Essential Architecture- the North East

Wanamaker's Department Store


Daniel Burnham, FAIA


Philadelphia, PA






Stone cladding, steel frame


Department Store
  right- Wanamaker's 1903 Philadelphia store, from Gibbons
Wanamaker's department store was the first department store in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and one of the first department stores in the United States. It was renowned for its honest reputation and for innovating many retailing firsts in America. At its zenith in the early 20th Century, there were 16 Wanamaker's stores, but the chain was absorbed into Hecht's (now Macy's) in 1995 after years of decline.

John Wanamaker, the founder of the store that bears his name, was unable to join the U.S. Army during the American Civil War due to a persistent cough. Having been rejected from war duty, he instead ventured into business with his brother-in-law, Nathan Brown. In 1861, they founded a men's clothing store in Philadelphia called Oak Hall. Wanamaker carried on the business alone after Brown's death in 1868. In 1876, Wanamaker purchased the abandoned Pennsylvania Railroad station for use as a new, larger retail location. The concept was to renovate the terminal into a "Grand Depot" similar to London's Royal Exchange or Paris' Les Halles - two central markets, and forerunners of the modern department store, that were well-known in Europe at that time.

The Wanamaker's Grand Depot opened in time to service the public visiting Philadelphia for the American Centennial Exposition of 1876. In 1877 Wanamaker's was refurbished and expanded to include not only men's clothing, but women's clothing and dry goods as well. This was Philadelphia's - and perhaps America's - first modern day department store. A circular counter was placed at the center of the building, and concentric circles radiated around it with 129 counters of goods.

 Enlightened retailing
Wanamaker first thought of how he would run a store differently when, as a youth, a merchant refused his request to exchange a purchase. A practicing Christian, he chose not to advertise on Sundays. His faith also informed other business decisions, many of which were innovative and before their time. Before he opened his Grand Depot for retail business, he let evangelist Dwight L. Moody use its facilities as a meeting place, while Wanamaker provided 300 ushers from his store personnel. His retail advertisements - the first to be copyrighted beginning in 1874 - were factual, and promises made in them were kept. Word of this increased Wanamaker's business and John Wanamaker never lost the public's trust while he pioneered truth in American advertising.

The famous logoWanamaker guaranteed the quality of his merchandise in print, allowed his customers to return purchases for a cash refund and offered the first restaurant to be located inside a department store. Wanamaker's also innovated the price tag, because John Wanamaker believed if everyone was equal before God, then everyone should be equal before price. All of these concepts were seen as innovations in American retailing at the time.

His employees were to be treated respectfully by management (including not being scolded in public), and John Wanamaker & Company offered its employees access to the Wanamaker's Commercial Institute, as well as free medical care, recreational facilities, profit sharing plans and pensions - long before these type of benefits were considered standard in corporate employment.

Innovation and "firsts" marked Wanamaker's. The store was the first department store with electrical illumination (1878), first store with a telephone (1879), first store to install pneumatic tubes to transport cash and documents(1880)and the first store with an elevator (1884). In 1910, Wanamaker closed his famous Grand Depot, and moved into a brand-new, purpose-built structure in Center City, Philadelphia, which opened in 1911 with 12 floors. The palatial store featured the former St. Louis World's Fair pipe organ (one of the world's largest at that time), installed it in the Grand Court with a dedication attended by President William Howard Taft on December 30, 1911. This organ still stands in place in the store today and is registered as the first organ designated a National Historic Landmark (1980). The Wanamaker Organ is the largest operational pipe organ in the world. News of the Titanic's sinking was transmitted to Wanamaker's wireless station in New York City, and given to anxious crowds waiting outside - yet another first for an American retail store. Public Christmas Caroling in the store's Grand Court began in 1918.

Other innovations included employing buyers to travel overseas to Europe each year for the latest fashions, the first White sale (1878) and other themed sales such as the February "Opportunity Sales" to keep prices as low as possible while keeping volume high. The store also broadcast its organ concerts on the Wanamaker-owned radio station WOO-AM beginning in 1922.

The famous advertising axiom "half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half" is credited to John Wanamaker.

Although disputed in some circles, John Wanamaker is credited as the first to coin the "Retailers Rule"..."The customer is always right."

