Thinking Outside the Big Box

Some chain stores break free from their typical design to fit into historic neighborhoods.

Burger King's 19th-century industrial look in Paterson, N.J.

Credit: Adrian Fine

Tourists in Freeport, Maine, might think, at first glance, the white Greek revival house on the corner is just another historic mansion. Only when they spy the small sign on the front lawn sporting the trademark gold arches will they realize it's actually a McDonald's.

As unusual as it is, it's one of a handful of McDonald's around the country that have altered the traditional design to fit into a historic environment or planned communities surrounding them. As more historic neighborhoods are being revitalized and more cities are issuing design standards for businesses, many franchises have had to learn how to blend in, rather than stand out.

But getting chain stores to give up the flashy looks that make them so identifiable isn't always an easy task.

"The question isn't how many are fitting in but how many are willing to fit in?" says Ronald Lee Fleming, president of Townscape Institute, an urban-planning organization based in Cambridge, Mass.

Back in 1982, when McDonald's eyed the c. 1850s former sea captain's residence in coastal Freeport as the perfect spot for a burger joint, the house wasn't actually part of the picture.

"McDonald's idea was to take the building down; however, there was tremendous resistance, and a group called the 'Mac Attacks' formed and were able to present the argument very effectively that the house shouldn't be demolished," explains Freeport Town Manager Dale Olmstead, adding that the controversy "sparked" the move for Freeport to adopt ordinances that now dictate what businesses can and can't do with their stores. 

Freeport, Maine

Credit: Jerry Odum

Adapting the Freeport McDonald's, which serves lobster rolls, was one of the first times the fast-food chain was forced to change its design. Since its opening in 1984, the company has wizened to the issue of appropriateness. McDonald's wouldn't describe these "camouflaged" stores as a trend just yet, however.

"A relatively small percentage of our U.S. restaurants have done this," says company spokesman Bill Whitman. "If an area is part of a historic district, we always work with officials on the restaurant and keep it sensitive to any restrictions," Whitman says. "We want to create a restaurant that enhances the community we serve." Almost a tourist attraction itself, the Freeport McDonald's later added a drive-through to the back of the house and relocated the house next door to create additional parking spaces.

Another prime example of a chain store fitting into a historic area is the McDonald's located right outside of the Biltmore estate in Asheville, N.C. Touting itself as the "world's classiest McDonald's," the restaurant features a baby grand piano and a gold-leafed fireplace, with food served by employees wearing black vests and bow ties. Built before the area's design ordinances existed, it was just a normal-looking McDonald's until five years ago, when the franchise decided to expand and found it itself in conflict with the local guidelines set by the historic resources commission. 

The "world's classiest McDonald's," Asheville, N.C.

Credit: Adrian Fine

According to architect Robert Griffin of Asheville-based Griffin Architects, P.A., McDonald's unsuccessfully tried twice to renovate the restaurant with its usual cookie-cutter design before visiting his firm. "We were able to convince them they were really not going to be competing with other fast-food franchises but with Biltmore itself, and the more they looked like and felt like they were already on the grounds of the estate, the more they would be perceived as part of that whole period."

Griffin, who designed the building's exterior, says its unusual appearance has attracted extra customers, adding that he received a phone call from a couple who drove 45 miles to check out the place even though they "didn't agree in principle" with fast-food chains and had never eaten at one.

Burger King, too, has renovated and moved into historic structures like a former industrial building in Paterson, N.J., and an art nouveau theater in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In 1999, the National Trust gave Banana Republic a National Preservation Honor Award for transforming many historic buildings in cities like Philadelphia, Miami, and San Francisco into clothing stores.

Many preservationists' immediate impulse, upon hearing of a new chain store moving in, is to try to keep the store out (the National Trust's Web site provides a list of cities that successfully stopped drugstores from moving in and destroying the historic integrity of neighborhoods). But Burger King and McDonald's are examples of how chain stores, notorious for sprawl and gaudy design, can be successful even without their typical signage. So why don't more chain stores choose this route?

Often, they don't have to. The key to making sure chain stores don't take over older areas is design ordinances, says Fleming, something he says many communities still don't have. "Towns are getting more sophisticated about their 40- to 50-year-old neighborhoods and are becoming concerned about the issue."

As for why towns don't push more for design standards, money can be a factor. "Lots of planners want to do the right thing, but city councils often feel any loss of the tax base is too much to handle," Fleming says.

The good news is that smaller franchises will often compromise on their store design if they like the location enough and there is enough pressure to alter it. However, bigger chains, wanting to spread out with their super stores, are often more reluctant to change. A large-scale example of this is Vermont, which has had to fight Wal-Mart repeatedly to keep the mega-store out of its Main Street towns. (The state has appeared on the National Trust's 11 Most Endangered List.)

In an effort to make the super size stores fit in, a new bill is being proposed which, if passed, will limit big-box stores to a maximum store size of 50,000 square feet.

"Some Vermont communities have already taken steps at imposing size caps upon stores, but without this bill, Wal-Mart or other big boxes can just move to another town," says Steve Holmes, sustainable communities director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council.

Despite the challenges of convincing a super-chain to fit in, it has happened. Last year, with a considerable amount of controversy, a Wal-Mart moved into a New Orleans historic district, changing their store design at the suggestion of city planners. Instead of their standard big-box construction, the St. Thomas store is styled after a 19th-century warehouse with brick masonry, historic light fixtures, and unlike its typical large parking lot, there are five smaller separate parking areas. (Nonetheless, Wal-Mart demolished a 19th-century housing development to make way for its "neighborhood-friendly" store.) Read more >>

While still unusual, the growing trend of chain stores camouflaging themselves to fit in is a positive step for both preservation and architecture. For some people who live and work around these adapted stores, the streetscape is simply a little nicer.

This story was originally published on Preservation Online on July 15, 2005.  

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