The John Wanamaker Store – History, Light Show, Organ, Eagle

The John Wanamaker Store is one of the most beloved buildings, even in a city with as rich an architectural heritage as Philadelphia. It has had a long and tumultuous history, and it remains a department store, even today. It is the current home of Macy's Center City Philadelphia location.

And the John Wanamaker Store, even under its new corporate brand of Macy's, continues to occupy a place of great sentimentality in the hearts of Philadelphians, hosting its trademark Wanamaker (now Macy's) Holiday Light Show.

And since 2006, the John Wanamaker Store has housed the equally beloved Macy's Dickens Village - A Christmas Carol, which had once been a resident at one-time rival department store Strawbridge and Clothier, five blocks away at 8th and Market Streets. (Strawbridge's is now regrettably closed, and vacant, for the moment.)

While the storied history of the John Wanamaker Store is uniquely Philadelphian, the construction of this “cathedral of commerce” has had profound implications throughout North America.

Much in the same way that the momentous political events that took place at the Pennsylvania State House – what we know today as Independence Hall – had massive historical effects, throughout North America and the world, the commercial genius of Wanamaker and the John Wanamaker store had similar effects for the economy of not just the continent, but the entire world.

Ironically, the original John Wanamaker Store was, in fact, just a stone's throw from Independence Hall. It was located at the southeast corner of 6th and Market Streets, directly across the street from the current Independence Visitor Center, at the northeast corner 6th and Market Streets.

The John Wanamaker Store – A History and Timeline

1861 – As the Civil War Breaks Out, John Wanamaker Opens His First Store – Known as Oak Hall – at 6th and Market Streets, near Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell

While President Abraham Lincoln was attempting to quell the secession of eleven Southern States that called themselves the Confederacy, Wanamaker was getting his start in commerce in Philadelphia, a key Northern city for the Union cause. During the first year of the Civil War, he opened his first store- a men’s clothing store.

Interestingly, Wanamaker’s first store did not bear the name of the 25-year-old entrepreneur, but instead was known as Oak Hall - a cool name, in our opinion.

Wanamaker did some innovative advertising with his Oak Hall store. Oak Hall bought full page advertisements in high-circulation magazines and newspapers. He even went as far as to create entire national print publications, solely for the purpose of surrounding their articles with Oak Hall advertisements!

Oak Hall also made good use of then-cutting-edge technology. Industrial improvements meant that factories could crank out men’s clothing far more quickly, which made a retail store like Oak Hall possible. But Wanamaker also retained in-house tailors, to customize the prefabricated clothes for his customers. He created the following advertising slogan:

”Full Guarantee, One Price, Cash Payments, Cash Returns”

These were radical offers, by the standards of Civil War-era retailers. Wanamaker was simultaneously-

guaranteeing customer satisfaction;

offering no-haggle pricing – you didn’t have to negotiate;

giving the customer the option to undo the transaction and refund his/her money, for any reason.

Naturally, with such a great deal for consumers, Oak Hall thrived and became profitable, and Wanamaker began making plans to expand his empire.

1874 – Wanamaker Moves His Operation to 13th and Market Streets For the First Time, Opening “The New Establishment”, Selling Clothing, Fabrics, and Linens

13 years after the launching of Oak Hall, and with the Civil War having ended nearly a decade earlier-

Wanamaker decided to purchase a freight depot from the Pennsylvania Railroad, at 13th and Market Streets, in order to expand his business. In a historic move, Wanamaker shifted his business to the 13th and Market Street location for the first time, a block which would prove to be his legacy. He opened “The New Establishment”, which not only sold men’s clothing but women’s, along with fabrics and linens. The New Establishment was the next stage in the evolution of Oak Hall men’s clothing to trailblazing department store, but it wasn’t quite a department store, yet.

In 1876, the Centennial Exhibition took place, and Wanamaker did well there. He had hoped to attract other retailers to rent space in the new property at 13th and Market. But in their absence, he expanded The New Establishment. The building soon covered two acres.