 The slow decline
After John Wanamaker's death in 1922 the business carried on under Wanamaker family ownership and continued to thrive for a time. The men's clothing and accessories department was expanded into its own separate store on the ground floor of the Lincoln-Liberty Building, next door in 1932. This building was sold to Philadelphia National Bank in 1952 and the initials on the building's crown now read "PNB." Over time, Wanamaker's lost business to other retail chains, including Bloomingdale's and Macy's in the Philadelphia market. The Wanamaker Family Trust finally sold John Wanamaker and Company, with its now bedraggled and shabby stores to Los Angeles, California-based Carter Hawley Hale Stores in 1978. Carter Hawley Hale poured $80 million (USD) into renovating the stores, but to no avail — customers had gone elsewhere in the intervening decades, and did not come back.

Finally, in 1986 the now 15-store chain was sold to Woodward & Lothrop, owned by Detroit real estate businessman A. Alfred Taubman. Taubman reorganized the business with a shortened corporate name (Wanamaker's Inc.), and poured millions more into store renovations and public relations campaigns. This too was no help, as Taubman's retail interests were heavily in debt and the stores' combined sales were a disappointment. Woodward & Lothrop collapsed in bankruptcy in the early 1990s, and the Wanamaker stores were sold to May Department Stores company on June 21, 1995. Wanamaker's Inc. was formally dissolved, the corporate offices on the upper floors of the Center City flagship store were closed, and operations were consolidated with May's Hecht's Division in Arlington, Virginia. The Wanamaker's name was removed from all stores and replaced with Hecht's. In 1997, May acquired Wanamaker's historic rival Strawbridge & Clothier and re-branded all Philadelphia-area Hecht's locations with the Strawbridge's name. The Center City Hecht's was closed for a lengthy renovation and refurbishment that saw the retail space reduced in size by several floors, and the former Wanamaker's corporate offices on the upper floors subdivided into commercial office space. In 1997, New York-based Lord & Taylor, another division of May Department Stores, opened in the former Wanamaker's flagship in Center City, Philadelphia. In August 2006 the store was converted to Macy's, operated by Macy's East Division of Federated Department Stores Inc., which acquired May in late 2005.

The Wanamaker's flagship store, with its famous organ and eagle from the St. Louis World's Fair, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1978.

In 1987, the Philadelphia Wanamaker's flagship store was featured - under the name Prince & Co. - in the film comedy Mannequin and its sequel Mannequin 2: On The Move.

 Former Locations

Philadelphia MSA/Newark - Christiana Mall (converted to Hecht's 1995, Lord & Taylor 1997, closed 2006, now vacant)
Philadelphia MSA/Wilmington - Freestanding (closed 1991, replaced by Christiana Mall store, now Accenture offices)

 New Jersey
Philadelphia MSA/Deptford - Deptford Mall (converted to Hecht's 1995, Strawbridge's 1997, closed 2006, now Boscov's)
Philadelphia MSA/Moorestown - Moorestown Mall (converted to Hecht's 1995, building rebuilt and reopened as Strawbridge's 1999, converted to Macy's 2006)

 New York
New York - Freestanding (destroyed by fire in the 1950's)
Yonkers - Cross County Shopping Center (closed 1995, now Sears)

Allentown MSA/Whitehall - Lehigh Valley Mall (converted to Hecht's 1995, Strawbridge's 1997, closed 2006, now Boscov's)
Harrisburg - Harrisburg East Mall (now Harrisburg Mall) (converted to Lord & Taylor 1997, closed 2003, now Bass Pro Shops)
Philadelphia - Center City (Flagship) (converted to Hecht's 1995, Lord & Taylor 1997, closed 2006, now Macy's)
Philadelphia - Roosevelt Mall (former S. Klein, converted to Hecht's 1995, Strawbridge's 1997, Macy's 2006)
Philadelphia MSA/Jenkintown - Freestanding (converted to Hecht's 1995, closed 1997)
Philadelphia MSA/King of Prussia - The Plaza at King of Prussia (converted to Hecht's 1995, Strawbridge's 1997, Macy's 2006, future status undetermined)
Philadelphia MSA/Langhorne - Oxford Valley Mall (converted to Hecht's 1995, Strawbridge's 1997, closed 2006, now Boscov's)
Philadelphia MSA/North Wales - Montgomery Mall (converted to Hecht's 1995, Strawbridge's 1997, closed 2006, now Boscov's)
Philadelphia MSA/Springfield - Springfield Mall (converted to Hecht's 1995, Strawbridge's 1997, closed 2006, site sold to Target)
Philadelphia MSA/Wynnewood - Wynnewood Shopping Center (converted to Hecht's 1995, closed 1997)
Reading - Berkshire Mall (converted to Hecht's 1995, Strawbridge's 1997, closed 2002, now Boscov's)

