After a failed attempt to join the U.S. Army during the Civil War, Philadelphia native John Wanamaker opened a men's clothing store with his brother-in-law. In 1876, Wanamaker purchased an abandoned Pennsylvania railroad station with the idea of opening a huge retail business. After renovations, he opened Wanamaker's Grand Depot and he expanded his wares to include ladies' clothing and household dry goods. It became Philadelphia's first department store as well as one of the first in the nation.
|Meet me at the Iggle.
Wanamaker, a shrewd and successful businessman, wished to portray his store with an air of elegance. So just after the turn of the 20th century, Wanamaker began replacing his building in stages, eventually constructing a massive, 12-story, full city block structure with granite walls, ornate decor and a soaring marble atrium known as The Grand Court. The building housed the beautifully-appointed Crystal Tea Room, the largest dining room in Philadelphia. It could accommodate 1400 diners at a time. The ovens in its cavernous kitchen could roast 75 turkeys simultaneously. The store offered nine floors of selling space, as well as a post office, a model house in the furniture department, a Egyptian-themed auditorium and a radio broadcasting station. Wanamaker purchased the pipe organ from the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair and had it installed in The Grand Court. He also purchased the immense bronze eagle that has become a popular meeting and gathering place for people in the store. (Just ask any Philadelphia resident "Meet me at the Eagle." They'll know what you're talking about.) The pipe organ, the largest in the world still in operation, is still used for daily recitals in the store — a practice that began over a hundred years ago.
In addition to the daily concerts, the famed organ is used to accompany the annual Christmas Light Show, another tradition started in 1956 as a holiday treat (and marketing draw) for its customers. It has become a regular stop during the busy holiday shopping season for generations of families. Surprisingly, after Wanamaker's was sold in 1978 (and again in 1986, 1994, and finally in 2005 to its current owner, Macy's), the new owners kept the Christmas Light Show, despite closing and renovating other iconic aspects of the majestic building. The Crystal Tea Room served its last cup of Darjeeling in 2008 and the basement post office is now a parking garage.
My wife and I went to see the Christmas Light Show last year (after a decades-long absence) and again this year. Even though we do not celebrate Christmas, the simplicity of the display and the nostalgic setting in which it's presented offer a warm sense of familiarity to those of us who remember a time long ago — a time that is holding on, however futilely, for dear life.
I work just a few blocks from the store and I rarely, if ever, go there. Last year, when Mrs. P and I went to see the Light Show, it was the first time I was in Wanamaker's... uh, I mean Macy's.... in years. It was then, as my wife and I hustled through the crowded Men's Clothing department towards the Grand Court, that I took notice of the actual merchandising of the store. It was surprisingly awful! Gone were the wide aisles and sweeping glass display cases. In their place were tables piled high with sweaters and shirts, some folded neatly, most jumbled in a cottony ball on top of the pile or tossed on the floor in a heap. Dress shirts, boasting designer names like Geoffrey Beane and Michael Kors, were haphazardly stuffed into racks too small to adequately accommodate the amount of stock on display. It was a far cry from the once dignified and opulent arrangement that the name "Wanamaker's" instantly brought mind. The signage announcing "50% Off" revealed a puzzling $69.00 price tag on some of the shirts. That was the discounted price. Aside from the roped-off and blocked marble staircases and obscured, though still majestic fixtures, the polish and refinement were missing.
I can't figure out how stores like this still exist? In these times of online retailers and discount stores like Target and Walmart, who is still shopping at traditional department stores? Who is paying these bloated prices for clothing easily purchased at other convenient outlets for far, far less? Seriously, when was the last time you bought anything at a department store?
I just hope that Mrs. P and I get to see the Christmas Light Show again next year. I know that's pretty selfish on my part, but the show is really cool.