New England’s grand downtown department stores served patrons all year, meeting routine needs for clothing and household items at prices for all budgets. The department stores didn’t all start out as grand emporiums, they mostly evolved from humble roots: hardware, jewelry, leather goods, clothing, etc.
At Christmas, however, they took on the magical qualities of a consumer wonderland where everything seemed available – just one aisle away. Downtown department stores have pretty much disappeared, much to the regret of people who remember festive shop windows and patient Santas who could take every child’s request and make it seem like it was the most important thing they heard that day.
Here are some memories of six of grand downtown department stores that once graced New England:
At its peak, downtown Waterbury was a shopping mecca. It boasted Woolworth's and W.T. Grant's and the grandfather of them all, Howland-Hughes.
Howland-Hughes was a world unto itself. The toy department sells Radio Flyer wagons, microscopes and anatomy kits. Santa Claus at Christmas was helped by Donner, the talking reindeer. Santa’s workshop was downstairs in the toy department. The big shopping bags with Santa Claus printed on them were so beautiful that customers didn’t throw them away.
The store once boasted that it was the oldest freestanding department store in America. It opened as the Reid & Hughes Dry Goods Co. in a snowstorm in 1890 with $50 and 12 clerks. The owners rebuilt the store in 1903, a year after it was gutted by Waterbury’s worst fire, which destroyed 32 buildings and 100 businesses. It operated for more than a century.
In 1990, Howland-Hughes had no escalators but it did still have an elevator operator named Alma Symmons who greeted customers with, 'Floor, please?' before pulling back the lever to shut the door, the New York Times reported. It was a tribute to bygone days, with old-fashioned lighting fixtures and pale green walls lined with wooden display cases. Paintings displaying vintage Waterbury scenes -- horse-drawn trolleys and carousels -- hung on the walls.
The store had two restaurants, clothing in a wide price range, Girl Scout and Boy Scout uniforms and handmade items by elderly residents of Waterbury. On the third-floor housewares department, the store stocked such hard to find things as hand-cranked food mills, pressure-cooker gaskets and bottlecaps.
On Church Day, the first Monday in November, 10 percent of a customer’s sale was given to a church of his or her choice. Students displayed their artwork in the shop windows and community groups held bake sales and auctions in the store.
Owner and president Henry Paine, son and grandson of the founders, still chatted with customers and staff in the department store well into the 1990s. The store closed in 1996 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It now houses The Connecticut Store, which sells only items made in the state.
In Maine, Porteous opened in 1904 on Congress Street in Portland, the largest department store in the state. Porteous boasted ‘lavish and delightful’ Christmas decorations of colored lights, thousands of yards of greenest evergreen and ‘truly fascinating show windows.’
Two years after it opened, the store then known as Porteous, Mitchell and Braun advertised in the Chamber of Commerce Journal of Maine. "We have spared neither time, money, nor inventive genius, to make this store … THE Christmas Store of the City and State." The merchandise was “peculiarly and ideally correct for Holiday gift giving. Every nook and corner of this splendid building radiates the true Christmas spirit. COME AND SEE WHAT WE HAVE DONE FOR YOU!”
And the people did come. Porteous created a spectacular display of exterior store decorations, fascinating show windows, hundreds of colored electric lights, thousands of yards of greenest evergreen and awe-inspiring toy and doll departments. One shop window displayed an old-fashioned circus. Inside, hundreds of decorated Christmas trees wowed customers, with thousands of yards of evergreens, countless colored lights and Christmas baskets and bells of holly red.
The store hit its heyday in the late 1970s and early 1980s, expanding to shopping malls in Auburn, Bangor and Presque Isle, Maine, Burlington, Vt. and Newington, N.H.
Starting in 1993 it was operated by the Dunlap stores, and it began closing stores in the late 1990s. By 2003 it closed the doors to its flagship store in Portland, just short of its 100th birthday. The store is now home to the Maine College of Art.
Filene’s got its start as Filene’s Sons and Co. in 1881. William Filene, a German-Jewish immigrant from Prussia, had arrived in Boston in 1848 and began building up his small empire of little retail shops, which formed the basis for his department store.
It was Filene's sons, Edward and Lincoln, who made the store a household name after inheriting it in 1901. Edward pioneered the store's basement annex, which bargain hunting shoppers thronged week after week in search of just the right moment to pounce on merchandise that dropped in price under the store's automatic markdown formula.
