Skip to main content

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









Popular posts from this blog

North Towards Autumn: A Day Trip on the Metro-North Hudson Line

The peak of autumn colors in New York City tends to fall sometime in the days following Halloween, but those anxiously waiting leaf change can simply travel north.  Near Beacon, a view of autumn colors from the Metro-North Hudson line One way to speed the fall season is to take the Hudson line of Metro-North north of the city and watch the greens fade to oranges and yellows and the occasional burst of red.  Autumn light in Hastings-on-Hudson Weekends during the month of October are ideal times to make the trip. The air tends to be crisp with bright blue skies, and the Hudson River glimmers like a mirror in the light of autumn. As the Hudson line hugs the river for much of the distance north, the train ride alone provides plenty of opportunities for sightseeing. Try to grab a window seat on the river side of the train car for views of the Palisades and the bends of the Hudson Highlands later in the trip.   Autumn leaves on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail in Hastings Still, October is a gr

Early Voting in Washington Heights, and A Walk

Early voting for the 2020 federal election in New York began on Saturday, October 24 and continues through Sunday, November 1. The weekend was overcast and autumnal, with the bright yellows of fall on display. In New York City, thousands of New Yorkers turned out at the 88 early voting locations and waited in long lines, many stretching around the block.  A line to vote in Washington Heights. The line stretched around the block multiple times. Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn were two of the well-known sites, but most voting places were typical neighborhood places such as schools, churches, and hospitals.   The scene outside the entrance to the Russ Berrie Medical Science Pavilion, one of the early voting locations in Washington Heights. In Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, two early voting locations were within a short walk of one another, causing some confusion for voters emerging from the 168th Street subway station. The Columbia Universit

The Lonesome Metropolis: A Walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center

As New York City reopens, why do the attractions of the great metropolis still look mostly deserted on a summer morning? A morning walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center sought to address this question. As it turns out, there are several adequate explanations. But for what happens next, there are no right answers. Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Many neighborhoods outside of tourist New York are still buzzing along. While some residents of wealthier neighborhoods have largely decamped to mountain cabins, beach houses, and other second homes, the less wealthy have nowhere to go and may still be working. Just visit Washington Heights or Corona or Flatbush, and you’ll see sidewalks full of shoppers and summer evening street partiers. Those who fled the city remain only a fraction of the total population.   Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Other renowned parts of the city such as City Hall and Brooklyn Bridge have been fr

NYC Re-openings and Travel Advice

What will open, and how will you get there? This list will be updated following official announcements. UPDATED October 10, 2020.  Many favorite local destinations have now reopened.  Hand sanitizer dispenser at the Marble Hill station of Metro-North's Hudson line Openings  - General Information and Popular Destinations    • Restaurants: Consult this NYC Department of Transportation map  (updated link) for restaurants currently open in NYC. Starting September 30, NYC allowed indoor dining at 25% capacity. • As of September 25, outdoor dining in NYC has been extended FOREVER. • The  9/11 Memorial  reopened on Saturday, July 4. Visitors must wear masks and keep social distancing practices. • (update) Libraries: NYPL. T he library will allow a grab-and-go service at 50 locations.   • Governors Island reopened July 15 with advance reserved tickets.  • The High Line  reopened on July 16, with several rules and limitations in place, including timed entry passes - available July 9. Entra

The Season of Owls

 A walk in Inwood Hill Park. The days following the holidays and the first of the year make a good time to check in on life in the winter forest. I have a forest just down the street from me in Inwood Hill Park in Northern Manhattan. There, a vast old growth forest still stands. A Barred Owl faces the setting sun in Inwood Hill Park in Northern Manhattan. A few weeks ago, someone on a local Facebook page posted a snapshot of a Barred Owl, and I was keen to go looking for it in the park. I didn't find the owl on the first day, but the next day I saw it. A handful of birder enthusiasts were already on the scene and kindly pointed it out high up in the pines. What a beautiful creature!  A stand of White Pines provides the habitat for the Barred Owl. The owl is in this picture. I know, hard to see.  Since my first owl visit, everyday life during the otherwise dreary post-holiday doldrums has taken on a finer aura. I have returned several times, each taking a different path up to the o

