I only remember visiting the BEST store at the corner of Putty Hill Avenue and Goucher Boulevard once, but I sure said something about it to my mother every time we drove past: “It looks like Godzilla stepped on one corner.” What else could you say? It was a perplexing, ugly monument that radiated cognitive dissonance across the entire Eudowood Plaza shopping center. Was it finished? Did the construction crew hold the blueprints wrong? Did the BEST corporation actually want you to come inside and buy stuff, or were they okay with a 450-ton masonry-block facade possibly guillotining their customers someday?
Little did I know the BEST store located just a couple of miles from my childhood home was just one out of a litter of nine wackadoodle buildings designed by architect James Wines (Towson High graduate ’51) and his firm SiTE (Sculpture In The Environment), commissioned by the BEST Products, Inc. company in what can only be described as an act of unprecedented corporate Dadaism.
The nine buildings in the series winkingly distressed, deconstructed, or destroyed the ubiquitous retail big box. Indeterminate Facade in Houston, TX looked like it was already falling apart,
while Notch Showroom had a motorized corner that served as the main entrance: it slid out at the beginning of the day and at the end of day sealed up again.
The whole project reminds me of that episode of the Brady Bunch where that cosmetics diva Beebe Gallini implores Mike Brady for a building that looks like a giant compact that opens and closes.
“Mommy, she cries black tears!” What kind of architect designs a house for 6 kids and 3 adults with only one bathroom?
Actually, that’s technically novelty architecture: buildings that look like things, like the Brown Derby restaurant that looks like a big hat, or the Longaberger corporate headquarters in Ohio that looks like a giant picnic basket:
One thing you can say about Tilt Showroom – the building’s formal name — is that it doesn’t look like anything else, especially like anything else in Towson in the 1970s.
Tilt Showroom is definitely the runt of the litter, not just in how it only kinda-sorta fits in with SiTE’s stated concept of the tension between man-made buildings and a merciless natural enviroment, but also in sheer coolness quotient. Come on, Notch Showroom is just plain awesome. There’s something so magic, so “open sesame” about a building that slides out part of its corner to let you in. But Tilt Showroom, besides being incredibly ugly (and I’m speaking as the only person in Baltimore who loves the Jonathan Borofsky “Male/Female” sculpture in front of Penn Station), suffers from WTF-itis. It just looks half-dressed and slightly crazed: “I just totally didn’t put on the front of my building! How ya like me now?” It’s the architectural equivalent of Little Edie tying sweaters around her head in Grey Gardens.
The BEST corporation was run by the Lewis family, and once you know a little about them, it makes sense why they would happily take a gamble on a bleeding-edge architectural design for their stores. The Lewises had such a reverence for art and design that customers short on cash could trade fine art for goods in their stores. If you’d like to see all that artwork, you can visit the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts where most of the Lewis collection is on display, including “works by Lichtenstein, Warhol, Kline, Close, and other major artists” as well as many Art Nouveau and Art Deco objets d’art, including the largest collection of Tiffany artifacts in a US museum.
Frankly, the idea that someone would trade a Tiffany lamp for any of the tchotchkes in a BEST store boggles my mind. What little I remember of my family’s one visit (my mom swears we went there many times, but I only remember once) was rows and rows of low jewelry cases displaying chintzy pendants saying things like “#1 Mom-Mom”. I do remember my dad instructing me on why watches in advertising are always set to 10:10 (because it’s the most attractive way to display the two hands) and sure enough, every timepiece sparkling under diffuse display lights were set perfectly to 10:10, as if frozen after some Nagasaki-like catastrophe. The other thing I remember is synthesizer keyboards for sale, and my sisters and I happily banging on them as eight year olds are wont to do when someone foolishly leaves a keyboard in a public place. (At least neither of us knew “Chopsticks” or “Heart And Soul” or, god forbid, “Axel F”.)
We never bought those keyboards, because here was the strangest thing about BEST – you couldn’t actually buy any of the things there. Oh, sure, the stuff was for sale – despite the ARTFORUM-y architecture this was a business, not a museum – but you couldn’t select an item off the shelf, take it to the cashier, and walk out of the store with it. Instead, you’d examine the item, consult a catalog, write down a serial number on a slip of paper, pay the cashier empty handed, and then, just before leaving, take your paper to a counter where someone would retrieve your item from a back stockroom, at which point you and your item would finally be permitted to leave the store together. Between walking into the postmodern building and the roundabout purchasing process, shopping at the Towson BEST was like participating in some kind of bizarre Theater Of The Absurd performance art subverting the consumer ritual.
Maybe that’s why the BEST company filed for bankruptcy twice in the early ’90s, and finally went under in 1997. The chasm between the avant garde exterior and the lowbrow goods was too jarring, and besides, customers in the market for jewelry or gifts or keyboards for their kids to bang on just wanted to get in, get out, and not have their consciousness rearranged. Tilt Building was razed in 1997 and a Target (a corporation with a very different design philosophy) was built in its place. I can’t say I mourn Tilt Building too much, but I miss the idea that it was one of nine equally eccentric buildings around the country. Sadly, even Indeterminate Facade was determinedly torn down in 2003. (The only SiTE-built BEST building still standing is a store built in Richmond, VA, designed to look like trees were growing through it. It’s now a Presbyterian church.)
The designing architect James Wines mourned the death of his masterpiece, moaning in the Baltimore Sun that “In France, this would never happen.” To be fair, though, in France they never would have built this thing in the first place. Thankfully Baltimorons are pretty tolerant about buildings that look like they’re going to fall apart.
Tilt Showroom unveiling Towson 1978 (starts at 2:39)
Heavy Facade Parking Lot
Violet LeVoit is a Baltimore City Paper columnist and author of the book I Am Genghis Cum.