Sunday, November 23, 2008

Department Store Building of the Week, Vol. 20


The building for Hess's, which was not only Allentown's iconic store but one of the few small-city stores to have been written about nationally, was torn down a decade ago, but the buildings that housed two other stores remain, both in the 600 block of West Hamilton Street. This one at 626 W. Hamilton housed H. Leh & Co., although it looks nothing like it did as Leh's. Parts of it now house county offices. Henry Leh was an Allentown native who in 1850, at age 20, established his business, which grew to include brother-in-law Horatio Koch and then myriad members of the Leh and Koch families over the years.

When Leh's closed in the 1990s it was called the oldest department store in the country owned by the original family. At least into the 1970s it was not organized as a corporation but as a family partnership -- no president, no treasurer, just the family partners. This gave the Lehs and Kochs a good bit of money and they tended to be Lawrenceville-Princeton types, with large houses on Lehigh Parkway, but they were very devoted to the family business, keeping it going long after other families had given up. Not sticks-in-the-mud, they had a suburban location at Whitehall Mall and I believe had another branch as well, and as this picture shows Leh's was quite a large store downtown.

Hess Bros., Leh's main rival, gained renown in the 1940s and 1950s under the leadership of Max Hess Jr., who saw how close Allentown was to Philadelphia and New York and decided that he needed to have a high profile to compete. He had models ride the trains to New York and took out ads in Vogue -- the sort of thing that small-city department stores just didn't do. Always a showman, he brought the Christmas story of Pip the Mouse to Allentown. Here's a view at what Hess's building at Ninth and Hamilton looked like.

2 comments:

Steven Swain said...

Leh's had a location in Quakertown as well. I never saw their stores in person, but it appears to have been an impressive operation.

Hess's was the consummate promotional department store. Even the branch stores had a certain flair. Boscov's tried to capture some of the spirit of Hess's, but it's not a glamorous store by nature.

Michael Lisicky said...

Leh's also had a location at Bethlehem Square. It was reminiscent of Boscov's but much more old fashioned. You could buy cosmetics, refrigerators and moth balls all in one place. The 1850 Room in downtown Allentoen was also a fun dated dining room. Go to Boscov's in downtown Wilkes Barre for a similar feel. Still open and still has signs saying 'The Boston Store'. But better hurry.