This month, as shoppers battle crowds to buy last-minute gifts for the holidays, Macy’s in Center City celebrates six decades of presenting the annual Christmas Light Show. The beloved Philadelphia tradition boasts 100,000 lights and elaborate displays that stretch four stories high in the Wanamaker Building’s Grand Court atrium. The show began in 1956 when the structure still served as the home of its namesake department store. This summer the beautifully ornate interior of the building was finally placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places for legal protection.
The Wanamaker Building opened in 1911 and was designed by architect Daniel H. Burnham in the Renaissance Revival style. It replaced the Wanamaker’s Grand Depot, which existed and operated on the same corner lot at 13th and Market Streets since 1876. The pomp and circumstance of the Wanamaker Building’s grand opening stands in stark contrast to the casual environment of most department stores today. John Wanamaker—the famed retail magnate—distributed elegantly crafted invitations to the nation’s elite, directing them to RSVP with his son Rodman. President William Howard Taft provided the evening’s keynote address.
Perhaps the lynchpin of the building’s grandeur, the famous Wanamaker organ made its debut in June of the building’s inaugural year in honor of King George V. The Wanamakers acquired the organ at the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis. Though it would take nearly two decades to reach its current size, the organ grew to include 28,482 pipes by 1930, making it the largest functioning organ in the world.
The impressive scope of the Wanamaker Building and its status as a pillar of social and commercial life in 20th century Philadelphia is further evidenced by images from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s archives that chronicle the store’s enormous workforce and the complex logistics behind its operation. Workers scurried around a spacious basement kitchen where they prepared food for customers enjoying an afternoon in the store’s Crystal Tea Room. Uniformed elevator operators welcomed patrons underneath detailed murals. Lines of delivery carts assembled outside the building’s facade to deliver goods across the city.
While the annual Christmas Light Show originated over a half century ago, Christmas festivities at the Wanamaker Building predate the 1950s. Wreaths festooned to the building’s enormous columns became a yearly fixture in the store’s first decade of operation. In one sign of how the times of changed, dramatic depictions of Jesus’ crucifixion regularly stared down shoppers as they browsed the consumer goods of the day. (John Wanamaker was a devout Christian who regularly proselytized to his workforce through educational initiatives such as his summer camp for young cashiers.)
By the 1930s, staff began setting up elaborate winter displays for the holidays, including snowy landscapes populated with penguins and figures from popular Christmastime stories.
Debuting in 1946, the building’s iconic monorail became a fixture of the holidays, enthralling young Philadelphians. Hanging down from the building’s 8th floor and whisking back and forth through the Wanamaker Building’s expansive atrium, the monorail showcased the store’s newest stock of toys.
While enchanting generations of Philadelphians through holiday cheer, the Wanamaker Building’s history of Christmas-themed celebrations have always been fundamentally connected to the commercial endeavor of driving sales.
All images appear courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.