For Philadelphians, Wanamaker’s was more than just a department store; it was a civic landmark with the world’s largest pipe organ, a monorail that snaked through the eighth floor toy department, and noontime appearances by celebrities and political figures. Visitors dined at the Crystal Tea Room or met “at the eagle” in the grand court. Viewers of films like Blow Out, Mannequin, and 12 Monkeys saw it as a backdrop.
The story of Wanamaker’s began in 1861 when Grays Ferry native John Wanamaker entered a partnership with his brother-in-law Nathan Brown. Named Oak Hall, the store sold men and boys apparel. Employing unique merchandising methods such as posting set prices (as opposed to haggling) and allowing full refunds, the business grew at a brisk pace. When Brown passed away in 1868, Wanamaker gained full control and opened a second location in 1869.
In order to stay on top of European fashion, Wanamaker maintained buying offices in London and Paris, the only American merchant to do so at the time. While there, he became exposed to a new European concept: the department store. Wanamaker sensed that something like this could be successful in Philadelphia, but his two existing menswear shops were too small. In 1874, the Pennsylvania Railroad put their obsolete freight depot at 13th and Market up for sale. A block in size and mostly one floor, this building was perfect for the glorious marketplace Wanamaker imagined—and just in time for the American Centennial.
America’s industrial might and advances took center stage in Fairmount Park at the Centennial Exposition in 1876. Swelled with patriotic pride, ten million people attended the expo, and Wanamaker took full advantage, opening his flagship store the Grand Depot two months before it began.
This emporium was a first in North American retailing—billed as the world’s first department store. Wanamaker hated that term, insisting that it be called a “composite store”. (There’s also some question as to whether it even merits that title. New York City’s Iron Palace opened in 1862; the Zions Cooperative Mercantile Institution in Salt Lake City was founded in 1868.)
Wanamaker’s “composite store” was a marvel. Set up like the European markets he admired, the store had a wagon wheel setup, with a circular counter in the middle and aisles radiating outward. Unheard of amenities like sitting rooms and a restaurant gave a rest to weary shoppers, while tour guides showed visitors around. The store was a smashing success, and after a post-Centennial renovation, the store’s 16 departments offered everything from ladies’ dresses to furniture.
Wanamaker strove to incorporate the latest innovations. In 1878 it became the first store to have electric lighting, and in 1879, the first with telephones. A pneumatic tube system transported cash and papers beginning in 1880, an art gallery opened in 1881, and elevators came in 1882. In 1885, he sold his other two stores to his brothers in order to focus on the Grand Depot, now called John Wanamaker. A New York John Wanamaker store opened in 1896 at Eighth and Broadway.
New challenges greeted Wanamaker at the beginning of the twentieth century, however. John Wanamaker now had to compete with stores “down the street” such as Strawbridge & Clothier in Philadelphia and R.H. Macy in New York, as well as Gimbels in both cities. In response, Wanamaker met with famed Chicago architect Daniel Burnham to design new stores. In New York, Wanamaker built a 32-acre annex building with a music auditorium in 1907. That store closed in 1954.
In Philadelphia, the Grand Depot needed replacement. It was too small and due to its wood construction, a fire hazard too. Demolition and rebuilding happened in three phases: the Market Street side, the Grand Court, and then the side fronting Chestnut Street. The store officially reopened in 1911 with the only department store dedication overseen by a US President. Speaking to a crowd of 35,000, President William Howard Taft did the honors as an act of thanks for Wanamaker supporting his previous campaign. Architect Daniel Burnham spoke loftily of his latest creation as the “most monumental commercial structure erected anywhere in the world” and as “simple, unpretentious, noble classic… monument to all time.” The granite clad edifice had a base of Doric columns and a crown reminiscent of a subdued Florentine Palazzo. Inside the marble lined Grand Court—a 150 foot high space taking up the first six floors—sat the two features that made Wanamaker’s an instant and enduring landmark: the Eagle and the Organ.
Produced in Frankfurt, Germany for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, August Gaul’s bronze eagle was purchased by Wanamaker for $10,000. Extra steel girders beneath the floor support the 2,500 pound statue. The eagle quickly became the store’s unofficial mascot; when suburban branches of John Wanamaker opened in the 1950s and ’60s, the company installed an eagle in each one.
John Wanamaker’s son Rodman, who had lived in Paris and was a steady patron of the arts in New York and Philadelphia, led the effort to bring the organ to the flagship. He saw the store as incomplete without quality music. Like the eagle, the organ was acquired from the 1904 St. Louis world’s fair. Manufactured by the Los Angeles Art Organ Company, the instrument contained 10,059 pipes and 140 stops. Thirteen railroad cars were required to transport the organ to Philadelphia, and installation took two years.
On June 22, 1911 the Grand Court organ was officially unveiled at an event coinciding with the crowning of England’s King George V. Dissatisfied with its sound, Rodman had the instrument enlarged with 8,000 pipes. All work was done in a store workshop in a 12th floor attic by a staff of 40. The organ as seen and heard today was finished in 1930 with an astounding 461 ranks and 28,482 pipes. Organists from around the world travel to Philadelphia just to hear and play the worlds largest functioning pipe organ.
