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Six Historic Downtown Department Stores

People used to dress up when they took the train into the city to visit downtown department stores, plastic charge cards in hand. They often stayed for the day, patronizing nearby theaters, banks, restaurants and other stores, maybe Kresge's or Woolworths.

Downtown department stores played a vital role in local economies -- and to a city's identity.

They offered convenience, modernity, style and elegance: the best and latest merchandise, large selections and top quality. And the great downtown department stores prided themselves on gracious service.

At Christmas, downtown department stores took on magical qualities with festive shop windows, patient Santas and everygreens and twinkling lights everywhere.

Downtown department stores have pretty much disappeared, much to the regret of people who remember putting on hat and gloves for a day of shopping, lunch and maybe the theater.

Here are some memories of six downtown department stores that once graced New England:

Department Store Historic District

downtown-department-stores-g-fox

G. Fox, the most beloved of Hartford's downtown department stores

Customers from the entire region of central Connecticut traveled to Hartford for the city's three leading downtown department stores: Sage Allen & Co., Brown Thomson & Co., and G. Fox & Co. Now, along with the 1889 Sage Allen sidewalk clock and the G. Fox warehouse, they belong to the Department Store Historic District.

Henry Hobson Richardson, of Trinity Church fame in Boston, designed the Brown Thomson building, and Cass Gilbert designed both the Woolworth Building in New York and G. Fox in Hartford.

If you couldn't find an item in one of those stores, you probably couldn't find it. At Brown Thomson you could buy a Cadillac along with a full line of automotive supplies.

Hartford's downtown department stores appealed to all the senses. At Sage Allen, the aroma of spicy sticky buns pulled customers into the downtown basement. Shoppers also loved G. Fox's cream-cheese-and-date-nut-brea-sandwiches.

None of the downtown department stores treated their customers as well as G. Fox. If a customer wanted to return a spool of thread, the G. Fox fleet would pick up the thread.

Since 1847, the store always offered free home delivery, first by wheelbarrow, then by horse-drawn carriage, then by car and truck. In 1947, G. Fox marked its 100th anniversary by delivering packages by helicopter.  On Christmas Eve, G. Fox kept a small staff and drivers on standby until midnight for desperate parents who needed an emergency Christmas gift.

Everyone in central Connecticut knew exactly where to meet someone at the clock -- the Sage Allen sidewalk clock, a landmark since 1889. The clock disappeared after a windstorm damaged it and finally returned in working order in 2007.

All three of Hartford's great downtown department stores are sorely missed. They disappeared in the early 1990s, felled by two large regional malls.

884-956 Main St., 36 Talcott St., Hartford, Conn.

Porteous

Portland's Congress Street Porteous today

Portland's Congress Street Porteous today

Porteous, Mitchell and Braun opened in 1904 on Congress Street in Portland, the largest department store in Maine. 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 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, elaborate show windows, hundreds of colored electric lights, thousands of yards of  evergreen and awe-inspiring toy and doll departments.

One shop window displayed an old-fashioned circus. Inside the store, 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.

The Texas-based Dunlaps store chain started running Porteous in 1993. By the late 1990s  it began closing stores because it couldn't compete with other retailers. By 2003 Dunlaps shut the doors to  the last Porteous store in Presque Isle. The flagship store in Portland closed just short of its 100th birthday that same year. The store is now home to the Maine College of Art.

522 Congress St., Portland, Maine

Filene's

Filene's Christmas decorations, 1950. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Filene's Christmas decorations, 1950. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

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.

Filene's sons, Edward and Lincoln, 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. The annual wedding dress sale drove brides-to-be into frenzies and usually made the local news.

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." Filene's actually sent photographers to customers' homes to take baby pictures -- or you could go to the store for that first communion photo.

Downtown Crossing pre-1956. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Shoppers at Boston's downtown department stores at Downtown Crossing pre-1956. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

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, Filene's stores sprang 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.

10 Summer St., Boston, Mass.

Varick's

Varick's is on the right

Varick's is on the right

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. Varick’s stocked up on silverware at Christmas, 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.

819 Elm St., Manchester, N.H.

Westminster Arcade

Westminster Arcade. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Westminster Arcade, the granddaddy of Providence's downtown department stores. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

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.

Cyrus Butler built the arcade, and at first people called it 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 three great department stores  that grew up on Westminster Street – Shepard’sCherry & 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 never made money 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 had emptied. Developers restored it and by 2013 converted the building into retail space and tiny apartments.

65 Weybosset St, Providence, R.I. 

Montgomery Ward

downtown-department-stores-monty-ward

Montgomery Ward, one of Burlington's downtown department stores.

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.

Montgomery Ward's 515th store opened on Church Street in Burlington on Dec. 28, 1929. It missed the Christmas season though plasterers, carpenters and painters worked to get it done in 24-hour shifts.

The company had settled on an ambitious plan to expand its stores, but fast. Its mail-order sales had dropped, and its rival Sears was opening hundreds of stores on the outskirts of major cities.

Montgomery Ward decided to challenge Sears in smaller cities, where country people were driving their new cars to shop. By 1930, two out of three Vermont farms had a car, up from one in four a decade earlier.

In 1927 Montgomery Ward had only 36 stores. Two years later, it had more than 500, 200 more than Sears. Architects in Chicago probably designed the one in Burlington, which has wide Chicago windows on the second floor.

The Burlington store announced its opening with an ad in the Burlington Free Press promoting electric washing machines, vacuum cleaners, men's
suits, ladies' dresses, automobile tires, radios, and a 'smart three-piece living room suite covered with peach mohair.'

The company's timing -- the eve of the Great Depression -- didn't help the store's survival. It lasted only 32 years, closing in December 1961. Various retailers have operated in the building since then, and a bank now uses part of it.

Today Church Street belongs to Burlington’s lively outdoor pedestrian mall.

52-54 Church St., Burlington, Vt. 

Photos: Howland-Hughes By GrammarFascist - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44118309. Montgomery Ward by By Mfwills; cropped by Beyond My Ken (talk) 18:32, 22 October 2013 (UTC) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29141129. This story about downtown department stores was updated in 2017. 

14 comments

  1. Joan Naumec

    I remember going to W.T. Grant’s on Main St, Willimantic, to visit Santa. Woolworth’s was next door.

  2. Beryl Lyons

    Grew up in RI The Outlet, Gladdings, Peerless, and, of course, Shepards (With its famous clock) and going through a side door and across an alley (maybe just a narrow one-way street) to the Floridian for lunch

  3. Mary Ellen Fitzgerald O

    Surprised you didn’t include Edgar’s in Brockton , Ma. ! First store Santa Claus!

  4. Sharon McHugh

    Such a wonderful article. Eileen Becker Carmel Bennett

  5. Don Matheson

    Filene’s and Jordan Marsh, and Gilchrist’s anchored what was later dubbed “Downtown Crossing,” but one block over on Tremont Street was the never-to-be forgotten carriage trade department store R. H. Stearns.

  6. Emily S Palmer

    I loved the old department stores. Miss them.

  7. Anne C. Winner

    They forgot Peerless! We loved Peerless!

  8. Anne Platt

    Miss going ‘Downtown’ shopping!!

  9. Juanita Seely

    I miss the quant downtown stores. I hate shopping at the mall and avoid it if possible!

  10. While Jordan Marsh and Filene’s are easily recalled, another must-visit Downtown Boston location was Raymond’s, ‘The Home of Unkle Eph!’

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