|As the building neared completion, Daniel Burnham released a sketch Real Estate Record & Guide, July 10, 1909 (copyright expired)
At the turn of the 20th century, the main shopping district in Manhattan stretched from 14th Street to 23rd Street along 6th Avenue and along Broadway—the area known as The Ladies’ Mile. Rowland Hussey Macy ran his successful department store at 14th Street, just below 6th Avenue where palatial emporiums filled entire blocks.
But in 1902 Macy took a brave gamble. He leap-frogged the district and built the largest store of them all ten blocks north at 34th Street. Near the mansions of Fifth Avenue, the new Macy’s was set so far apart from the other dry goods stores that a steam-powered omnibus was provided to shuttle shoppers back and forth.
Macy no doubt felt secure with his competitors located far to the south. But his greatest rival was not yet in New York City; but in Philadelphia.
Sixty years earlier Bavarian immigrant Adam Gimbel opened a lace shop in Vincennes, Indiana. In 1886 the first “Gimbels” store opened in Milwaukee, followed seven years later by a large department store in Philadelphia.
Following the turn of the century, construction began on the mammoth Pennsylvania Station near Macy’s. The increased potential of the area was not lost on Benjamin Gimbel and, despite his five brothers’ reluctance, he convinced them to open a Manhattan store. The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide would later recall “In those days the site of the present Gimbel Building and the Pennsylvania station were occupied by dwellings and old-fashioned flats and tenements typical of the period.”
The Gimbel brothers leased land atop the “McAdoo tunnel system” for a term of 105 years. The New York Times announced on January 30, 1909 that the “massive store” would “be the terminal of the McAdoo tunnel system, or Manhattan tunnels, which, by the time the store building is completed, will connect with the Pennsylvania Railroad, Central Railroad of New Jersey, the Erie system, and the Lackawanna & Western Railroad, handling, it is estimated, 1,000,000 persons daily.”
The department store site covered the entire blockfront from 31st to 32nd Street facing Sixth Avenue and across from Greeley Square. Gimbels chose Chicago-based Daniel Hudson Burnham as its architect—possibly influenced by his design of other department stores including Marshall Field & Co. in Chicago and the McCreery Department Store in Pittsburgh. Burnham filed plans for a 10-story structure above ground, with more floors below street level.
The understated Renaissance-inspired design belied the list of superlatives used by the press. Newspapers and journals made note of the 2,406 support columns, the 12 “vast entrances with seventy-two doors,” 27 acres of floor space and the 45 show windows.
On July 10, 1909 The Record & Guide reported on “A mile and a half of banister” that would run along the stairways, the 8,000 automatic sprinklers and the 50 electric elevators. The journal estimated that the construction of the mammoth store gave “directly and indirectly, employment to thousands of operatives.”
|Armies of workmen scrambled to complete the store in record time -- photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
A copper box containing a history of the Gimbel operation and “other data which will be of curious interest to some future generation,” according to The Record & Guide, was placed in the corner stone on December 8, 1909. The excavation of the foundation had taken five months alone and strikes slowed construction. Nevertheless on June 11, 1910 the $12 million store, including land, was completed ahead of schedule.
Gimbel Brothers immediately capitalized on the convenience of sitting directly above the subway. A double-height “Subway Store” was designed to make subterranean shopping as chic as the upper floors. Advertisements boasted of the easy accessibility for shoppers even in remote areas. Adding to Gimbels’ accessibility to mass transit was the 6th Avenue Elevated train. A station stop was created directly outside the store at 33rd Street.
|The Subway Store was a retail innovation -- The Sun, October 5, 1910 (copyright expired)
Macy’s greatest threat had arrived and a decades-long competition for patrons was on.
|Shortly after opening Gimbels advertised black beaver hats for $5.75 and ostrich plumed hats for $15 -- The Evening World, December 6, 1910 (copyright expired)
While Gimbels did offer high priced goods, it mostly targeted the middle-class woman. Gimbels advertisements repeated the word “plain” – “Plain as a butter tub” and “Plain old Gimbels,” for instance. It gained a loyal customer base of women who knew they were getting quality items at affordable prices.
The Gimbels New York department store was so successful that in July 1919 the brothers broke the 105-year lease by purchasing the property for $7 million.
The Bernard Gimbel, who oversaw the New York store, was a brilliant marketer, staging fashion shows, carnivals and other gimmicks to draw customers. In March 1920 wealthy socialites worked as saleswomen, donating their 10 per cent commissions to Bellevue Hospital. On March 13 The New York Times commented, “Miss Fay Bainter sold a hat almost the moment she arrived, but selling became difficult, for customers increased so swiftly that the floor space was congested. Mrs. George Baker, Jr., has been on duty for three days and Mrs. Charles Dana Gibson worked hard all Thursday afternoon. Mrs. F. N. Watriss and Mrs. Mary Hoyt Wiborg are among the more recent workers.”
|The 6th Avenue Elevated station was directly outside of Gimbels -- Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&VBID=24UAYWV0O7FN&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=894
Among the conveniences offered was the nursery where mothers could drop off their children while they shopped. On September 10, 1921 at 2:30 a young woman in a black silk dress dropped her one-month old baby girl with Stella Ellis, saying she would pick up the infant later. When the store was closed, the baby was still there.
A policeman was called who took the child to Bellevue Hospital. The nursery, it appeared, was an easy way for the mother to abandon her infant with the knowledge it would be cared for.
|A model strikes a post during a fashion show around the time of the store's opening -- from the collection of the New York Public Library
Sitting between Macy’s and Gimbels was the nine-story Saks & Co. department store, engulfing the 6th Avenue blockfront between 33rd and 34th Streets. In 1922 the firm began construction of its new building on Fifth Avenue at 50th Street. Although the project would take two years to complete, Gimbels was quick to react. The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported on June 15 that Gimbels had leased the structure for 21 years at an annual rental of “between $400,000 and $500,000 net.” It was, no doubt, no coincidence that the move followed closely on the heels of R. H. Macy & Co.’s announcement to erect an addition to its store.
In reporting on the lease, The New York Times mentioned “It was said that it was too early yet to make any definite announcement of plans for the actual physical linking together of the two structures, but two ways of joining them may be used.” One idea was a tunnel, connecting to the various passenger tunnels already in place. “There is also the possibility of building an overhead bridge,” said the newspaper.
But before any of this could take place, less than a year later, on April 25, 1923, The New York Times reported that Gimbels and Saks had merged. “When Saks & Co. move to their new store at 617 Fifth Avenue, Gimbels, [which] already had acquired the present Saks building just across Thirty-third Street from the Gimbel store, will open there a special store similar to that now conducted by Saks.”
When Gimbels opened in the former Saks building in 1924, a platform from the 6th Avenue El was extended down 33rd Street and a connecting bridge built between the two structures at the second floor. Now customers could easily alight from the elevated and enter either store. The bridge had its drawbacks, however. It became a favorite escape route for shoplifters who would dash from Gimbels into the former Saks building, or vice-versa.
|A postcard captured the bridge between Gimbels and the former Saks Building after the demolition of the El.
Gimbels’ long list of innovative marketing perhaps reached its apex in September 1924 when it opened a radio station on the 8th Floor. “The entire station, including the studio in which the artists perform, the transmitting room and power room, will be in a glass enclosure, so that the public can see how broadcasting is done and how the apparatus functions,” reported The Times. Shoppers were allowed into the studio during program were being aired; and a special “receiving room” was available for people to gather to hear important news events.
Louis Gimbel described the family-friendly programs, including “debates and concerts by school children and music students recommended by teachers of music. A feature of the opening program will be Uncle Wip, the bedtime story teller of station WIP, Philadelphia, who has organized a club of 35,000 children by his broadcasts.”
Gimbels’ phenomenal growth was evidenced not only by its sales exceeding $100 million that year; but by the purchase the following year of the 18-story Cuyler Building at Nos. 120 through 126 West 32nd Street. When Gimbel Brothers announced the $2.5 purchase in October 1925, it said the acquisition “was made necessary by the great growth of the company’s business.” To connect the Gimbels store with the Cuyler Building, architects Richard H. Shreve and William F. Lamb were commissioned to design another sky bridge—this one a three-story copper-clad Art Deco beauty.
The Gimbel store’s gimmicks to attract customers became more creative during the Depression years and in November 1935 the 6th Floor was turned into a replica of the 19th century Barnum Museum on Broadway. Adults paid 15 cents and children a dime to see the legendary museum’s attractions.
“It is really a complete Barnum,” said The Times. “Joice Heth, wizened and witch-like, is there to remind you that she lived when George Washington was too young to chop down trees. The Cardiff Giant looms coldly from his erect coffin in a corner. The white whale, with an undulant tail and heaving sides, spouts regularly—at least as often as some one pushes a button hidden by the rail.”
Among the 60 life-sized models were Tom Thumb, the Fejee Mermaid, Jumbo the Elephant and Jenny Lind. “Barnum himself stands at the side of his nightingale,” said The Times, “and when the electricians in the rear room see to it, he makes a speech of introduction. Then Jenny sings, although her papier-mâché lips do not coordinate with the melody very well.”