Two smaller organs also inhabited the building at one time. A 15-rank pipe organ occupied the second floor Greek Hall until the 1930s when it was replaced by a Hammond Electric organ. A 60-rank organ in the Egyptian Hall accompanied the store’s piano department until it was removed in the 1930s. An organ was also installed in the New York store’s third floor auditorium.
During the holiday season, the organ took center stage as part of a light show held in the center court. Starting in 1956, elaborate displays formed what was called the Christmas Cathedral. Carols were accompanied by the Enchanted Fountains in front of the organ. Based on the fountains of St. Peter’s Square in Rome, water jets with colored lights ran in sync with the music. The Pageant of Lights changed each year under the direction of store event promoter Fredrick Yost. Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph, the 1980 World Series Phillies, and E.T., all made it in one time or another. Sportscaster John Facenda did the narration during the 13-minute spectacle from 1966 to 1994; since 2006, Julie Andrews’ voice has accompanied the performance.
In addition to the uniqueness of the organ, Wanamaker’s further distinguished itself with a monorail in the toy department during the holiday season. Suspended from the eighth floor ceiling, this child-sized train allowed younger guests a view of the store’s latest offerings in the “biggest toy department on Earth.” Discontinued in 1984, the monorail and its train cars found life again in the Please Touch Museum at Memorial Hall.
Rapid suburbanization in the 1950s led to the development of branch stores and later shopping malls. Arch rival Strawbridge & Clothier was aggressive in mall construction, anchoring or in some cases codeveloping venues in Cherry Hill, Springfield, Plymouth Meeting, Neshaminy, and Voorhees in the 1960s and ’70s. As part of an agreement with mall developers, Strawbridge’s chose which department stores would co-anchor these centers and it was certainly not John Wanamaker. As a result Wanamaker’s had to compete for market share in the suburbs with less desirable locations.
During this period, Center City’s identity as a shopping destination declined. A plan was hatched in the late 1950s for an ambitious redevelopment of Market East including hotels, offices, a train station to replace the Reading Terminal at Twelfth and Market as well as parking garages for suburbanites and tourists. All these developments would center on a multilevel shopping mall that would begin at Strawbridge’s flagship store at Eighth and Market Streets and end at Wanamaker’s. It was not until the late 1970s and early 80s that the plan was somewhat realized in the form of the Gallery and related developments. By then Lit Brothers, another Philadelphia retail stalwart, had gone out of business. Strawbridge’s was renovated as part of the gallery development and a downsized Gimbels opened to co-anchor the new mall. Later, J.C. Penney opened as well. Wanamaker’s needed to refresh itself to keep up with the changing environment. However the Wanamaker family had little desire to make significant investment, and they sold their interest in the store to Carter Hawley Hale on October 8, 1978.
The L.A.-based Carter Hawley Hale (CHH) operated several department store chains on the west coast. Under CHH’s tenure departments were remade, designer brands were featured at in-store boutiques, and the menu in the Crystal Tea Room was upgraded. CHH kept traditional Philadelphia merchandise and offerings around so as not to alienate the store’s base. But when the company was forced to restructure in the wake of a hostile buyout in the 1980s, serious thought was given to jettisoning Wanamaker’s and other losing chains.
On November 4th 1986, Woodward & Lothrup of Washington, DC purchased Wanamaker’s for $183 million. “Woodies” was a 99-year-old chain with 16 locations in the D.C. area, with similar clientele to Wanamaker’s. Under W & L’s ownership the store began downsizing. At over 1 million square feet spanning 14 floors, the Center City location was considered too big for the market. Plans called for the store to take up five floors and the rest of the building to be converted to mixed-use, an effort spearheaded by W & L’s owner, Detroit developer A. Alfred Taubman.
In October of 1987, W & L sold the Wanamaker Building under a leaseback agreement for $49.7 million to California developer U.S. Managers Realty. At the time, the firm had just completed the $90 million conversion of the Lit Brothers building at Eighth and Market, transforming the former store into offices, shops and a food court. John Kusmiersky, head of U.S. Managers, told the Inquirer in March 1988 that he would spend another $125 million to restore the façade, replace the windows, and upgrade the building services.
Kusmiersky enlisted Burt Hill Kosar Rittelmann to oversee the building’s refurbishment and the repurposing of the upper floors as state of the art office space. An atrium was carved out starting at the ninth floor allowing daylight to penetrate the large floorplates and make the space appealing to high paying tenants. A conference center with two 400-seat auditoriums was added as well. A new Juniper Street lobby provided entry to the new rooms. To keep intrusions on the first floor (viewed by the retailer as its most valuable space) to a minimum, the office lobby was placed on the mezzanine level reached by escalators from Juniper Street. From there, tenants took the former store elevators to reach their offices starting on floor six. On the top floor, the area occupied by the legendary Tea Room was restored and reopened as an event space.
