In the time before Amazon, downtown department stores used to provide a special shopping experience. People dressed up when they went 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 evergreens and twinkling lights everywhere.
Downtown department stores have pretty much disappeared, replaced by suburban shopping malls, which in turn are falling prey to Amazon.
Here are some memories of six downtown department stores that once graced New England:
Department Store Historic District
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 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-bread-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, a vehicle from 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, 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 to see the spectacular store decorations and awe-inspiring toy and doll departments.
One shop window displayed an old-fashioned circus. Inside the store, hundreds of decorated Christmas trees, Christmas baskets and red holly bells wowed customers.
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 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, thronged by bargain-hunters 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.
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.
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 they 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. Today the building includes retail space and apartments.
819 Elm St., Manchester, N.H.
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’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 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.
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 tried to get it done in time by working around the clock.
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 2022.