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The Department Store

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A few weeks ago I read that British department store DEBENHAMS had gone into administration and I started to think of other department stores no longer around. In the UK there was ARMY & NAVY, founded in Canada in 1871, but still with one store trading as of 2019, albeit under the name HOUSE OF FRASER. Then there was BRITISH HOME STORES, usually known as BHS – an American import dating from 1928 – and which, as it happened, had been bought by the owners of DEBENHAMS in 2000 and closed by them in 2016. I used to go to the one in Dubai’s Mirdif City Centre mall when I lived on campus and, the other in Dubai Mall when I lived off. Both were convenient places to pick up things I wanted without having to traipse around a mall to get them. The appeal of the department store was always the illusion of convenience coupled with the illusion of them having everything.

DEBENHAMS ceased trading after 242 years which means the first store opened in 1778 under the reign of King George III. It probably wasn’t a department store as we know them because there wouldn’t have been the goods to fill them or enough people with disposable income to sustain them. Housekeepers and butlers would have kept track of other provisions, dealt with merchants and arranged deliveries accordingly. Besides, the upper classes still had cooks and maids to buy at markets and deal with sellers, while dressmakers and tailors would visit with samples and for fittings. It’s easy to imagine department stores evolving from the small general stores that remained for longer into the 20th century in areas less urban.

The one I remember was run by childhood friends of my father, outside of Adelaide – Reynella? 1962? It looked a bit like the general store in this next image but with more ladders, ropes and hardware. There was no café but it did have ice cream. I was five or six at the time. It was like nothing I’d ever seen.

Harding, Howell & Co. opened in 1796 on London’s Pall Mall and had one large space divided into separate departments for furs and fans, cloths, hats and dresses, as well as a fourth space with jewelry and ornaments on one side and perfumes and cosmetics on the other. It closed in 1820 but, from that description of the items on sale, it’s clear that the lady of the house no longer needed to sit around waiting for their milliner or dressmaker. Shopping was now an enjoyable and social activity. At the very least it was something new to do. Harrods opened in 1834, John Lewis in 1864 and Liberty & Co. in 1875 and with its own in-house fashion from 1884.

Other countries were quick to follow. New York’s Arnold Constable opened 1825, expanded into new premises 1914 and closed due to bankruptcy 1975. Marble Palace opened on Broadway in 1846. Large plate glass windows fronted the sidewalks so pedestrians could view the European goods on offer. Chicago’s Marshall Field & Company opened in 1852 and outdid the competition with its bridal registry, escalators, Christmas window displays, and personal shopping. It was a department store but also a public landmark and city attraction, and the first department store designed by an architect (Daniel Burnham, 1893).

Other architects were quick to follow. Louis Sullivan designed the Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Store that opened 1899. It’s said to be one of his better but Sullivan’s low-level ornament competes for attention with the goods on display. Inside however, the rules for retail architecture were evolving.

Richardson’s Marshall Field store had an atrium with an ornate skylight, but the Schlesinger & Mayer store was retail space all the way up. It remained a department store until it closed in 2007. Macy’s began in 1858 and Bloomingdales 1861, both in New York.

Kaufmann’s began in Pittsburgh in 1871 and their flagship store was designed by architect Charles Bickel, opening in 1887. A 1916 renovation and expansion by architects Janssen & Abbot included a large clock on the corner, and in the late 1920s, architects Benno Janssen and William Cocken redesigned the main floor.

Unknown architect, 1914

The store made Edgar J. rich enough to commission Frank Lloyd Wright to design a summer weekend house (1934) and Richard Neutra a Palm Springs winter house (1946).

Here’s Frank Lloyd Wright having a well-photographed discussion with Edgar J. Kaufmann. You can sense history being made. Kaufmann looks more relaxed – perhaps he got the comfy chair. Wright is trying hard not to appear too happy to have landed one very big fish who, like him, understood the power of advertising.

In 1946 Kaufmann’s was acquired by May Department Stores Company which became a part of Federated Department Stores in 2005, and a Macy’s store from 2006 until 2015. As of December 2, 2020, two floors of the historic building are on track to being occupied by discount retailer Target.

The post WWII US saw department stores move into the new suburban shopping centers that were the precursors to shopping malls. These large stores that function to attract customers are known as anchor tenants. Seattle’s Northgate Mall (1950) was one of the first and had department store The Bon Marche as anchor.

Field’s at the Old Orchard Centre that opened in Skokie, Illinois, 1956.

Southdale Centre was the first fully-enclosed and air conditioned mall, opening in 1956 with Dayton’s and Donaldson’s as anchor department stores at opposite ends of an indoor street of shops. This remains the classic arrangement.

