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The foundations for Stanley Marcus’ practice of hiring top-flight architects to design his stores were perhaps laid in 1934, when he hired Frank Lloyd Wright to design a home for himself and his wife, Billie.
Wright’s earliest sketches did not include bedrooms — since Wright felt Dallas’ mild climate meant the Marcuses could sleep outdoors on a patio — nor closets.
According to Marcus’ brother Lawrence, when Wright was asked where Billie could store things she didn’t use very often, Wright told her, “My dear, you throw those things away.”
It wouldn’t be the first time Marcus struggled with questions of form versus function. Marcus was inspired and not deterred by his at-times tumultuous collaboration with Wright.
“I learned a helluva lot about architecture,” he told the Dallas Morning News in 2001. His interest in architecture no doubt led to his decision not to have a standard plan for his stores.
“He was not a formula man,” Lawrence Marcus said.
To design his stores, Marcus hired some of the industry’s best architects: Roscoe DeWitt, Eero Saarinen, Kevin Roche, Edward Larrabee Jones, Gyo Obata, Philip Johnson and Richard Gluckman, to name a few.
“Great architects are led by great clients,” Marcus noted. “Stanley kept up with the newest trends, and he was willing to take risks with his architects, many of whom had never designed retail spaces before.”
At times, Marcus did express frustration with some of the architects he hired who, he felt, failed to understand the nature of shopping.
“The truth of the matter was, that none of them had much of a feeling for stores,” he told CITE, an architectural review, in 1998. “We had to teach them that we were positive of only one thing — that we would want to change it in 10 years.”
The design for Dallas’ North Park store, completed in 1965, was inspired by the quaint, hilly landscape of Taxco, a famous Mexican mining town. Marcus recalled his brother asking Saarinen to create a store with visually intriguing vistas that changed constantly, so that walking through the store would be like walking along a winding mountain road.
The initial design, which included a myriad of staircases, did not allow for the easy movement of merchandise or shoppers. “The architect Kevin Roche completed the building along more conventional lines, after Saarinen’s untimely death in 1961,” Marcus said.
In 1963, Edward Larrabee Barnes, who studied at Harvard under Walter Gropius and is perhaps best known for building the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, built a one-story Fort Worth Neiman Marcus in the middle of a large parking lot.
“It was like an island,” Lawrence Marcus recalled.
Barnes built the Neiman Marcus with a cluster of about a dozen smaller stores — a photography studio, a tuxedo shop, a bookstore — lining two courtyards on either side of the main store. Unfortunately, however, shoppers beelined through the parking lot encircling the complex and bypassed the smaller shops altogether. (Marcus later learned that Barnes rarely entered a store himself, as his wife did all the shopping.) Deprived of patrons, the smaller independent retailers struggled, and a few actually closed. Neiman’s eventually moved a wine and a gourmet food shop into two of the boutiques. In 1977, the Fort Worth Neiman Marcus moved five blocks away into a mall location triple the size of the original store.
In 1980, preservationists opposed Philip Johnson and his partner John Burgee’s plans for a San Francisco Neiman Marcus at Union Square, on the site of what was the City of Paris department store. In the end, Marcus agreed to save the older building’s rotunda and stained-glass dome, which had been declared a historical landmark. The dome topped the main entrance, a dramatic, glass-walled atrium in one corner of the store. The atrium and dome, which combine for a striking effect, were in fact the result of a compromise between retailer and architect.
“One of the problems [of the San Francisco store] was that department stores don’t want or need windows because they take away valuable space for counters and displays,” Burgee said. “It became a very difficult problem. So we opened that corner to be inviting and to show off our landmark [dome].”
The atrium’s placement in the corner of the store also was a result of architect and retailer meeting halfway. Historically, atriums were placed in the center of the store, but that fell out of fashion as retailers realized center courts impeded sight lines and the flow of traffic. Burgee and Johnson’s Marcus-approved plan subverted this problem by having all floors lead to the atrium, while allowing a dramatic view over Union Square.
According to Burgee, Marcus was more willing to compromise than most retailers on matters of merchandising versus aesthetics.
“Merchandisers have their own ideas of how interiors are laid out that is contrary to most architects’ planning — they would want to make more and bigger and grander spaces,” he said.
“Under the dome were departments where there was a lot of impulse buying — the perfumes and so forth that people wanted to buy upon their first entry into the store. Neiman Marcus did spread it out and open it up more than most merchandisers normally would have wanted to.”
In 2000, the San Francisco Neiman Marcus launched a five-year expansion and renovation that will make it both the flagship for the West Coast and the chain’s largest store with approximately 250,000 square feet.
This time around, it is Johnson and Burgee’s distinctive checkerboard pattern on the store’s granite facade that is in danger of disappearing. While sandblasting the facade has been proposed — as part of a request by the city of San Francisco to bring the renovated Neiman Marcus into better harmony with its surroundings — for now the pattern remains.
In hiring upper-echelon architects to design his stores, Stanley Marcus may well have been ahead of his time. Recent projects such as Rem Koolhaas’ Prada store in SoHo and Frank Gehry’s Issey Miyake store in TriBeCa may signal a shift if not among architects — who design with an eye toward permanence, and not necessarily with an eye toward commerce — then among retailers, who understand the cachet that a famed architect can lend their merchandise.
“As I look back over the last 50 years of architecture in this country, I find very little notable work done in retail stores,” Marcus told WWD in 1991. “When it comes to other things, retailers don’t balk at price. But they have decided to compromise on architecture and as a result, we have a lot of dull-looking stores. Conformity has become the order to the day, and it is not as much fun as diversity.”
“He was marvelous,” said Burgee of working with Marcus. “He felt very strongly about having a good building. It was part of the design of Neiman Marcus stores to have good architecture. It reflected on the quality of the product he produced.”