a beer or two at the Tavern.)
I can attest that it wasn’t new at the end of the 70s. 😁 New-ish, so maybe 8-10 years old. I suppose I could ask my nephew (who works in GIS for Chester County) to look it up…
Also, IIRC, the intersection of Marchwood Rd./Ship Rd. and Route 100 was a jughandle. To turn left from SB 100, one exited right onto Marchwood in order to turn left onto Ship. It is no longer that configuration. (I used to go past when visiting the area, using the Downingtown Interchange and exurban roads to avoid the KoP Turnpike/Schuylkill/202 junction.)
Interesting to know, Chris. Considering how close these suburbs are to the great Capital of Jughandles, New Jersey, you’d think you’d see them more in PA, especially in eastern PA. I think we had a few when I lived in the Lehigh Valley, on the main suburban commercial strip in Whitehall Township, north of Allentown. But only a few.
Yeah, my guess for Marchwood was just about 1970, give or take a few years.
PA definitely had jughandles on some of the “limited access but not quite freeway” highways in suburban/exurban Montgomery, and Bucks Counties back in the day. (State Routes 100, 309, 611; US 202 and 322).
I think the one at Marchwood lined up with the shopping center access.
Meant to write “Chester, Montgomery, and Bucks”
I’ll have to try to spot some of this the next time I’m in that part of Pennsylvania, which probably won’t be too long from now. It’s interesting how they got rid of jughandles there, presumably deeming them ineffective, yet they’re still ubiquitous in New Jersey and, as far as I can tell, the DOT and various DPWs are still building new ones in the Garden State. Perhaps they’ve just decided they’re too committed to them there, since many of the most commercialized, auto-oriented highways in suburban northern NJ use them for miles on end, whereas the efforts in Pennsylvania were abortive and half-hearted.
I think there are still several jughandles on US202 between the Delaware line and West Chester. From there north to KoP it’s a regular freeway. (Farther east of Norristown in Montgomery and Bucks, 202 has been “calmed” into a lower speed parkway with big sidepaths through many miles of suburban subdivisions. But it is still stroad-width at major intersections with lights.)
That road is an interesting study, serving as it did as the region’s outer loop before I-476 was finally built in the 80s and 90s.
I wanna know!
Take a look at all the pics in the article; you might be able to figure it out without even reading it!
great piece, as usual, Eric!