By  on September 6, 2008

The signage no longer bears the signature of its founder, and its once-towering nine floors of retail space have shrunk to three, but the site of Philadelphia’s first department store, Wanamaker’s, is still a central spot in the lives of city residents.

For the last 132 years, ever since John Wanamaker bought an abandoned Pennsylvania Railroad depot with designs to transform it into a grand European-style market, the Philadelphia corner bounded by Market and Juniper Streets in Center City has been a place to meet and shop.

When it opened in 1876, Wanamaker’s Grand Depot, as it was first known, quickly impressed the citizens of Philadelphia not only in scope, but also in ethos. Wanamaker, a devout Presbyterian and staunch Republican, already had operated a dry goods store in the town and was known by city residents for his retail convictions. He offered a money-back guarantee for all goods purchased. He copyrighted and stood steadfastly behind his advertisements. His belief that all men were equal before God, and thus price, led him to invent the price tag. The innovation doomed the haggling system by which most American stores had previously functioned.

Wanamaker’s also happened to open shortly before Center City was chosen for the site of a new city hall, placing it right in the middle of Philadelphia’s power center. The store quickly became a fixture in the City of Brotherly Love.

“From the late 19th to 20th century, it was the center of upper-class life, and then, as department stores became more democratic, it was the center of life for many Philadelphians,” says Herbert Ershkowitz, a history professor at Temple University and author of John Wanamaker: Philadelphia Merchant.

According to Ershkowitz, because the store was centrally located in a smaller walking city, it played a major role in public life, perhaps more so than regional department stores constructed in other cities around the same time.
“Wanamaker’s played a larger role in Philadelphia than Macy’s played in New York or Marshall Field’s in Chicago. Everyone in Philadelphia talked about meeting by ‘the eagle,’” Ershkowitz says, referring to the symbolic bronze eagle statue the store acquired from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

In 1911, as the retailer outgrew the walls of the original railroad depot, Wanamaker employed Chicago architect Daniel Burnham to design and build a new home for his namesake store. Construction took place in three phases so commerce at the Grand Depot could continue while a 12-story building was raised in its place. When finished, the store was as much a cultural hub as retail space, hosting concerts, art exhibits and the world’s largest pipe organ, another remnant of the world’s fair.

During its golden age, around the time of World War I, the store and its owner employed 10,000 Philadelphians and another 5,000 workers at its New York location near Cooper Union. Wanamaker amassed a nine-figure fortune and its accompanying influence. He served as postmaster general under President Benjamin Harrison from 1889 to 1893, was a friend to Henry Ford and bankrolled the campaign to recognize Mother’s Day as a national holiday.

John Wanamaker died in 1922, leaving the stores in the hands of his son, Rodman Wanamaker, who died just six years later. Control of John Wanamaker and Co. then fell to a family trust. The business turned toward the suburbs in the Fifties and eventually expanded to 17 stores in four states.

According to Ershkowitz, John Wanamaker probably never would have taken his stores outside of the cities. “Wanamaker was big on Center City,” he says. “He was really devoted to Philadelphia. Henry Ford complained that he didn’t contribute to charities outside of Philadelphia.”

The Wanamaker family trust sold the business to Carter Hawley Hale Stores in 1978, which in turn sold to Woodward & Lothrop in 1986. Woodward & Lothrop fell into bankruptcy, and May Department Stores Co. bought the Wanamaker’s business in 1995. May rebranded the stores first as Hecht’s, then Strawbridge & Clothier. The original store in Center City was further transformed into a Lord & Taylor and then, finally, a Macy’s in 2006.

Though the building is now home to more office space than selling floor—the original 12-story Wanamaker’s had 10 selling floors, and the current 386,000-square-foot Macy’s has three selling floors—it still maintains some of the traditions that kept it a part of Philadelphia’s imagination for more than a century. The store has held Christmas festivities in one form or another since 1918, when carolers first performed in the Grand Hall. The pipe organ remains in place and still plays at noon, six days a week.

“It’s probably the most elegant retail space for its size anywhere in the country,” says Ray Biswanger, president of Friends of the Wanamaker Organ, of the store. “Macy’s has thrived there.”

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