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It’s not every day you get to peruse more than 100 kinds of cheese under the glow of a majestic chandelier, or shop for produce among Art Deco columns that have stood proudly since the 1930s.
Along with ornate elevator doors, decorative trim, and a restored wild boar fountain dubbed “Il Porcellino,” these are elements of Philadelphia’s new Giant Heirloom Market.
Its home, the historic Strawbridge’s building at 8th and Market, is a monument to the golden age of the department store. The supermarket that just opened inside is a modern company’s best attempt to create that same kind of experience — offering convenience while still making an impression.
“It’s really what the Heirloom brand stands for,” said store manager Nicholas Meyer, explaining why Giant chose to bring its Heirloom urban grocery store brand to the old Strawbridge & Clothier.
Three other Heirloom markets have opened in different corners of Philly over the past few years, all with smaller footprints. They inhabit newer buildings and are meant to streamline grocery shopping for city dwellers and commuters.
This fourth location also serves the urban commuter — it’s connected to Regional Rail via the Fashion District, and directly adjacent to SEPTA and PATCO — but at 32,000 square feet, it’s double the size of a city Trader Joe’s, Aldi, or the nearby Mom’s. And it stocks a lot more than just stop-and-go essentials, all within surprisingly opulent surroundings.
First opened in 1868, Strawbridge & Clothier was a pioneer in a growing movement of large retail outlets that turned shopping into a fashionable and luxurious experience.
The company began constructing a new building in 1928, replacing three stories of brickwork with the ornate 5-story structure we see today. It took another half decade and $10 million to complete the Beaux Arts-style edifice, with architectural elements as grand as the reputation of the retailer would soon grow to be.
Should you doubt the store’s lofty place in local history, just look to one of the stone tablets installed in 1943, on the store’s 75th anniversary, in honor of founders Justus C. Strawbridge and Isaac H. Clothier.
“Strawbridge & Clothier’s,” reads the engraving, “is as distinctively Philadelphian as Carpenter’s Hall or the Betsy Ross House.”
From our vantage point, the statement might seem like a bit of a stretch. But Strawbridge & Clothier was a social hub where shoppers gathered and dined. Heirloom is mimicking this, invites guests to stay a while with a full-service Starbucks, a Hissho sushi bar, a deli serving hot and cold sandwiches and wraps, and a dining area to sit and enjoy a meal.
“The layout and the flow was really designed with the commuter in mind, as well as the business person who might be in the city and just want to stop by for a quick lunch or a quick client meeting,” explained Meyer, the Heirloom store manager.
The back of the store holds the most interesting feature.
What was once the grand entrance to Strawbridge & Clothier’s iconic Food Hall is now called the Tap Hall, a self-serve wall of taps offering more than 30 kinds of beer, cider, and wine. There are even taps for Prosecco and orange juice, so customers can pour themselves mimosas. Tap Hall also holds the working fountain with the wild boar statue, and the seating area is surrounded by paintings that depict 19th century opulence.
Strawbridge’s flagship ceased operation in 1996, when it was absorbed by the May Department Store. That lasted until 2005, when the company was acquired by Macy’s. Doors closed entirely the following year.
Restoring all the historical elements took a major effort. “It was very dirty and under-loved over the years,” said Meyer, describing 15 years of dust and grime. “Our team took a lot of pride in polishing it up and making it operational again.”
Now the space where decades of shoppers combined errands with fun is ready to welcome a whole new generation of Philadelphians.
Scroll down for a look inside.