Sunday, July 13, 2008

Department Store Building of the Week, Vol. 11


When I was a child in Indiana, New Brunswick, N.J., seemed like a hub of the universe. It was the headquarters of the Boy Scouts of America, and while I was only a scout for a short time, I loved Boys' Life magazine. And we were a Band-Aid family. When I would get a cut at a friend's house and they used Curad, I knew it was going to hurt more when it came off. Johnson & Johnson was an old friend.

Then I moved to New Jersey and found that despite having J&J, Rutgers University and the Robert Wood Johnson Hospital -- the Boy Scouts had moved on -- New Brunswick was kind of an ordinary industrial city. They were working hard to revive it, but it wasn't Princeton, and it wasn't laced by Indian trails and hideouts.

And so it was no surprise to find that New Brunswick's major department store, the P.J. Young Dry Goods Co., 358 George St., was just another small-town store, not a Marshall Field's of central New Jersey. But Young's does have two items of interest.

One is that it was a branch of the Nevius Bros. chain that was a force in central New Jersey retailing. Anyone who grew up in Trenton before the 1970s will remember Nevius-Voorhees. But the heart of the chain was a little store in Flemington, a county seat not even large enough to have a daily newspaper. The Nevius family put outposts in Trenton and Somerville, then closed the Somerville outlet after buying Young's. George Nevius kept his home in Somerville but managed the New Brunswick operation for decades. This was not a big deal. They're 10 miles apart.

The other is that New Brunswick is New Jersey's best, possibly only, example of a downtown shopping district that moved from its original hub to a new location. While New York City is the great example of this sort of hegira, it's more rare than one would think. The center of downtown Indianapolis, for example, is exactly where it was in 1825. It was common for the heart of downtown to move around by a block or so on the same street. This happened in Indiana's larger cities such as South Bend and Terre Haute. The center of downtown Trenton in 1960 was a block from where it was during the Revolution.

But occasionally the merchants simply decamped. Downtown Fort Wayne for years was on Columbia Street; a decade later, it wasn't. Some stores in downtown Muncie moved five blocks, from the 200 block of East Main to the 300 block of South Walnut, almost overnight. Why in some cities they stayed and rebuilt at the same place, and in other cities they moved on, might be someone's graduate paper. Except for Muncie, where it was linked to the building of an interurban-railroad station, I really don't know much about this.

Downtown New Brunswick in the 1890s was on a group of small streets along the Raritan River -- Burnet, Hiram, Peace, New, Church. Young's was at 27 Church St.. near the historic Dutch Reformed church. Then, after the turn of the century, downtown changed. Some stores simply moved a bit up Church Street, but the heart of shopping suddenly was on George Street and Livingston Avenue, blocks from where it had been. Department stores were no longer found on Burnet, Hiram, Peace. Indeed, some of those entire streets are no longer found, having been urbanly renewed out of existence. If you have been to the Frog and the Peach restaurant in New Brunswick, that's where the heart of downtown was more than a century ago. Anyhow, the photo shows Young's at its location after 1910.