Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Return to: Old Department Store Building of the (Week)


When times got overwhelming last year I stopped doing looks at old department stores -- stopping, I believe, in Lancaster, Pa., with Watt & Shand. In recent weeks I've encountered people who were fans of that feature, so I'm going to bring it back. I wanted to do so with Lebanon, Pa., home of what I believe is the first Bon-Ton store in Pennsylvania -- and one that had nothing to do with the long-lived chain still operating out of York, Pa. -- but alas, both it and the competing Haak Bros. appear to have been torn down.

So here's a look at Fifth Avenue in McKeesport, Pa. To the immediate left of what clearly was a big store, occuping about five buildings, is a much littler red-brick store. (Yes, the really little one.) This store, at 519 Fifth, was Helmstadter Bros., the last surviving locally owned downtown department store in this city best known for steel tubing. Helmstadter's was in a larger store two blocks west of this until the late Depression years.

McKeesport had a very strung-out downtown. It was four blocks west from here to what was its largest store, the Famous Store, and the main hotel was even farther west of that. The Famous Store was owned by a group of Pittsburgh merchants named Weil, Goldsmith, and Katz. When they retired, they sold it to a local discount chain called Misco, under whose operation it quickly closed. The much smaller Helmstadter's kept going into a second generation of family ownership.

McKeesport is a very odd place in terms of its physical layout. The downtown was adjacent to the tube works, and then a good bit away, up a hill, was the library and some large churches -- it almost felt like a different city. Neighborhoods changed from blue-collar to managerial almost in mid-block. Also, it has a long street named Jenny Lind Avenue. It's hard to get a sense of McKeesport as a whole.

Notice now the larger store in the photo above. This was the main store of the G.C. Murphy Co., one of the largest dime-store chains. Murphy's, like Grant's, aimed to be one step above Woolworth's and Kresge's, but was probably still one step below Newberry's.

For me, growing up, going to the dime store meant Murphy's, as they had stores in downtown Indianapolis, in Broad Ripple and at Glendale Center. My grandmother would buy chicken parts for frying there. I remember the Double K nut stands as well, with their revolving trays and heat lights, and the birds and hamsters on sale. Other than chicken, AMF and Revell car model sets, and things like needles, I can't remember if we actually bought anything at Murphy's, but even though there were a Grant's, a Kresge's, and two Woolworth's downtown, along with a local chain called Danner's all around town, we only traded with Murphy's in the dime-store category. (We didn't have Kress, or Green's, but how much of the decline of downtowns was related to the vast amount of space vacated by dime stores as they moved to strip centers and then fell before discounters?)

Not that this matters to anyone else, but it was exciting for me to walk by this building and see that, even though vacant, it still bore signs saying it was the headquarters of the G.C. Murphy Co. I suddenly wanted fried chicken and cashews.

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