Dedicated on December 30, 1911, the new John Wanamaker store dwarfed the 19th century buildings on Market Street, the main shopping strip in Philadelphia. Source: Postcard, author's collection.

Wanamaker's Gilded Age Luxury Emporium: Echoes

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By Regina Lee Blaszczyk

On Dec. 30, 1911, thousands of Philadelphians crowded City Hall Plaza to celebrate a Golden Jubilee. It had been 50 years since John Wanamaker, the city’s leading merchant, opened his first clothing store, Oak Hall, on Market Street.

To mark the anniversary, Wanamaker planned the grand opening of his newest and most ambitious store, this one designed by the father of the skyscraper, Daniel H. Burnham.

Over the past few years, Philadelphians had watched construction workers tear down Wanamaker’s Grand Depot (a store he had created from an old railroad station in 1876) and replace it with one of the first modern department stores -- a 45-acre behemoth that would be filled with merchandise from around the world. It would be called, simply, John Wanamaker's.

Wanamaker was determined not to be outdone by his rival Marshall Field, whose new Renaissance revival store was a major attraction on State Street in Chicago. Wanamaker wanted something even grander for Philadelphia, a building that would hold its own in the shadow of City Hall, the largest municipal building in the U.S.

Burnham, the new store’s architect, had made his mark in the 1880s when he designed the world’s first skyscrapers for Chicago’s business district. His reputation grew with major commissions such as the Chicago World’s Fair, the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington. He was an architect of the Gilded Age, a man who understood American capitalism and who designed buildings that reflected the aspirations of American capitalists.

And he knew how to reflect Wanamaker’s lofty commercial ambitions. The new store Burnham designed, a massive granite structure, covered an entire city block. It was 12 stories high, with three floors underground. All four sides of the building had large floor-to-ceiling plate-glass display windows. The interior decoration evoked Greek antiquity, with Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns throughout.

The crowning glory of the building was the Majestic Court, a white-and-green marble atrium with columns that reached up eight stories to a domed skylight. The court held the world’s largest pipe organ and a great bronze eagle, two showpieces from the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904.

The store was an exemplar of capitalist bounty. There was a whole floor for dry goods, and entire departments for American furs, Italian paintings and Persian rugs. There were Little Grey Salons for women who wanted to shop for French fashion, while the basement store stocked merchandise for bargain hunters.

New technologies were installed to make shopping more convenient. The building was lit by electricity and outfitted with modern restrooms. It employed a system of pneumatic tubes for communicating between departments. The elevators were run by a squad of 50 young men and special desks were built for sending messages by wireless telegraphy.

The eighth floor, commanding a spectacular view of the city, was foodie heaven. It was home to the Great Crystal Tea Room, the Imperial Blue Room, the French Banquet Salon and other restaurants administered by the Wanamaker Dining Service. The kitchens were always open to visitors, who could watch the staff shuck oysters and see ovens that could roast 75 turkeys at a time.

Thirty thousand people received invitations to attend the opening ceremony. Famous editors and publishers, leading clergy, prominent financiers, men of letters and merchants and manufacturers from across the country all attended. Fifteen thousand men and women crowded into the Majestic Court, while another 15,000 stood on the balconies five or six deep. Those without invitations stood on the sidewalks around the store, pressed against each other to glimpse the dignitaries.

The VIP list was impressive. The parade down Broad Street from the train station to the store included Pennsylvania Governor John K. Tener, U.S. Senator Boies Penrose, several Congressmen, Philadelphia Mayor Rudolph Blackenberg and his wife, and the members of City Council. Calvary marched alongside the motorcars.

The main attraction, though, was a man who was himself larger than life: President William Howard Taft.

Taft told the audience why the Wanamaker store was a tribute to American ingenuity.

“We are here to celebrate the completion, in its highest type, of one of the most important instrumentalities in modern life for the promotion of comfort among people,” he said. “The department store -- which brings under one roof the opportunity to purchase, at the lowest reasonable, constant and fixed prices, everything that is usually needed upon the person or in the household for the sustaining of life, for recreation and for intellectual enjoyment (except food alone) -- means a reduction in the cost of living and necessary effort that we do not always appreciate.”

A century later, the magnificent palace of consumption built by Wanamaker is no longer a luxury emporium. Three floors are taken up by Macy’s Center City, and the rest have been converted to offices. The Majestic Court is still there, along with the Grand Organ and the beautiful bronze eagle. But there is no Little Gray Salon and no department for Persian rugs. The Great Crystal Tea Room is now a private restaurant used mostly for corporate functions.

This holiday season, Macy’s Center City displayed a Dickens Village that once belonged to Strawbridge and Clothier, another bygone Philadelphia department store. Families in blue jeans and baseball caps lined up to see it, and to hear Christmas songs played on the Grand Organ. They seemed oblivious to the fact that they were tracing the footsteps of a president, or enjoying the creature comforts that one of America’s great merchant princes had imagined for them.

(Regina Lee Blaszczyk is a historian affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania and the author or editor of seven books, including the forthcoming “The Color Revolution.” The opinions expressed are her own.)

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-0- Dec/30/2011 18:28 GMT