1877 – The First Wanamaker Department Store Opens, Known as “The Grand Depot” a/k/a “Wanamaker’s New Kind of Store”

1878 – Wanamaker Opens a China Department

1880 – Wanamaker Becomes First Store to Install Thomas Edison’s Newly Invented Electric Lamps for Interior Lighting; Creates Departments for Sporting Goods, Refrigerators, Jewelry, and Carpets

1881 – Wanamaker Creates Departments for Antique Furniture, Gas Stoves, Art, Beds, and Eyeglasses

1882 – Wanamaker Installs a Soda Fountain and Begins Selling Books

1901 – Wanamaker Announces His Plan To Replace The Grand Depot, and Construct The Building We Know Today, at 13th and Market Streets

Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, Wanamaker made public his most ambitions plans to date: a brand-new store at the 13th and Market Street location, to replace the current occupant – the Grand Depot - then 25 years old. The new building would encompass the entire city block between 13th, Market, Chestnut, and Juniper Streets. This building is the building we know today, now Macy's.

Naturally, the creation of the John Wanamaker Store was not easy, cheap, or quick. It took - literally - a decade to hire an architect, design the plans, and construct the building, as the first phase of construction began in 1902.

December 30, 1911 – U.S. President William Howard Taft Gives Address Dedication of the New John Wanamaker Store

The long-awaited opening of the John Wanamaker Store was such a big event, that U.S. President William Howard Taft gave the address at the dedication ceremony. Its architect, D. H. Burnham, symbolically gave Wanamaker the gold key to the building, at the end of the ceremony.

Wanamaker’s own words at the dedication, are worth quoting:

This notable edifice of ours takes its place as a central commanding figure in Philadelphia city life…, but more than this, it is a national building, specifically prepared to install the home of the new kind of store that originated here, embodying the new American mercantile system of retail commerce, which has spread over the world.

The John Wanamaker Store was an incredible architectural and commercial achievement. It was constructed in the Beaux Arts architectural style, which was heavily influential on the City Beautiful movement, that inspired, among other things, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Constructed of granite and limestone, the 12-story building covers nearly 45 acres of floor space. It includes the famous five-story Grand Court, where the most famous occupants of the John Wanamaker Store reside. It had 50 elevators to shuttle patrons up and down the floors.

The Wanamaker Organ

This organ, believed to be the largest in the world, was purchased by Wanamaker, after it appeared at the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904.

The Wanamaker Eagle – 10 Feet Tall and With 5,000 Individual Feathers

As with the Organ, the Eagle was also displayed in St. Louis in 1904. Created by the German sculptor August Gaul for the German Pavilion at the St. Louis Exhibition, the bronze Eagle stands 10 feet tall and has 5,000 customized feathers – all of which were cast individually and assembled in St. Louis.

The Crystal Tea Room on the 8th Floor

The Crystal Tea Room, still in existence – in fact, you can party there on New Year’s Eve 2010 - could accommodate 1,000 patrons over 22,000 square feet – and was the largest restaurant in Philadelphia.

1922 – The Death of John Wanamaker; His Family Continues the Business

1978 – The John Wanamaker Store Becomes A National Historic Landmark; the Wanamaker Family Sells the Chain To Other Department Stores

1995 – The Wanamaker Name Vanishes From All Stores; And Becomes Hecht’s, Temporarily

1997 – Wanamakers Becomes Lord & Taylor

1998 - The Year After the Wanamakers Name Vanishes From 13th and Market Streets, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) Places The Following Pennsylvania Historical Marker, Outside the John Wanamaker Store

JOHN WANAMAKER (1838-1922)

Philadelphia merchant, famous for the department stores bearing his name. In 1861 he opened his first store. He built his "new kind of store" here in 1876 and implemented new concepts including the one-price system and money-back guarantee. Active in public life, he built schools, churches, and missions in this and other nations. As U.S. Postmaster General, 1889-1893, he fostered rural free delivery and introduced the commemorative stamp.

August 2006 – Wanamakers Becomes Macy’s, Which It Remains Today

Source: Source: Historic Landmarks of Philadelphia, Roger W. Moss.

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