Flagships of New York: The Great Department Stores

Bloomingdale's, 59th St. and Lexington Ave.
While shopping in the Bloomingdale's flagship store on 59th Street the other day, I took a break from browsing to sit down and enjoy a little dessert at the store's 40 Carrots restaurant. I was sitting at a counter that runs underneath a large mirror and observing the comings and goings of the many well-dressed women behind me. I also fleetingly glanced at the reflections of several women of a certain age sitting at the counter. With their well-coiffed hair and careful makeup, donning artfully arranged scarves, perfume, and earrings, I thought of the song "Ladies Who Lunch," a satire of leisure class women from Stephen Sondheim's musical Company. Instead of the mocking tone of the song and memorable delivery by Elaine Stritch, however, I found myself sympathetically connecting to these women and to a tradition. This scene was frozen in time, maybe in the 1940s or 1950s, and I could remember my mother at such a place in years past. This could be me in 2030, I thought, and then as an afterthought, if department stores still exist then.

A similar timeless scene may have been unfolding at the other stores nearby - at Henri Bendel, Barney's New York, Bergdorf Goodman, or Saks, or farther south at Lord & Taylor on Fifth Avenue, or in Herald Square at Macy's. With Bloomingdale's and Barney's as important exceptions, Fifth Avenue has long been a preferred site for department stores, long ago known as dry goods stores, and they now seem entrenched and full established after their long migration from downtown and Ladies' Mile.

former B. Altman store, Fifth Avenue,
 between E. 34th and E. 35th,
now CUNY Graduate Center
It's really hard to imagine New York City without them, but several important ones have vanished. These sorts of enormous stores, with specialized departments featuring a range of merchandise from many brands, have difficulty competing with the discount stores of similar organization, and increasingly, their competition comes from online shopping. Most all the stores we associate with Fifth Avenue have suffered some sort of financial crisis. But for many New Yorkers of a certain age, just recalling the names of the long departed stores of times past conjures their worlds again - Bonwit Teller, B. Altman, Gimbels, or Brooklyn's Abraham & Strauss, to cite a few important ones. Suddenly, the mind recalls the heady mix of the perfumes of the cosmetic department, the many voices of clerks and customers in a holiday rush, working girls making their careers in the big city, the glamorous tones of the elevators as they stop for each floor. These were magic kingdoms for New York shoppers during the holidays. We saw them in the movies.

Ironically, for someone who often writes in the tradition of the flâneuse, the female equivalent of the gentlemen who strolled the streets of Paris in the nineteenth century, the rise of department stores spells a kind of death by bourgeois consumerism. The great European cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote famously of the flâneurs roaming the novel arcades of Charles Baudelaire's Paris of the 1820s through 1850s, these fabulous enclosed indoor shopping passageways with roofs of glass and iron lined with stores of luxury goods. The arcade's successor, the department store, removed the street in favor of surrounding the flâneur with commodities. In his 1938 essay, "The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire," Benjamin writes "The department store is the last promenade of the flâneur."

Origins in New York

In 1823 Alexander Turney Stewart (1803-1876), one of the most important merchants in New York history, dropped his original plans to become a minister and traveled to New York City from his native Ireland. Using an inheritance to buy Belfast linens and lace for resale in New York, Stewart opened a store for dry goods at 283 Broadway. The store often showed its merchandise along the sidewalk in front of the building, a form of advertising that is still popular today. Within twenty years he was ready for a major expansion.

Stewart's "Marble Palace" at the northeast corner of Broadway and Chambers Street now houses city offices.

In 1846 Stewart opened what became known as the "Marble Palace" at 280 Broadway (above) on the northeast corner of Broadway and Chambers Street, a store that specialized in European women's fashion. Built in marble in the Renaissance Revival style, the store is considered the fist department store as well as a design precedent for hundreds of buildings to follow. According to New York Architecture, "The former A.T. Stewart Store was one of the most influential buildings ever erected in New York City, as its style, materials, use, and location helped determine the course of architecture and commerce in the city."

In 1862 Stewart built the enormous "Palace," a cast iron building that took up a whole block on Broadway from 9th to 10th St. Other merchants followed Stewart northward. By the late 1870s two thousand people worked in thirty departments within the store. (source: Columbia Encyclopedia) The increasing construction of department stores, many massive and elaborate structures such as the Siegel Cooper Dry Goods Store (1896), established Ladies' Mile as one of the most important shopping districts in the country.

originally Arnold Constable Dry Goods Store,
now ABC Carpet Store, Broadway side near E. 19th St.
Designated an historic district in 1989 to protect its well-preserved grand buildings from the Gilded Age, the area along Broadway and 6th Avenue between 9th Street and 23rd Street catered to the clientele of the nearby upper crust of New York society. Think of Henry James and Edith Wharton novels. More merchants established their own stores in the area, including Benjamin Altman and Rowland Hussey Macy. In 1870 two long-established downtown merchants, Samuel Lord and George Washington Taylor, opened their business in a stunning new cast-iron building on Broadway and 20th Street.

Many of the grand buildings of Ladies' Mile still thrive as the location for contemporary businesses, including ABC Carpet (a store originating on the Lower East Side in 1897), Home Depot, and a particularly stunning Bed, Bath & Beyond in the old Siegel-Cooper building on Sixth Avenue at 18th Street. The B. Altman Dry Goods Store across the way from the Siegel-Cooper building now houses a branch of the Container Store. Ladies' Mile was eventually left behind in the early twentieth century. B. Altman and Lord & Taylor were among the first department stores to move to the new wealthy blocks of residential Fifth Avenue.

Read all the posts in this series, Flagships of New York:

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple, whose college friends enjoyed calling a "Neiman-Marxist."http://www.walkingoffthebigapple.com/2009/11/thin-man-walk-new-york-holiday_25.html

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