Sunday, July 25, 2010

Department Store Building of the ... Whatever

It's getting harder to find old department store buildings in smaller cities. I went looking for one in Norristown. I knew the old Block's had been torn down years ago, but the last time I was there the building of Friedman's New York Store was still standing. No more; it's now a garage.

So rather than doing obscure stores in smaller towns I'll move on to my own city of Philadelphia, although the history of large-city department stores is extensively documented. Shown above is the Lit Bros. store on Market Street between Seventh and Eighth Streets. From the street it impressed people as one continuous frontage, but it was always a number of cast-iron front buildings linked together and painted white. 25 years ago, a sign that dated back decades atop the building said "A Great Store in a Great City," which was Lits' motto. (That was also on the warehouse, which stood where part of Community College of Philadelphia now is.)

Lits also had the motto "Hats Trimmed Free of Charge," going back to its genesis. It was run by Jacob and Samuel Lit for years. Just before the Depression they sold it to City Stores, which put its management under that of the Goerke family, which owned stores in Newark and Elizabeth, N.J. During the Depression City Stores liquidated the Goerke stores; the one in Elizabeth was reopened under the ownership of the Goerke family. City Stores operated Lits outside of its other interests until 1951, when it was integrated into the operation.

Like many downscale stores, Lits went into suburban branches early; the Lits, Wasson's, Crowley's of the world didn't crave the exclusivity of the carriage-trade store. There were stores in Camden and Trenton, and in Northeast Philadelphia and Willow Grove. Lits also benefited when another City operation, N. Snellenberg & Co., was closed as a reaction to a strike; Lits picked up its branches, including Atlantic City.

But City Stores, part of the Bankers Security empire, began to fade before other chains of department stores did. Divisions such as R.H. White in Boston were pruned and then disappeared. Lits lasted into the late 1970s, and had opened modern mall stores such as at Echelon in South Jersey. But that did not save it, as the "fourth store down" in Philadelphia, after discounters took away much of its trade.

The building was threatened, but was saved by the then Mellon Bank for a regional headquarters. It also has had street-level retail.

1 comment:

New Jersey Memories said...

Your blog is fascinating. I would never have thought of the combination of press and department stores. . . it's great!

I have an award for you here: