|photo by Alice Lum
In 1862 Stewart spent an astronomical $2.5 million dollars—about $45 million today—to erect an uptown branch on Broadway extending back to Fourth Avenue along 10th Street. His 6-story cast iron structure, designed by John Kellum, was built to be fireproof and the new technology allowed larger window area and, therefore, increased daylight inside.
The gargantuan store became known as the Iron Palace and The New York Tribune called the two buildings “the proudest monuments of commercial enterprise in the country.” In 1870 the store was enlarged, now filling the entire block from 10th to 9th Street.
|The original, extended building covered the entire block in 1870 -- NYPL Collection
Stewart died in 1876 but the A. T. Stewart & Co. store on Broadway and 10th Street continued on for six years. Hilton, Hughes & Co. took over the operation in 1882 but failed four years later. In November 1896 Philadelphia retailer John Wanamaker opened his New York operation in the building. And if Alexander Stewart thought big, John Wanamaker thought bigger.
Almost immediately Wanamaker began buying up lots on the block south of the store. By the end of 1902 he had successfully obtained the entire block from 8th to 9th Street, Broadway through 4th Avenue. The New York Times announced on December 21 “The entire site…is now in Mr. Wanamaker’s control and it is assumed that the erection of the new building will not be deferred for any length of time.”
The newspaper noted that the proposed, block-encompassing structure, would require the demolition of multiple buildings, including the Germania Theatre on 8th Street. “Some of these buildings are modern, substantially built structures, notably the one at the northeast corner of Broadway and Eighth Street.”
|The Annex doubled the height of the original Stewart store in the foreground -- Wanamaker's The Store of New York, 1916 - copyright expired
A year later construction started on the immense 12-story emporium designed by the Chicago architectural firm D. H. Burnham & Co. It would take three years for the structure to be completed. The stately Italian Renaissance building clad in terra cotta cost $3.5 million. It was the product of three years of research into department store design throughout the United States and Europe. The old Stewart building was connected to the “Annex” by an enclosed bridge, called The Bridge of Progress, and a tunnel under 9th Street.
|The Bridge of Progress linked the two stores -- Wanamaker's The Store of New York, 1916 - copyright expired
The original building was now used for women’s merchandise only; the new building sold menswear, and furnishings and decorations for the home. The New-York Tribune on April 22, 1906 called the new structure “one of the most elaborately fitted up and furnished department stores in the United States, if not in the world.” It would be a store like no other.
An enormous rotunda rose through the height of the building with a grand “horseshoe stairway” leading up to the second floor. On this floor pianos and organs were displayed in period-decorated rooms. “For instance,” reported The Tribune, “the Emerson room is decorated in Louis XIV style, while the Knabe room is in the Flemish style. All the decorations are in keeping in each room, even including the chandeliers and furniture. There are rooms decorated in Louis XV, Louis XVI, Moorish, Renaissance and Empire, as well as Old Dutch.”
|The sumptuous Rotunda rose through the center of the store. The carpeted Horseshoe Stairway accessed the second floor. Wanamaker's The Store of New York, 1916 - copyright expired
The combined old and new buildings now offered the shopper a full thirty-two acres of floor space. The store required a staff of 5,000 to 8,000 employees depending on the season. But the additional conveniences, not necessarily related to shopping, were even more impressive. There was a Guides’ Office where confused shoppers could procure a personal guide to “conduct visitors about the store and to serve the shopper in every possible way,” as pointed out in Wanamaker's 1916 New York, Metropolis of the World, brochure. The booklet added that “The entire Wanamaker store is dotted with quiet places for the comfort and convenience of guests. Writing desks, rest rooms and retiring rooms are conveniently distributed, and are welcome place for rest when one slightly tires of shopping.”
|The restaurant could feed 1,000 tired shoppers -- Wanamaker's The Store of New York, 1916 - copyright expired
For those “slightly tired of shopping,” there was also the auditorium. With a seating capacity of 1,300 and rising three stories it was one of the largest theaters in New York. Murals were painted by Frederick K.Frieseke, of the Societe Nationale des Beaux Arts of Paris. Here the Austin organ not only had 64 stops, but two chimes of bells, a snare drum, kettle drums, cymbals and triangle. Free, nearly daily concerts were offered for shoppers.
There were also a golf school, a restaurant capable of serving over 1,000, a telegraph service, a post office, theater ticket office, railroad ticket office, Red Cross Headquarters, and hair salon. To give homeowners ideas on decorating, a two-story house was incorporated into the store. The Wanamaker booklet described The House Palatial as “containing twenty-four rooms designed in correct period or modern style, and every room in the house obviously different in character, although all help to make up a harmonious whole. It represents the best of the house designing, furnishing and decorative arts.” More than a million people every year visited The House Palatial.
|A room in The House Palatial in 1916 -- Wanamaker's The Store of New York, 1916 - copyright expired
In the basement was a subway station—a supreme convenience for shoppers. The Meridien Morning Record said “…the Subway train sets you down in Wanamaker’s. You may come in a driving rainstorm and not get a drop of water at any point—no need to carry an umbrella or wear a raincoat…It has revolutionized the convenience of shopping.”
The up-to-date features of the building proved themselves when a small fire broke out near the pipe organ in the auditorium on March 16, 1918. The automatic alarm and sprinkler system were set off and The Times reported that “the fire was out before fire apparatus arrived.”
|Three stories high, the Auditorium was decorated with frescoes -- Wanamaker's The Store of New York, 1916 - copyright expired
On April 24, 1928 the section of 9th Street between Broadway and 4th Avenue that separated the old and new Wanamaker buildings was renamed by the Board of Aldermen to Wanamaker Place. The gesture was in honor of the public services of the late Rodman Wanamaker; however it also paid tribute to the gargantuan retail establishment that straddled the street.
By the middle of the 20th century the shopping district had moved northward. Rather than move with it, Wanamaker decided in 1954 to simply close the business. Although 1,500 unionized employees voted unanimously to try to purchase the business as a partnership with the help of investment bankers, the venture did not materialize.
|photo by Alice Lum
|The upper floors were lavished with elaborate terra cotta detailing -- photo by Alice Lum
As for Alexander Stewarts magnificent Iron Palace of a century earlier, plans were set to demolish it. But before the wreckers could start, a fire broke out. John Kellum’s fireproof structure proved to be that. The flames raged out of control for a full 24-hours before firefighters were able to extinguish it. Afterwards, surrounding the gutted remains, the noble cast iron façade still stood.
After the ruins were removed an uninspiring white-brick apartment building was constructed in its place in 1960. The 21-story structure was named with a nod to the original store—the Stewart House.
|The terra cotta-clad annex survives as an office building -- photo by Alice Lum
Today all the thoughts of organ concerts in a splendid auditorium, an Oriental Shop that sold “mandarin embroideries and fascinating bronzes,” and the Burlington Arcade that reproduced the arcade in Piccadilly, London are gone. The lone reminder of the once-magnificent department store is the green-and-white street sign on the corner: Wanamaker Place.