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One of the biggest parking lots in Center City–not that long ago known as the “Disney Hole”–was the site of Gimbels, a grand department store of the late 19th and most of the 20th century. The site, long held by the real estate firm Goldenberg Group, was, according to the company’s plan, to be Market8, a casino and mixed use development. But last week the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board awarded Philadelphia’s second casino license to Live! Hotel and Casino. The property remains in limbo.
Of the three big stores at Eighth and Market Streets–Gimbels, Strawbridge and Clothier and Lit Brothers–Gimbels held court at the southwest corner. Gimbels’ history began not in Philadelphia, but in rural Vincennes, Indiana, where Bavarian immigrant Adam Gimbel opened his first dry goods establishment in the 1840s after years of peddling goods along the Mississippi. A little over 40 years later, on September 29, 1887, five of Adam’s sons (the Gimbel brothers) opened a new store in Milwaukee. Adam Gimbel had “retired” in 1885 and moved to Philadelphia, though he continued to make trips to Milwaukee to check up on the business.
As Gimbels became successful in Milwaukee, the brothers began to prospect new markets. They considered Chicago and Saint Louis were considered, but both cities had well established stores of their own that the Gimbels would have to compete against. They decided Philadelphia, would be ideal–it would give the store immediate access to the East Coast market. Haines and Company–a dry goods store at Ninth and Market–was severely hammered by the Panic of 1893. Facing liquidation the following March, the owners agreed to sell the establishment to the Gimbel brothers for the grand sum of $1 million. On March 21, 1894, the store reopened as Gimbels Philadelphia.”Handsomely dressed women fought and scrambled to gain admittance to the store. Bonnets were crushed, clothing torn, and umbrellas twisted into almost unrecognizable shapes,” noted the Philadelphia Record. At least one window broke under pressure from the crowd.
The Gimbel brothers pivoted from Philadelphia to New York City, opening directly across from R.H. Macy and Co., touching off a rivalry that would be immortalized in the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street. The opened in Pittsburgh, too, and upgraded the original Milwaukee location.
The Philadelphia store was expanded along the south side of Market Street east to Eighth Street. A massive 12 story expansion filled the block fronting Chestnut Street by 1927, making Gimbel brothers the biggest department store in the world, boasting fifty acres of space (only the first seven floors were dedicated to sales, the rest were leased offices). Designed in the neoclassical style, the new wing featured an elaborate clock on the corner of 9th and Chestnut. The Chestnut Street expansion of Gimbels–and the clock–remain.
Philadelphia’s first escalators were introduced here in 1900. In 1902, Pure Foods moved in–selling groceries with strict sanitary standards. One of the city’s first radio stations, “WIP,” began broadcasting from the Gimbels building in March, 1922. A branch of Saks Fifth Avenue opened in the Chestnut Street building in 1952 (the two companies had merged back in 1923).
As we noted earlier today, Gimbels hosted the first ever Thanksgiving Day parade in 1920. Ellis Gimbel and several employees who had musical talent led a motorcade procession from City hall to the 9th and Market. The procession got bigger with every passing year and by the 1940s the parade had become both a tradition and sensation. Dignitaries and celebrities made their presence known alongside hundreds of children and their parents lining market Street to watch the WIP’s Toyland Parade. Drop boxes along the route allowed kids to deposit letters to Santa with the hopes that they would be read aloud on the air sometime before Christmas. Santa himself was the star of the show, riding in the back of a fire engine. As the parade concluded in front of Gimbels, Santa would ascend a hundred foot ladder through a window directly into Toyland, thus kicking off the Christmas shopping season.
During World War II, the cormer of Ninth and Market took on the nickname “Gimbels Freedom Corner” after the store set a city record in selling $18 million worth of war bonds and stamps. Due to management’s foresight in buying large quantities of merchandise with the certainty that the war would last a while, shoppers were able to buy at Gimbels what other stores had run out of, giving birth to the catchphrase “Gimbels has It!” In the meantime, 250 employees went off to fight on the Allied front.
The store reflected on the optimism felt after the war’s end, hosting the Better Philadelphia exhibition in September 1947. Showcasing what the city could be by 1980, the exhibit’s main attraction was an animated interactive model in which old buildings disappeared and were replaced by new skyscrapers and parks. Entire neighborhoods could be renewed at the touch of a button.
In the 1950s, the store expanded to Cheltanham, Upper Darby, Northeast Philadelphia, King of Prussia, and Moorestown, New Jersey. By the 1970s Gimbels Market Street store, consisting of multiple buildings cobbled together over the years, was now too big, too old, and too complex to function efficiently. Seeking to evolve with the city, Gimbels agreed to anchor the planned $200 million Gallery, which would be built across the street. The new Gimbels opened in August 11, 1977. A grey concrete box standing five stories tall, the new store was often compared to a tomb or a fortress.
Sales continued to decline and Gimbels liquidated in June, 1986. Allied Department stores purchased most of the Philadelphia locations, which they would reopen under their New York City-area Stern’s brand. Stern’s failed too. As Gallery management made it difficult for Stern’s to break the lease, the Center City location was the last to close–in April, 1993. After serving as Strawbridge’s Clover discount division between August, 1995 and October, 1996, the store became the home to Kmart, which filled the first two floors between November 1997 and April 2014. Today sitting vacant, the store awaits redevelopment.
Chicago based Urban Investment & Development Corporation acquired the original Philadelphia Gimbels with the intention of demolishing everything but the Chestnut Street expansion and building anew. Everything else was razed and replaced by a surface parking lot as multiple plans crashed and burned: headquarters for Cigna, headquarters for CoreStates Bank, a Sears store, and indoor Disney theme park, a Target store and movie theater, and finally the Market8 casino hotel which tried but failed to get the city’s second gaming license.
Given the flurry of new projects planned for the Market East corridor, it is likely that something will rise here soon. For anyone looking for a blank canvas to build a landmark project in the heart of Philadelphia: Gimbels Has it!