Is Montana’s Most Historic Supermarket Hiding in the Bitterroot?
It's not only important to the community, but one Bitterroot Valley supermarket is also a piece of architectural history, and one of the last remaining examples of a shape that used to be familiar all over the western United States.
And in a time when even supermarkets erected only 25 years ago have already been remodeled once, if not twice, the Hamilton Safeway store remains a landmark for not only Montana but the entire Northwest.
Safeway was actually an early arrival in the Bitterroot. Historical pictures show the store when the chain was in its' infancy, operating downtown. You can still see the old Safeway sign in the alley dating back to the 1920s after the merger with Skaggs. From what I've been able to tell, the store moved into the building at the corner of 1st and Main in the 1960s.
The roof is what sets it apart
I remember stopping with my family at the Hamilton store during some Montana trip back in the 1970s and seeing the then-familiar sweeping roofline. I say familiar because 50 years ago, nearly every Safeway store featured the iconic "Marina style" curving roof line.
The design was first unveiled at some of Safeway's California locations at the end of the 1950s. According to the write-up on the Road Arch website, and other sources as well, the design was named for the Marina Boulevard Store in San Francisco. The original store was designed by Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons, but there were later variations.
Hundreds of the stores existed in nearly every town where Safeway operated by the 1970s, even north into Canada. The sweeping design complimented the chains' original red and white "S" logos on the front of the store, featuring wide open glass that provided light, tied in with the "barrel" ceiling to give the store a spacious feel that was a hallmark of "supermarket" shopping of the time.
Most "Marina" stores haven't survived
There were also many variations of the "Marina" design over the years, and some of the buildings lost their "wings" in later remodels. Many have been converted to other uses, ranging from churches to second-hand stores and even archery ranges.
I was worried Hamilton's Safeway might be headed for a similar fate when the big $9-billion merger with Albertson's was announced in 2015. But Albertson's said at the time it would keep operating both branded stores in Hamilton, leaving history in place.
So while Hamilton got lots of attention for having one of the last Kmarts before it closed in 2022, and questions remain over changes from the proposed Kroger-Albertson's merger, you still have a chance to get pictures and enjoy another landmark and reminder of a different time.
And if there's one of these classics I've missed elsewhere in Montana, please let me know so I can document it.