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Buildings & Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum 14 (2007) 13-49

Bringing "Downtown" to the Neighborhoods
Wieboldt's, Goldblatt's, and the Creation of Department Store Chains in Chicago
Richard Longstreth

Apprehension as well as excitement arose among retailers when rumors began to circulate in the summer of 1936 that a huge department store would open on State Street. Chicago's legendary shopping core, widely considered the nation's premier concentration of emporia, dominating trade within a great metropolitan region, had been badly shaken by the depression and also challenged by competitors in outlying sections of the city. Another store would bring greater crowds and vitality to State Street, observers agreed. Rising eleven stories and containing more than half a million square feet, the building was the largest of its kind anywhere for which plans were initiated since 1922.

But the big store did not represent a return to business as usual; quite to the contrary, it was an important sign of basic changes occurring in the retail field. The scheme, which was consummated in September, entailed purchase of an existing plant, opened as Rothschild & Company in 1912 and rechristened the Davis Store when it was acquired by Marshall Field & Company in 1923 as an outlet for its wholesale division (Figure 1). Field's ran the establishment as a "popular price" store for the lower-to-middle end of the market, completely independent of its own State Street emporium, yet the venture never became profitable. With a costly remodeling completed in 1934, sales were beginning to improve; however, Field's had already terminated its wholesale business and was receptive to a purchase offer made by Maurice and Nathan Goldblatt.

A decade earlier, it is doubtful if Field's executives had even heard of the Goldblatt brothers, let alone would entertain an offer from them. In 1926, the Goldblatts opened a five-story addition to their modest assemblage of buildings on Chicago Avenue in a blue-collar neighborhood on the city's west side—one of dozens of comparatively small department stores that catered to a localized trade throughout the quilt of Chicago's neighborhoods. Within two years, however, Goldblatt's started to expand further, soon becoming one of the largest stores outside downtown, and began opening other units as well. By 1936, the firm had nine large outlets in the metropolitan area, with an annual business exceeding $42 million (Figure 2). With the exception of Sears, Roebuck, no department store company better demonstrated how a large-scale operation could employ chain methods, relying entirely on neighborhood locations.1 Goldblatt's epitomized why challenges from beyond the urban core were giving State Street so much trouble.

Prior to World War II, Goldblatt's was the most conspicuous example of a phenomenon that helped transform conceptions of what a large-scale department store operation could be. For at least two generations, downtown was almost universally considered the prime location for a retail business of any size and importance among mainstream consumers—the ever-swelling middle class and the well-to-do. Stores based in neighborhoods were seen as belonging to a lower rank, providing everyday goods and services or catering to a working-class clientele with neither the time nor the money to shop downtown except, perhaps, on rare occasions. During the 1920s, major chain stores began to change the situation for the middle class, as did branches established by some prominent downtown [End Page 13] retailers, but the distinctions between city center and outlying areas remained pronounced.2 The many independently owned neighborhood department stores that could be found in U.S. cities were typically small affairs carrying a limited array of goods, generally of a lower standard than those for which the big downtown emporia were known, and whose business volume was likewise comparatively minuscule.

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Figure 1
Rothschild & Company department store, S. State and Van Buren streets, Chicago, 1909–12, Holabird & Roche, architects. Purchased by...


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