On April 24, 1937 Amelia Earhart addressed a group of 500 in the department store’s restaurant. The New York Times made special note of her announcement that “she purposed to attempt the ‘round the world at the Equator’ flight again ‘some time around the middle of May.’”
Although the old 6th Avenue El was demolished in 1939, the second story bridge remained to link the Gimbels and Saks buildings.
In August 1941, just months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the government instituted curbs on the manufacture of silk stockings. Silk was necessary in the manufacture of parachutes. The announcement sparked a near riot among female New Yorkers. On August 5 a New York Times headline read “Women Stampede for Stockings As Result of Government Silk Ban.”
“Ropes controlled the crowds at Gimbel’s, where nineteen extra [employees] confronted the women who were lured there by a special sale of nylon and silk hosiery that disappeared early in the morning. Even though salesgirls were summoned from near-by counters to assist with the stocking sale, there arose a plea from the buyer, ‘Get me some more girls, please,’ as the noon customers bunched in the store.”
Gimbels pitched into the war cause by selling Victory Bonds and, in 1943, installing a vegetable garden inside the store “to prove that two persons can grow all the vegetables they need for three months on a tiny plot,” said The Times. It went even further, at the war’s end, by helping the Government sell off surplus property on the selling floor.
The rivalry between Macy’s and Gimbels was legendary; and never more so than during the Christmas selling season. But in December 1955 an unexpected truce was called. On December 9 The New York Times wrote “Bernard F. Gimbel, who has long been devoted to a department store that bears his name, did something extraordinary yesterday. He went to Macy’s.”
Gimbel visited the office of Jack I. Straus, President of R. H. Macy & Co., with an surprising marketing strategy. Soon “throngs of happy, rosy-cheeked shoppers, eagerly crowding one another off the sidewalks, were becoming aware of two huge signs on Macy’s and Gimbels. The Macy sign read ‘This Way to Gimbels’ and ‘When Macy’s Tells Gimbels, It’s the Miracle on 34th Street.’ The Gimbels sign was similar, except that it pointed to Macy’s.”
The competition was evident three years later when the motion picture Auntie Mame was released. Rosalind Russell, in the role of Mame, walked off her job at Macy’s during the Christmas rush. Infuriated customers wanted to know how they were to get the items they wanted. “Go to Gimbels,” Mame responded.
Things were changing for Gimbels Greeley Square by the 1960s. On December 29, 1965 E. J. Korvette, Inc. announced plans to take possession of the former Saks Building. Four months later, on April 23, 1966, The Times reported on the removal of the second story bridge. “After 42 years, the two-level bridge is being demolished. In about a week, it will pass into oblivion—a fate that has overcome many other New York landmarks.”
Two years later Gimbels announced plans for a new store on the corner of Lexington Avenue and East 86th Street. The 14-story white marble and black slate building opened in February 1972, and the old 6th Avenue building became known as “Gimbels downtown.” But unlike its Upper East Side counterpart, the 1910 store sat in what was now an increasingly seedy neighborhood.
On June 6, 1986 the Associated Press reported “Macy’s no longer has to keep its secrets from Gimbels. After 76 years of a fierce but friendly rivalry, Gimbels at Herald Square is going out of business.” Within a year the Brooklyn-based department store Abraham & Straus announced it would take over the old 6th Avenue building. The intended gut renovation was part of an attempt to revive the Herald Square shopping district. Earlier the old Saks-then-Korvettes building had become a vertical mall, Herald Center; however to date its reception among shoppers was tepid at best.
Burnham’s Edwardian façade remained—more or less—while the interiors were junked and replaced by the A&S Plaza that featured an enormous central atrium. Walls of glass and a sleek two-story base retained the old structure's bones while giving it a decidedly modern feel. And yet still clinging on high above 33rd Street was the wonderful Art Deco sky bridge which had somehow survived.
The plan failed. By 2002 when advertising agency Foote, Cone & Belding leased the 270,000 square foot building, Times reporter John Holusha remarked “The building once housed Gimbels, then Abraham & Straus and then Stern’s department store and along the way became known as the Manhattan Mall.”
Foote, Cone & Belding decided on another direction for the property--a mixture of business offices, showrooms and stores. In 2006 the building was sold once again, this time to Vornado Realty Trust for about $689 million.
Little remains to remind New Yorkers that a massive department store one engulfed three buildings here. Except a fantastic copper sky bridge, long ago sealed up, high above 33rd Street.
current photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Karina Romero for requesting this post
many thanks to reader Karina Romero for requesting this post