Woodward & Lothrup spent $60 million to renovate the now five-floor Wanamaker store. Under the oversight of architect Ewing Cole, the Grand Court, the organ, and the eagle were left intact, along with architectural features such as columns and ceilings that were also cleaned and repainted. Everything else was replaced with the emphasis of reestablishing Wanamaker’s as a high-end store. Worn carpeting and linoleum gave way to marble, and all new fixtures were recessed away from the columns and railings to heighten their grandeur. In-store boutiques showcased luxury brands, and a restaurant opened on the fifth floor. The three-level basement that was formally used as a bargain store and service areas became a 400-space parking garage; additional plans for an 11-screen movie theater there never materialized. It was supposedly the costliest historic retrofit ever at $185 million. (The cost of the office conversion grew to $150 million.)
September 26, 1991 saw the debut of the newly renovated and modernized John Wanamaker’s—albeit one without its Crystal Tea Room, piano department, and other unique features. Still, the future was dim. Serious debt weighed down W & L, and Taubman decided to put the company up for sale in 1995.
The impending sale worried building owner John Kusmiersky and his partner John J. Connors. Their company, now named Brickstone Realty Group, still owned the Wanamaker Building, where they’d spent $150 million—$25 million more than anticipated—to modernize. Two suitors for the store, Federated Department Stores and May Department Stores, wanted to renegotiate the lease if they were to keep shop in the building. In the end, May was awarded the Wanamaker chain after a bankruptcy judge allowed its purchase offer of $725 million on August 8th, 1995. The Center City store remained open after all, much to Brickstone’s relief, but sadly, this meant the venerable Wanamaker name would now be history. May operated all stores under their Hecht’s brand, with the renaming taking place on September 3rd.
Under the Hecht’s name, sales continued to decline and May decided that instead of trying to compete with rival Strawbridge & Clothier in the Philadelphia market, they would just buy that company out. Despite resistance from several members of the Strawbridge family, the sale went through on July 15, 1996. During this time the Hecht’s name, unpopular with Philadelphians from the start, was discontinued. The Strawbridge name would grace the doors of the former John Wanamaker—ironic given the bitter rivalry just decades before. However, the long term plan called for May’s Lord & Taylor division to fill the spot.
Strawbridge’s closed its brief stay in the Wanamaker Building on February 1st, 1997 and reopened as Lord & Taylor on August 6th of that year, still with its eagle and organ, but now reduced to 156,550 square feet on three floors. And yet, profit was still hard to come by, but the company stated that they would continued to operate the store nevertheless in hopes for a turnaround.
Yet another name change occurred with the Federated-May merger on February 28, 2005. By September 2006, all May divisions including Strawbridge’s and Hecht’s, as well as such esteemed names as Filene’s of Boston and Marshall Field’s of Chicago, took on Federated names of Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s. The Lord & Taylor brand was eventually sold to a private equity firm, but not before the choice was made to convert the Wanamaker Lord & Taylor to Macy’s. Strawbridge’s at Eighth and Market closed, leaving Center City with just one department store.
Unlike Macy’s conversion of the Marshall Field’s nameplate in Chicago that touched off protests and customer revolt, a Macy’s branch in the Wanamaker Building appears to have been a success from the start. Today, Macy’s Center City is among the top performers in the chain.
To their credit, Macy’s recognizes the importance of this special landmark. Being the only store in the world with a functioning pipe organ sets it apart from the competition, Macy’s CEO Terry J. Lundgren told the Inquirer in a profile last month. “[The Center City Philadelphia branch] is one of the most unique stores in the entire enterprise,” he told the Inquirer. Macy’s has set aside funding for the maintenance of the organ, which was designated an National Historic Landmark in 1980. In conjunction with the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ, a nonprofit group founded in 1991 to oversee the preservation of the instrument, refurbishment of various components is underway. Restoration of the elaborate wood cage surrounding the organist’s console was recently completed.
Along with the Christmas Pageant of Lights, Macy’s has also brought over a Philadelphia Christmas tradition it inherited when it took over Strawbridge’s: the Dickens Village. Housed in the former Egyptian Room, this recreation allows Philadelphians “to take a trip back in time to 1840s London. With 26 heart-warming scenes, the stage is set for the story of ‘Scrooge’,” according to the Visit Macy’s Philadelphia website. Holiday display windows were also installed, continuing a tradition Macy’s began in the 1870s. Every March and April the Wanamaker building location is one of six downtown stores to host the Macy’s Flower Show, a tradition that started in the retailer’s San Fransisco location following the Second World War.
Macy’s see nothing but success in downtown Philadelphia. Currently at 157,940 square feet the Wanamaker location is reportedly too small to keep up with growing sales volume and there have been talks of the store expanding, taking up the fourth and possibly the fifth floors. Should these plans come to fruition, it would be dramatic reversal from the building’s previous retail occupants who viewed contraction as the only way to achieve success at the once iconic department store.
Whether Macy’s expansion of the historic Wanamaker Building is ever realized, little doubt clouds the ongoing enjoyment of this Philadelphia temple of commerce, the product of one of America’s greatest retail icons.
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