Monday, February 16, 2009

Department Store Building of the Week, Vol. 25

A post on Butler mentioned the history of the Troutman Co.; for anyone who grew up in western Pennsylvania, this is the main store of the Troutman's they would have known, at 202 S. Main St. in Greensburg.

Two things of note. One, Greensburg never got above 20,000 population, so this is a very large store for a town of that size (it's the five-story building on the corner, the two-or-three story addition behind it, and the five-story yellow-brick windowless structure leading off to the right behind the red-brick buildings). Greensburg was the shopping center for a large region east of Pittsburgh -- Jeannette, Irwin, Ligonier, a bunch of resort and coal towns -- and it had a similarly oversize newspaper, the Tribune-Review, progenitor of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. But even so, this was a large department store for a city of 20,000 people; a store of this size typically would be located in a city of 50,000 to 100,000.

Second, note how much of the store is the later addition, and the style of those buildings shows them to have been added long after the original, classic store was built in 1923; the building to the south on Main Street clearly is post-World War II vintage, the part toward the back, known as the "Troutman Annex," was built in the 1960s. Obviously business needs demanded it; yet a decade later, malls had taken over and downtown department stores were trying to desperately cut back space. I'm thinking of an analogy to the massive printing and inserting facilities newspapers built in the 1990s and early 2000s, plants that look like white elephants today for many publications.

Many downtown department stores such as Troutman's built expansion wings into the 1960s -- one was even built in downtown Gary, Ind., a concept ("downtown Gary") that barely existed in the 1970s, for H. Gordon & Sons, which also had ceased to exist. Business was expanding, but just as important, the amount of merchandise was rapidly expanding as a result of postwar prosperity, cheaper imports and new production methods; instead of having a counter with 10 wallet styles, one now had to have a hundred.

The department stores tried to keep up, but as noted earlier, specialty retailers in appliances and young people's clothing started to chip away, leaving the department stores with a still-substantial clientele but not one that was large enough to cover their fixed costs; as they cut back, they gave people less and less reason to come in. Add to that the lack of free parking and lessened use of buses, the customer's increasing unwillingness to search out a department on the fifth floor when a similar store could be driven to, and in many places an increased fear of crime, and the store expansion that had been a sure bet a decade earlier now was just dead weight. It's not a revolutionary change that gets you; it's two or three together that mean that any response you make to one simply hurts you in another area. (Downtown department stores still exist in New York, Boston, Philadelphia -- albeit much lessened -- because people still live downtown there and, more important, take mass transit, meaning that their first concern when going shopping is not where to put the car.)

Similarly, those mammoth newspaper production plants were absolutely needed to handle the volume of business in the 1990s; but once that is your production process, and the volume of business is not there, you're just paying for dead space, like the upper floors of department stores that were no longer used for selling but still had to be heated, maintained, guarded against fire.

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