The City Turned Inside Out: A Walk from Battery Park to Fulton Street

While the cast of HAMILTON sings “The World Turned Upside Down,” New Yorkers could easily hum along to “The City Turned Inside Out” this summer. (not a real song) Where once a city’s important work took place indoors - within the soaring office buildings, famous restaurants, legendary museums, and storied performance halls, the COVID-19 epidemic has literally turned the residents outdoors.  New landscaping in Battery Park At least it’s summer in the city, when spending time outdoors is common and pleasant enough. Still, the city remains strange this summer of 2020.  Shade plants like hosta thrive in Battery Park. The Statue of Liberty is in the distance. With the absence of tourists, and with office workers connecting virtually from home, many of the city’s main attractions aren’t attracting many visitors. A walk from the Battery to Fulton Street on a pleasant Thursday afternoon bore this out.  Statue Cruises is still sailing. It’s uplifting to at least find plants that are alive and

Walking It Off: Coping with Holiday Stress During the Pandemic

When I began this series, “Pandemic Posts from the Pause: New York City in the Age of Coronavirus” in March of 2020, I could see the first young greens of spring from my window. New Yorkers were told to stay home then and away from others. As someone who enjoys walking in the city, I knew that I would need to sacrifice many things this year. I was not going to give up walking. I quickly figured out that I could safely go to Inwood Hill Park near my house and wander the trails in the old forest. In March, I could breathe in the spring air away from others. There was little else to do during those early days of the “pause.” New Yorkers suffered greatly at the beginning. In a few months we were able to get the numbers down and to manage some semblance of human interaction, at a distance and masked.  Now, with the beginning of the holidays, the city and nation faces the existential threat of the virus’s return, the political assault on democratic norms, and the ongoing threat of the clima

An Early Autumn Walk in Central Park: 2020 Edition

This week, the singer Diana Krall released a cover of “Autumn in New York,” the standard by Vernon Duke. An accompanying video , filmed in New York by Davis McCutcheon and directed by Mark Seliger, portrays the city in moody yet beautiful black and white tones. Beyond the lack of autumn colors, the film shows the empty streets of the pandemic city. The mood riffs on the underlying melancholy of the song’s lyrics, that the fall season “is often mingled with pain.” Approaching The Mall in Central Park  When I think of autumn in New York, I automatically imagine walking in Central Park in the vivid colors of the season. The images here, from a meandering one-mile stroll this past Saturday, show only a hint of autumnal glory but reflect more conventional representations of both the season and the song. Yet, walking in Central Park at the beginning of autumn is tinged for me with a hint of sadness, or truthfully, with some anxiety about the coming months. The Mall in Central Park I hadn’t v

A Weekend Walk on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail

Imagine strolling from town to town near the eastern shores of the Hudson River, walking a well-trodden path lined with trees and stately architecture and with easy access to cafes, local shops, and train stations for an easy ride home. Imagine a weekend when the sun is bright and the sun is warm, and many other people - but not too many - are out enjoying the same weather and the same stroll. Such were the pleasures on a recent Sunday, in the latter part of this unseasonal winter, along the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail not too far north from New York City. View of the Hudson River from the Keeper's House The Old Croton Aqueduct, the system that once delivered fresh water from the Croton River to New York City, was a huge and complex marvel of engineering. The trail sits on top of the aqueduct system. This post describes a walk along just a section of the trail, the one that begins at the Keeper’s House in Dobbs Ferry and ends in Irvington. Recommended purchase - a map det

Facing the Dark Ages

A close look at The Met Cloisters Update: The Met Cloisters reopened on September 12, 2020. See the museum's website for ticket information. The Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 82-year-old home for its medieval collection in Fort Tryon Park (known as The Met Cloisters in recent years, the result of rebranding), dominates Northern Manhattan like a mystical fortress, like some object of a mythical quest. From nearly any direction, it’s easy to see the tower with its sandy-colored walls, double-arched windows, and Mediterranean style tile roof. Walking south on Broadway north of Dyckman Street , the way of everyday serfs and pilgrims going to market, the otherworldly sight of the imposing structure can transform an otherwise pedestrian journey.  View of The Met Cloisters from the northeast Culture and architect critic Lewis Mumford (1895-1990), reviewing the museum’s opening in 1938 for his regular column in The New Yorker, didn’t care much for the tower, but that was his