JOHN W. CHRISTIAN, FORMER ALTMAN’S HEAD, DEAD AT 74

Byline: David Moin / With contributions from Janet Ozzard

NEW YORK — John W. Christian Jr., a former president of B. Altman & Co. who presided over the chain’s East Coast expansion and nurtured its home furnishings business into one of the country’s finest, died of an aneurysm at his home in Richmond, Va. Sunday. He was 74.
Christian was president’s of Altman’s from 1969 to 1981. The department store ceased operations in 1990.
“John was a lovely person and very sophisticated,” said Jack Schultz, a former executive vice president of Bloomingdale’s who ran Altman’s from April 1986 until it closed. “He was quality-conscious with extraordinary good taste, and developed an outstanding home furnishings business.”
“He was a sound merchant, who ran Altman’s in an efficient and business-like manner,” said Marvin Traub, the former Bloomingdale’s chief executive officer, currently a retail and fashion consultant.
With its stately and spacious flagship on 34th Street here between Fifth and Madison Avenues, Altman’s was long one of the city’s top draws, particularly for an older, affluent clientel looking to do some leisurely shopping and lunchtime dining, and tourists visiting the Empire State Building and Macy’s.
At its peak, Altman’s grew to have five branches, in White Plains and Manhasset, N.Y.; Short Hills and Paramus, N.J., and in the Main Line suburb of Philadelphia.
During his tenure, Christian added some European designers to the retailer’s mix, including Gianni Versace, whose first U.S. boutique opened in the Fifth Avenue flagship in the early Seventies. However, Altman’s failed to remain competitive in apparel, and never had the productivity to sustain the stores. The company shut down units in the Eighties, but many market observers believed Altman’s should have closed them sooner to concentrate on the Fifth Avenue flagship.
For most of its history, the store was part of the Altman Foundation. In the early Eighties, the store was purchased by an investment group led by Domenico De Sole, who now runs Gucci. It was later purchased by Hooker Corp., the Australian developer that went bankrupt in the late Eighties and took Altman’s down with it, along with Hooker’s Sakowitz and Bonwit Teller retail holdings. The Bonwit name was later purchased by another developer, Pyramid Cos., based in Syracuse, N.Y.
During Schultz’s tenure, Altman’s was updated with an extensive flagship renovation and an expanded apparel presentation. The store even showed a slight operating profit in 1989, but it was too late to make a go of it, due to Hooker’s problems.
Christian, widely known in retail and philanthropic circles, received several awards while at Altman’s, including the City of Hope Humanitarian award in 1979, the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Retailer of the Year Award in 1981, the Lighthouse for the Blind Humanitarian Award in 1978 and the Coty Award for Fashion in 1983. He was a board member of several New York institutions, including the Parsons School of Design, the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Fifth Avenue President’s Council, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victorian Society and Chemical Bank.
He helped create the permanent collection of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he worked with Diana Vreeland.
Christian started his retail career right after graduation at Thalheimer’s Department Stores in Richmond. He rose to senior vice president and general manager of the chain before leaving to take the Altman’s post. He graduated from Duke University in 1948 with a business degree.
He is survived by his sister, Mary Ann C. Rogers; his wife, Pauline K. Christian; a son, John W. Christian 3rd; a daughter, Anne H. Collins, and four grandchildren. A memorial service was held Wednesday at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond.