Monday, August 5, 2013

Final Days for the Last of the Big Three

According to a sales associate when I was making some purchases at the clearance sale recently, the last day of Macy's Downtown St. Louis store will be tomorrow. The date will mark the end of 100 years of existence of the department store on the lower floors of the 21 story Railway Exchange Building, which opened in late summer of 1913. 

With the announcement in May of the store closing and the beginning of the clearance sale on June 1st, by the 3rd week of July, the once grand store was looking very bare. Most merchandise had been consolidated on the first floor.

The fragrance and cosmetics counters were now stacked with varying arrays of housewares, pots and pans, small appliances and various misc. merchandise.

Even the candy counter near the Olive Street entrance was stripped down to a few trays of jelly beans Frango mints and odds & ends.

On the second floor, beyond the small area of remaining menswear and shoes were rows of various store fixtures and furnishings for sale. Included in the sale are all the oak tables and chairs from the former Fabar's restaurant at fairly inexpensive prices.

More fixtures and furnishings for sale.

This double sided curvy and somewhat tattered settee can be yours for $150.

On the third floor of the store there was no merchandise left and the sales floors were cordoned off into various sections of giant boxes of mannequins, holiday decorations and assorted store fixtures that were not for sale.

The decor of the west quarter of the third floor feels like a time warp back to 1985. While this area was most obvious, it does not take a trained eye to see that there had been little investment in the Downtown store for decades other than a coat of paint, carpeting and the installation of new escalators between the first and third floors in 2003 when the store was still a Famous Barr owned by the May Company. 

The last major remodel and freshening of finishes (other than consolidation of the store to three floors in 2011) had been prior to the opening of the St. Louis Centre mall in 1985. One has to wonder how much influence the stale appearance of the store had on retail sales.

William Barr Dry Goods 1910
The east half of the block bound by Olive, Locust, 6th and 7th Streets had been the site where William Barr, had built a new four story building for an expansion of his William Barr Dry Goods Company in 1880. This building was expanded to cover the entire block which became known as the Barr block. Photo circa 1910 from the University City Public Library collection.
Railway Exchange Rendering
Facing tough competition from the Grand Leader (Stix Baer & Fuller), which had opened a brand new 8-story building at 6th and Washington in 1906, and the May Company's Famous Clothing Company, Barr's owner decided to replace the outdated 4-story block with a new building that would house the enlarged department store and railway company executive offices above. In 1911, Barr's merged with the Famous Clothing Company to form the Famous & Barr Company and it was decided that the May Company headquarters would be housed in the new building as well. Original rendering of the Railway Exchange Building from the National Register nomination.

While the loss of Downtown St. Louis' last department store is somewhat sad, it had been a long time coming. Realistically the store had not seen foot traffic needed for sustained viability since the early to mid 1990's, when St. Louis Centre as a whole lost traffic to newer suburban competition, mainly the expansion of the Galleria which opened in 1992 (resulting in the closure of downtown Clayton's last department store). After the Centre was already on life support, Dillards closed the Washington Avenue store in 2001, which had already been converted to a clearance center.

Even after Macy's closed the midwest branch offices in the Railway Exchange Building above the store, they gave the store one final attempt (even if it was half-hearted) to survive. 

One of the problems with department stores may very well be that they have been around for too long. The traditional department store is still largely stuck in well into the last century. They have responded to the onslaught of the category killers, the Targets, to powerful brands like the Gap, Banana Republic, The Limited, Victoria's Secret, etc. sucking market share away, to urban lifestyle center, outlet centers and the slow death spiral of the traditional mall simply by consolidating, offering fewer product types, shrinking and closing stores in a triage like manner, but not significantly changing the overall store model or sales philosophy. This year Macy's is also closing stores in Downtown Houston, St. Paul and Honolulu. The reality is that we are not so much losing a great department store as much as we are losing a dinosaur.


Chris said...

Is that 'Low Rider' I hear playing in the background? Your pictures illustrate why no one shopped there: devoid of character, or really any exceptional reason to shop there (oh except for Papa Fabarre's, which they closed). Just another generic department store, which in of themselves are going our of business all over the country.

Vanishing STL said...

Chris, Yes and Yes. Macy's nor May Company for that matter did really anything to make the Downtown store a special place to go, make it an inviting place to shop or even spend any additional time in the bland muzak filled stripped-down environment than you absolutely had to when making a purchase. Yes, they really put themselves out of business.

Lowell said...

I visited this Macy's several times while living in Downtown STL over the past three years. One day I was shopping for a suit and found something that I liked. Shortly after I found out that they no longer had a tailor and hadn't had one for some time. The writing was on the wall...