Selfridges opened on London’s Oxford Street in 1909 and is credited with inventing the notion of shopping for pleasure and not necessity. It had restaurants, various recreation rooms and exhibition space for cultural activities and demonstrations such as John Logie Baird’s first public demonstration of television in 1925. [Correction: However, Marvin tells me, “‘Selfridge had worked for Marshall Field’s in Chicago before opening his own store in London. His “restaurants, various recreation rooms and exhibition space for cultural activities and demonstrations” came directly from his familiarity with these types of spaces at Field’s, which Marshall Field’s created so women of the “carriage trade” could come and spend the better part of a day at the store, by having all their needs met so they would have no reason to go anywhere else downtown.’ Thanks Marvin!] The natural synergy between department store as retail and cultural centre and the shopping mall as social and entertainment centre spread around the world. In Australia main anchor tenants used to be the surviving department stores such as David Jones and, less frequently, MYER but it’s now more common for the anchor to be a large supermarket such as COLES. The classic pattern is there at Dubai Mall with three storeys of Bloomingdales in red on the bottom right corner of the grand axis and three storeys of Galeries Layfayette in green at bottom left.

The 1980s and 1990s weren’t kind to department stores as a business and, even before the rise of online shopping, there were many mergers, consolidations and closures.

Galeries Lafayette in Paris deserves a special mention not only for surviving but for surviving intact.

The business began in 1893 and expanded into the entire block in 1903. The first major renovations were completed in 1907 by architect Georges Chedanne, and the 43m high dome designed by his apprentice, Ferdinand Chanut. The store opened in 1912, essentially as we see it today.

On the whole, Japanese department stores survived with their original function intact. The first three followed the Harding, Howell & Co. strategy of creating a market by offering ladies’ apparel. SŌGŌ was founded in 1830 in Osaka as a retailer of used kimono (but was to cease trading in 2000 after various financial troubles). Mitsukoshi was founded in 1904 although the kimono store from which it grew dates from 1673. Matsuzakaya opened in 1910 but the kimono store from which it began goes back to 1611.

In 1936 Japan, Tōgō Murano’s SOGO Department Store was as modern as modern anywhere in the world could be. Department stores were a new building typology and this style represented modernity and a new way of buying things. In Japan in the 1930s, respectable ladies couldn’t be seen entering the now ubiquitous coffee shops and so department stores were quick to offer them tea rooms and restaurants where they could socialize in public.

In Japan, many private railway operators began to build department stores directly linked to their lines. The Tokyu railway company, for example, operates the Toyoko Line linking Tokyo and Yokohama and depositing passengers in their department stores at each end, creating an urban-scale mall. Seibu, Odakyu and Hankyu are three more department stores sited at the termini of their respective railway companies.

Between those termini, small shopping streets known as shotengai (商店街) configure the neighborhood as two or three linear shopping malls converging on the station. Most daily and weekly shopping can be done locally, often on the way home. It’s as easy to buy fresh food as it is to enter a convenience store or use a vending machine. This way of buying daily necessities has no need to change. It flourishes when people pass by on their way to work or home but it’s still within walking distance if they don’t.

The second last department store I remember architects being involved was Selfridges in Birmingham by the then Foreign Office Architects. The last was their John Lewis in Leicester. At the time, there was a bit of fuss about “The Surface of Form” or “Pattern as the New Shape”. Or something.

Lipstick on pigs is the technical term.

I’ve just moved to a city in China and was perplexed why I couldn’t find shops such as department stores and hardware stores and electrical stores that I thought were essential. The products may be but the stores are not. Taobao (淘宝) is an entire retail universe on your cellphone. The name can be loosely translated as ‘treasure hunt’ or ‘panning for gold’. It’ll find whatever you want and, if you don’t know the name of what you want, you can take or upload a photo of it. It gets to know you and offer an infinitely scrollable list of things you might like, interspersed with reminders of things you’ve forgotten you wanted. Payment is by cellphone and direct from your bank account without the intervention of a credit card company.

It has no centralized warehousing and distribution center like Amazon. You pay the retailer (to whom you can chat if you like), and then the link is between you and the delivery driver as you track your items realtime. It’s a triumph of logistics. I hope some long haul truck didn’t drive 910 km from Shenzen to Wenzhou just to bring me two light bulbs I paid two cents for. And incandescent to boot.

This local distribution centre looks chaotic but works as tens of delivery vehicles such as these arrive at my apartment complex each day.

Off the lobby of Building One in my apartment complex, QR codes are checked and items placed on shelves. Secure mailboxes accessed by QR code are available for valuable things but mostly people don’t feel the need.

Large items are placed in a corner of the lobby for collection. I’d been expecting this big box in the middle image below. I’ve not even begun to explore Taobao’s food and beverage corners.

Infinite scrolling is never benign and Taobao’s algorithm gets to know you and suggest new items. It’s diverting, but now we all shop alone and online, we’ve become more aware of why we buy the things we do. We’ve discovered how little department stores mattered to us anyway. Architecture had its part to play in the rise of the department store and sustaining consumer society but society is still consuming without the need for unnecessary overheads such as department stores, architects to design them, or even architects to disguise neoliberal subliminal command as social commentary through the notion of shopping as entertainment.

