DEPARTMENT STORE

The department store is so named for its administrative organization, which combines
centralized marketing, customer service, deliveries, and accounting with separately
managed departments for each type of stock, staffed by specialized buyers and sales
personnel responsible for the unit’s profitability (Clausen, 1985). An index of emerging
monopoly capitalism in the second half of the 19th century, these large-scale retail
enterprises initially grew because of innovative sales practices, such as fixed pricing, free
access to goods, low markups, and liberal rights of return and exchange. Higher sales, in
turn, yielded volume discounts and prompted increased diversification. Urbanization and
population mobility, facilitated by public transportation, were instrumental in their
growth from a single storefront into vast premises occupying an entire city block. So
significant was their effect on the urban fabric that the construction of a new department
store might signal both the demise of smaller establishments and the relocation of entire
shopping districts.
Often opulent in their appointments, these emporia democratized luxury and opened
new avenues of consumption for an upwardly mobile middle class seeking the status of
high fashion at bargain-basement prices. In particular, large stores offered a protected
setting for women shoppers, whose circumscribed lives nevertheless included the
management of household accounts. Attending them were women assistants, whose
consciousness of their requirements and lower wages than their male counterparts spelled
increased profit margins for the retailer. In effect, the department store was one stage on
which some of the major societal changes of the period were enacted (Benson, 1986).
Its built forms typically consist of large, open floors sustained on metal framing: in
Europe, design is based on the tradition of the shopping arcade, in North America, on that
of the wholesale warehouse. Large areas of plate glass, together with skylights, brought
natural light into the interior to facilitate inspection of goods. Display windows lined the
sidewalks, and commodious entrance portals ushered in the passersby. So successful
were these stores at promoting consumption that writers of the day described them as
“cathedrals of commerce” or “museums of merchandise.” The professional expertise
formerly lavished only on important public monuments now forged these tangible
symbols of Gilded Age secularization (Clausen, 1987).
Elite architectural designs were emblems of corporate identity for retailers competing
in an international market. The range of goods was comparable to that of any world’s fair
exhibition hall. Aristide Boucicaut’s palatial Bon Marche of 1869–87 was the first
Parisian precedent, its conventional exterior concealing an iron frame that carried
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massive floor loads. Ecole-trained Jean-Alexandre Laplanche ornamented the iron
technology of Louis Auguste Boileau, a pairing duplicated in the second phase by the
design of Boileau’s son Louis Charles and the framing of engineer Gustave Eiffel.
Among the stores that followed were the chic Au Printemps of 1881 by Paul Sedille and
the more populist Grands Magasins de la Samaritaine of 1905 by Frantz Jourdain, a
colorful Art Nouveau confection of frankly revealed steel and glass (Clausen, 1987).
In North America, A.T.Stewart’s Marble Palace of 1848 in New York and its cast-iron
successor of 1859–62 designed by John Kellum established the Renaissance palazzo as the
vocabulary of choice well into the 20th century for such legendary retail giants as
Macy’s, Gimbels, and Marshall Field’s of Chicago. Refined by James MacLaughlin in
the John Shillito store of 1877–78 in Cincinnati and by William Le Baron Jenney, whose
designs for Chicago’s first and second Leiter stores of 1878–79 and 1889, respectively,
marked the emergence of the curtain wall, the retail palazzo reached its finest culmination in the
grid of horizontals and verticals that Louis Sullivan conceived for the Schlesinger-Mayer
store (later the Carson Pirie Scott store) of 1899–1904, also in Chicago (Harris, 1987).
Twentieth-century examples were equally varied. Alfred Messel concealed the metal
frame of Berlin’s Wertheim department store of 1896–1904 beneath historicizing
facades, notwithstanding an 1820s proposal by his countryman Karl Frederick Schinkel
for shop fronts with large panes of glass between masonry piers. Similarly, Gordon
Selfridge’s London department store of 1910, on which Graham, Burnham, and Company
of Chicago served as consultants, led the British vogue for Beaux-Arts design, a
precedent also adopted by the Hudson’s Bay Company for its flagship stores in western
Canada. By contrast, Victor Horta’s now demolished Grands Magasins a l’Innovation of
1901 in Brussels frankly expressed a metal-and-glass facade beneath an arc of granite. In
the Far East, meanwhile, the Renaissance palazzo was the choice for China’s Sincere, Wing On,
and Wangfujing department stores and for Japan’s Mitsukoshi (MacPherson, 1998).
The 1920s brought a revolution in department store design, as Erich Mendelsohn of
Germany and William Marius Dudok of the Netherlands adopted the steel and glass of
International modernism. Mendelsohn’s Stuttgart (1926–28) and Chemnitz (1928–30)
Schocken stores and his 1927 Petersdorff store in Breslau, as well as Dudok’s now
demolished Bijenkorf store of 1929–30 in Rotterdam, defined a new aesthetic that fused
Bauhaus purity with curvilinear expressionism. A similar idiom was introduced in 1938
in London with the Peter Jones department store by William Crabtree, Slater and
Moberley, and C.H. Reilly.
Within a decade, the private car had transformed the North American city. In Los
Angeles, Bullocks Wilshire of 1929 by John and Donald Parkman acknowledged this
reality with an innovative Art Deco design in a suburban location fronting on a parking
lot. Ten years later, a streamlined fortress of reinforced concrete and glass block was
adopted by its competitor, Coulter’s-Wilshire, heralding the advent of the blank facade
adopted at the same period by the chain of Sears and Roebuck and later to become the
norm for all suburban department stores from the 1960s on. From individual branch
stores in the suburbs, the department stores became chains that anchored regional
shopping centers, such as Seattle’s Northgate of 1950 (Clausen, 1984). Downtown stores
in the United States declined until the renaissance of the 1970s reintroduced them into
multiuse complexes, such as the Broadway Plaza of 1974 in Los Angeles. Other solutions
included the Toronto Eaton Centre of 1974–77 by Zeidler Roberts Partnership, a private
Entries A–F 677
galleria of smaller specialty shops built for a major retailer, to draw pedestrian traffic
from adjoining city streets. Likewise, in the mid-1980s, Nichii Obahiro of Japan
proposed a vast climatecontrolled garden to attract customers confined by the rigors of a
harsh winter. As the department store became but another contour of the shopping mall,
its most distinctive contemporary residue was found in the prophetically ruinous facades
that SITE conceived in the 1970s for the now vacant catalog showrooms of Best
Products.
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