Populist Modern at Twelfth and Market

Northeast Corner of 12th and Market Streets, September 21, 1949. Detail. (

Just as Howe and Lescaze were getting to work on their PSFS Building in the late 1920s, Harry Sylk was starting up his Sun Ray drug store chain. Before long, the two would play out their similarities and differences—International Style versus Pre Populuxe—on the street. And where these design cousins would never intersect, they would redefine one of Philadelphia’s most dynamic intersections.

Twelfth and Market Streets had been Philly’s hot corner since the 1890s, when the Reading Railroad installed its masonry cliff of a head house in front of a giant train shed. Its interior was spoken for, but people animated the sidewalk. Pictures of 12th and Market from 1911 and 1914 confirm: this intersection was the heart of Center City, and possibly its soul. Problem was, the blank, anonymous corner niche of rusticated head house didn’t add all that much. It cried out for a kiosk – and a domed version, visible in the 1911 picture. The corner demanded little attention, only the decision to walk straight, right or left.

Until PSFS. In the early 1930s, Howe and Lescaze’s monumental curve of granite, steel and glass put the Reading Terminal Headhouse in perspective. So 19th century; so out of date. Could the power of PSFS possibly inspire its opposite corner to move into the 20th century?

It could. And in true 20th century fashion, it took the swagger and shamelessness of American retail to take up the challenge.

In the late 1920s, brothers Harry, Albert and William Sylk started with a “cut rate” store on Ridge Avenue and built a retail empire. The Sun Ray chain eventually grew to more than 150 stores in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland.

The Sylks were promoters as much as retailers. When flying saucers were spotted in Roswell, New Mexico Sun Ray promoted its new Patterson, N.J. store by dropping discs from an airplane and offering free ice cream for anyone who could bring one in. At Easter, Sun Ray gave its customers free chicks. The Sylks didn’t just advertise on radio, they bought two stations: WPEN AM and FM.

Store location remained their first priority. “Wherever there was a Woolworth’s store,” Harry Sylk told the Inquirer, “we tried to open a store right next to them…”

Reading Terminal Head House (detail), Northeast corner 12th and Market Streets, ca. 1950. (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Signs became Sun Ray’s other first priority. The Sylks likely stood on the sidewalk across from the commanding curve of PSFS, appreciating Howe and Lescaze’s commitment to retail at the street level. This was their same language, only the Sylks spoke it with an earthier accent. Their corner, the Sylks figured, could update the Victorian kiosk with modern lines and materials. They would brag and holler where PSFS purred.

“Sun Ray; Super Kiosk,” proclaimed their first sign as it curved around the corner. Over time, and abiding by the time-tested principle that there’s no redundancy when it comes to promotion, the words “Super Kiosk” were replaced with “Sun Ray Drug Co.” Neon lit it all.

Powerful? Sure, especially at night. And cluttered. And disappointingly unanimated. Why use neon halfway, asked Max Sarnoff, the Sylk’s sign man extraordinaire? While on the West Coast, Sarnoff had seen the light: “…I wanted to put show biz in the sign business.” Back from Hollywood, via Miami Beach, Sarnoff later told the Sign Builder Illustrated how proud he was of his giant, neon mortar and pestles for Sun Ray. But nothing Sarnoff did combined lights and action like his giant Sun Ray sign with neon bands chasing around the corner of 12th and Market.

A bit of Las Vegas in the Quaker City.