One suburbanite born in 1946 remembers the glory years of Boston's downtown department stores: "We went “in town” for everything," ML told the history of department stores. "You would never consider buying a winter coat locally – you always made a trip to Filene’s, Jordan Marsh, R. H. Stern or R. H. White. I remember my mother made an appointment at Filene’s to have my sister’s first communion pictures taken and other pictures of my sister and I together. The reason why I mention this is because my brother was born seven years after me and when it came time for his baby pictures – Filene’s came to your home – guess things were changing at that time!"
At Christmas, the store shook off its humbler aspect, decked out and decorated for Christmas. It became a centerpiece of Boston's Downtown Crossing, along with rival Jordan Marsh. From 1930 through the 1990s, the Filene's name sprung up in malls throughout America.
The 1990s brought on the store's shrinkage, however, and in 2006 the name Filene's disappeared from the retail landscape, merged with Macy's. The former flagship Boston store now houses the Irish retailer Primark's first U.S. store.
Elm Street was the place to be in Manchester, N.H., at Christmas. When the shifts ended at the gargantuan Amoskeag mill yard, workers went to Elm Street to mingle with friends, have a meal and spend their paychecks at the shops that lined the street.
In the heart of the shopping district was the John B. Varick Co. at 809-819 Elm St. For years it was the largest hardware store outside of Boston, but it also sold a huge variety of merchandise, including sporting goods, jewelry, silver, fishing gear, seeds, toys, luggage and radios. At Christmas, Varick’s stocked up on silverware, a popular item during the season.
Varick’s was founded in 1845 by John P. Adriance. His nephew John B. Varick came to work in the store at age 16, and two years later bought the company from his uncle with a partner. Varick ran the business for 53 years until his death in 1902. Sons Thomas and Richard took over the store, and by 1916 it owned the Varick Building, half of the Varick-Sullivan Building and three warehouses, two of which were next to railroad tracks and could handle seven cars of freight at once.
Varick’s offered low prices because of low insurance rates, no rent, ideal freight conditions and its ability to buy in large quantities without borrowing money, The Granite State Monthly explained.
The store also boasted an early and massive sprinkler system. The reason? Fire wiped out the store in 1888, 1892 and 1914. The last fire gutted the five-story store brick building after it reached the sporting goods department and ignited powder and cartridges.
John B. Varick's sons had died by 1943, and the business was sold to the Gould family after World War II. By 1951 the company closed its doors.
Providence's Westminster Arcade, built in 1828, is the first indoor shopping mall in America. In the heart of downtown Providence at Westminster and Weybosset Streets, it’s a long narrow building with European-style skylights, Greek columns weighing 13 tons each and granite walls. Inside, walkways were lined with shops that had interior-facing windows displaying their wares.
It was built by Cyrus Butler and at first called Butler’s Folly because it was so far from the town’s retail district. Eventually three sisters opened a fashionable hat shop in the building. The shop was popular and other retail establishments located nearby on Westminster Street.
“I have a wonderful memory of my mom bringing my brother and me to the Arcade at Christmastime,” remembered Audra Wooten. “It was so festive and exciting to see as a child.” The Arcade always had special events for Christmas.
The three great department stores on Westminster Street – Shepard’s, Cherry & Webb and Gladdings – decked themselves out for the holiday, and if you got lost you waited for your parents under the tall, neon-lit Shepard’s clock.
The Arcade survived a fire and three hurricanes, but it was never profitable and was nearly torn down in 1944. The Metropolitan Museum of Art called it one of the finest commercial buildings in the history of American architecture.
In 1976, it received National Historic Landmark status. The building fell into disrepair, and by 2008 it was empty. Developers restored it and by 2013 converted the building into retail space and tiny apartments.
Church Street in Burlington, Vt., has long been a busy downtown shopping corridor lined with impressive brick buildings. At Christmas, the lighted trees along Church Street imparted a festive holiday air. Today Church Street is part of Burlington’s successful outdoor mall, closed to traffic
The Howard Opera House, a showplace of an Italianate building on Church Street, was completed in 1879. H.W. Allen, a large Vermont clothing store, had space in the building. The theater itself was in the upper floors until 1904, when its insurance rates became unaffordable. The building was then converted to office and retail space.
Magram’s Fashion Shop occupied the building from the 1940s to the 1980s. In 1961, owner Barney Magram bought the building and changed the façade. He kept the old Otis elevator, operated for two decades by the kind and thoughtful Robert Krupp, who always reminded customers of the daily specials. There was a lunch service on the mezzanine level called the Nibble Nook.
Today the ground floor is occupied by retailers like Urban Outfitters, April Cornell and Frog Hollow.
Photos: Howland-Hughes By GrammarFascist - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44118309