Thursday, March 1, 2012

Department Store Buildings of York, Pa., No. 2

As mentioned in the previous post, York, Pa., was a city of strong department stores, one of which was the base of one of the country's last department-store chains still existing. The Bon-Ton appeared to be the strong middle-class store, with the upmarket store being Charles H. Bear & Co.

Bear's was at the northwest corner of the "square" -- which, as in so many Pennsylvania cities, was an intersection with the four corners notched back, presumably to allow a small town hall or market in the center in colonial times. The same thing was done in Camden, N.J., where to my knowledge no such structure was ever built in the small "square" that resulted. This is different from the "diamond" found in Wilkes-Barre or the many courthouse squares across the Midwest and Southwest in that it was simply an enlargement of an intersection and not a city block turned over to a public purpose, or even a large "market" widening such as in Reading or Harrisburg. Nevertheless, these "squares" served to anchor downtown in Allentown, Easton, and York, and I'm sure in other smaller communities.

Charles H. Bear opened for business in 1888, and his location never changed from 1 W. Market St. Bear, a York native, had taken over the established business of Jordan & Bro. Sometime before 1909 the business passed into the hands of his children Charles Jr. and Jennie. After World War II it was being run by, presumably, the widow and daughters of Charles Bear Jr., Anna Bear, Nora Deardorff, and Charlotte Stock. Charlotte Stock appears to have enjoyed skeet shooting, as did, according to this article, Robert R. Rodale of Emmaus, of the famous Organic Gardening & Farming family.  Not that it matters, just a curiosity. In 1970 the surviving Bear heirs sold the store to the expansion-minded Zollinger-Harned Co. of Allentown, which closed seven years later after expanding into the Lehigh Valley as well.

Here's a fine photo of downtown York, looking north on George Street from Market, in the mid-1960s, before downtowns fell apart. Bear's at this point has a "modern" front, but it's a tasteful one. The photo above shows that the building has been put back as it was. The Bear store seems to have taken up at least three buildings and probably four (the low building facing the alley with what appear to be a couple of old skylights).

Finally, a quick look at P. Wiest's Sons at 14 W. Market St., one of the stores owned by the Hydeman family and its various branches. One member, Albert, who ran Wiest's, became a noted collector of American art. Another, Edwin, owned "the Mona Lisa of Rare Coins." Peter Wiest founded the store far down West Market in 1848 and moved closer to downtown after a flood in the 1880s. When Harry Wiest was the only surviving Wiest son, he brought two former Gimbels executives, Leon Hydeman and James Rodgers, into the ownership. (Leon Hydeman at one time operated a small department store in Norristown, my records show, but Moses Hydeman, the family patriarch, had been in business in York.)

The York County Historical Society has an amazing collection of the business records of Wiest's showing that the Hydemans also had an interest in Yard's, a Trenton store. The same partnership also ran Kennard's, the Wilmington, Del., store, as this article obliquely indicates by mentioning James Rodgers. (The only way I knew this was that Kennard's and Yard's both had the same motto: "They do sell nice things at...(store name)." No one would copy that except for common ownership.) This operation kept itself pretty low-key; Rodgers lived in Philadelphia, and directory listings for the various stores would only mention the manager in most cases, although occasionally a reference to a Rodgers or a Hydeman would slip in. Yard's and Wiest's never were the dominant stores in their communities, and Kennard's simply outlasted the previously dominant Crosby & Hill's. The owners seemed to be willing to spend enough money to stay in the game by opening suburban branches, but not to try to win, as was shown when two Philadelphia stores invaded Wilmington in the 1950s because the local stores were seen as weak. Perhaps this was because the owners' main interests were politics, art, coins...  Not every department store was owned by obsessive merchants who lived and breathed retail.

When TTPB returns to looking at old department store buildings, it will go back home again to Indiana.

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