 Christmas Light Show

Christmas Light ShowIn 1956, the Philadelphia Wanamaker's premiered a Christmas Light Show, a large musical and blinking light display several stories high, viewable from several levels of the building, but with the best viewing on the central ground floor. Its popularity with Philadelphia parents and children, as well as tourists, ensured a continuous run, even after the building was sold to different business interests.

For decades, the "voice", or narrator, of the show was John Facenda, known to Philadelphians for decades reporting the news on radio and television. To American football fans he was the original voice of NFL Films. His voice made "Christmas in the Grand Tradition" come to life.

The Wanamaker Light Show is continued today by Macy's, who is actively working on its restoration. Beginning in 2006, Julie Andrews became the show narrator. Also, the Santa Express Train at the top of the Grand Court returned in 2006, while a brand new "Magic Christmas Tree" will return in 2007 and holographic projections of the old fountains will return in 2008

Viewing public in the Grand Court
 Crystal Tea Room
Wanamaker's also was home to the Crystal Tea Room restaurant on the 9th floor which closed to the public in 1998; it has been restored and is currently operated as a private banquet hall, accommodating sit-down receptions of up to 600 people. A Wanamaker's guidebook from the 1920s states that the Crystal Tea Room was the largest dining room in Philadelphia, and one of the largest in the world. It once could serve 1400 people at a time. It served breakfast in the morning, luncheon, and afternoon tea. The kitchen's big ovens could roast 75 turkeys at a time and was equipped with lockers and baths for the employees.

There is also a more recently opened balcony cafe on the third floor.

 Unique Features
Ground floor: Huge eagle statue in the Grand Court; for many decades, Philadelphians would agree to "meet me at the eagle at Wanamaker's".
3rd floor: Egyptian Hall auditorium behind the executive offices, also a Greek Hall auditorium
8th floor: toy department had a monorail for the kids that traveled around the entire department, camera dept, piano and organ dept
9th floor: Crystal Tea Room
10th floor: inhouse physician and nurses
sub-floors: post office, lost and found, shoe repair
radio broadcasting station
model house on the furniture floor

interior of Wanamaker's Grand Depot ca. 1876, from Gibbons

1876 - John Wanamaker started his Oak Hall Clothing Bazaar in Philadelphia at Market and 5th Street in 1861. He expanded the store with aggressive promotions and advertising that earned him the titles of "Merchant Prince" and "The Father of Modern Advertising" including balloons, giant posters, and a gong inside the front door. By 1876 he had built a department store on the site of the vacant Pennsylvania Railroad Freight Depot. His original idea was to open a central market of cooperating merchants similar to London's Royal Exchange and the Halles Central in Paris. But in the new era of urban mass consumption, it became a "New Kind of Store," called the Grand Depot, with skylights and gas chandeliers in "the largest space in the world devoted to retail selling on a single floor." At the center of a series of expanding circles of 129 counters was the gaslit tent for the demonstration of elegant women's ballroom fashions. In 1896 Wanamaker bought the old A.T. Stewart Cast Iron Palace in New York and connected it with a "Bridge of Progress" to a new 16-story building next door. In 1903 he built a new store in Philadelphia on the site of the old Grand Depot, 12 stories of granite with an interior Grand Court 150 feet high. In this court was the second largest organ in the world, after the Auditorium organ in Atlantic City, and a great eagle from the 1903 St. Louis World's Fair. "Meet me under the eagle at Wanamaker's" became a familiar invitation in Philadelphia.

John Wanamaker as 1889 Postmaster-General, Duke's Cigarettes Poor Boys booklet, D0013-06 from Duke

Wanamaker's 1902 Grand Depot, from Gibbons