Monday, November 14, 2011

Department Store Building of ... Washington, Pa.

Washington, Pa., was not a good place for department stores. Perhaps it was too close to Pittsburgh by first the West Penn Railways and then by car; but that didn't stop Troutman's in Greensburg, similarly close to the metropolis, from growing into a large regional chain. In comparing the histories of any regionally based businesses, such as newspapers or department stores, one sees -- particularly in the second-level markets -- chances taken or not taken, dominant figures arising in one location but absent in another, and sometimes just luck, such as being particularly hard-hit by the Depression.

Evansville, Ind., had, like most cities of 100,000 or so population, a number of department stores in the late 1920s. By 1940, Andres', Bacon's and Lahr's were all gone. A local operator, Leo Schear Co., bought the Lahr's building, and Interstate Department Stores established The Evansville Store there in the early 1950s, but there was a near-total break, one that didn't happen in Fort Wayne or South Bend or Peoria or Flint. Evansville was badly hurt by the Depression, heirs to stores died at the wrong time, a women's store, deJong's, was particularly dominant in the market -- but it was just one of those things.

For whatever reason, Washington had its problems. Perhaps it was the strung-along business district, going for blocks on Main and Chestnut Streets; perhaps it was some other factor. Downtown's one big department store, such as it was, was the Caldwell Store at 26 S. Main St, which is the three-story building to the right of the taller buff-colored building opposite the courthouse. Originally the A.B. Caldwell Co., it was owned for years by his widow and children, one of whom lived in Chicago and another in New York. In the late 1920s it fell into the hands of Sankey Metzler. By 1960 it was owned by the Wohls, neighborhood-store owners from Pittsburgh who also bought a store in New Kensington, Silverman's. The Wohls quickly faded from view and the Cox family from McKeesport bought it. But Cox's was not a department store, simply a clothing store, although the Coxes did try to keep what now was Cox's Caldwell Store going as it had been. Eventually Troutman's saw an opening and went into a mall along I-70 in the late 1960s, an early small-city mall for the region.

In researching department stores I try to confine myself to downtowns. Many cities had small outlying shopping areas from the late 1890s that had department stores. Generally, these stores either stayed small or moved downtown, so the study technique works most of the time. With cities such as Camden, N.J., where downtown was strung along for blocks, or Bridgeport, Conn., where Skydel's in East Bridgeport was one of the major stores, it helps to know that going in. Washington, Pa., had such an area on West Chestnut Street that I ruled out, and thus I didn't do much about the Vera Co., which began there and moved closer to Main Street on Chestnut in the 1910s. After the Crash the Vera Co. stopped being listed as a department store and I paid little attention, but from the ads in Life magazine and elsewhere in the 1950s that told "where to get" new products in cities -- filling a page with names of local stores -- it seems the Vera Co. was the dominant store in Washington and not Caldwell's. And no, it wasn't a first name of Vera, but a family name, much like Mechanic's in Manchester, N.H., was named for a family named Mechanic and was not the Mechanics' Store or such for millworkers.

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