The demise of the department store is a good thing. Online retail – at least how Taobao does it – reduces real costs rather than inflating perceived value. It pares shopping back to its fundamental processes of selection, payment and delivery and is easier to see and appreciate as the essential service it is. It’s a dispersed system to spread wealth across the country rather than concentrate it.



  • Thank you so much for this comprehensive view! This was great. A couple of minor clarifications:

    HH Richardson designed the Marshall Field WAREHOUSE not the store which was designed by Daniel Burnham. The image is of the warehouse, now demolished, which is definitely the more architecturally significant of the two.

    Selfridge had worked for Marshall Field’s in Chicago before opening his own store in London. His “restaurants, various recreation rooms and exhibition space for cultural activities and demonstrations” came directly from his familiarity with these types of spaces at Field’s, which Marshall Field’s created so women of the “carriage trade” could come and spend the better part of a day at the store, by having all their needs met so they would have no reason to go anywhere else downtown.

    Although there are Macy’s and Bloomindale’s in Chicago, they are branches of now national chains that have only arrived fairly recently: the 1858 Macy’s and 1861 Bloomingdales are in New York City where both stores were founded. In fact, Macy’s only arrived after its parent company purchased the failing Marshall Field’s and renamed the locations it bought and kept as Macy’s. The main downtown Macy’s in Chicago is in the former Daniel Burnham Field’s building.

    • Hello Marvin, you’re so right! But yes, I’d always preferred the warehouse and will amend that along with the other things you mention – thank you! Hmm, so this means Fields was the real inventor of shopping as entertainment! That’s an important clarification for if and when the history of consumer society ever gets written. The term “carriage trade” tells us how shrewd this tactic was. 

  • It is sad to see the demise of this building type. I’m sure other boomers like myself, have fond Friday-night memories of stores like Macy’s and the indoor mall experience in general. Sears Roebuck & Co. was basically the Amazon of its day, and it stared with the humble pocket watch of all things. Sure, they gave us the tower, but the stores themselves were pretty much architectural duds. Big boxes with the cursive “Sears” signage. When they were trying to rebound as early as the mid-80s, they did build a few in the PoMo aesthetic unfortunately. Big round column covers and pediment entries. Was looking at Neiman Marcus (closed for good) in SF by some guy named Johnson. He seemingly borrowed the glass drum from Novocumo. I didn’t realize, or forgot, the drum was removed and a glass patch work system was installed that flushes out with the granite-clad walls. Not bad since it provides a better contrast with the original City of Paris rotunda still intact at said featured corner. As you pointed out, the department store had its day and a more efficient system is in place for both consumers and business. My question is, what happens next? Adaptive re-use has been around, but not on this potentially massive scale. It’s hard for me to envision new construction with the millions of sq. footage out there waiting to be repurposed. Housing? Ag? Experience centers? Great post and as always, looking forward to the next one.

    • Mark! Thanks for adding to my potted history of the architecturalized department store. There’s always more out there. One in Perth I miss was a menswear store called Walsh’s. I remember it as a white box above the plate glass frontage but recent images differ so it was either a false memory or cheap cladding. But yes, it’s difficult to imagine what will become of department stores whether as standalone buildings or as anchor stores in malls. Early ones at least had windows and atriums. The modern mall may have skylit atriums and some window walls but there’s still the problem of deep floor plates and horizontal and vertical circulation that precludes other uses. At the end of the day, it’s still columns and slabs so something must be possible. However, attempting to repurpose the vertical circulation would perpetrate the horizontal pattern so something’s either gotta give or be given up on. I’ve had a few thoughts on this but they’re not cooked yet. Cheers.

      • Well put. I know you’re itching to do a bit of design yes. Would love to see your take on it. 😁 Yes, the anchors themselves probably need courtyards to be habitable.

      • This Barton Meyers job just came to mind. Of course it was new, contrived construction with an atrium spine. Mall like w/ graduate housing above and retail/services at the ground floor. A winning concept you pointed out in a previous post (Milan Galleria). Amazing they had an 1000 ft. continuous run that worked with the campus master plan. It’s practically a linear accelerator. Very ahead of its time and could be good inspiration with what to do if malls and anchors get re-programed moving forward.

      • That’s pretty amazing – thanks for thinking of it and sharing. I’d never heard of it but then, it’s not the kind of thing one hears about. Apart from Aalto at MIT, student housing hasn’t featured much in the transmitted history of architecture. It’s probably because it’s a low-cost variant with tinges of commu…nal housing.

    • I recall Meyers coming to school to lecture. Misfit maverick type who reminded me on John DeLorean for some reason. Same time frame I suppose.

    • Hello Larry. Yes, my first draft did mention the Crystal Palace and how it showcased goods from around the world but I removed for two reasons. I think the main one was that many of the items showcased were colonial plunder for exhibit rather than domestically manufactured for sale at their place of display. I see Crystal Palace more as an exhibition centre akin to today’s trade and exhibition venues. It’s definitely of huge importance kin fanning the growth of the consumer society already set in motion by 1851.