Tuesday, February 7, 2012

From the Archives: Big Retail Comes and Goes with Stern's

In this post, archivist Anne Kumer shares some park history. This post also appears on NYC Circa, a history blog about New York City, its buildings, and public spaces.

The photo below is one of the earliest I have on file of Bryant Park, and maybe one of the most interesting. It shows West 42nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, about where the W.R. Grace building is now, and a zillion benches lining paths inside the park. All of those buildings have been razed and replaced, and in many cases, their replacements replaced. It was taken in 1912, one year before the Stern brothers built a large flagship store in about the same place on the block.

Photo: BPC Archive

This postcard, most likely of the park between 1913 and 1917 (after Stern's was built, but before the Eagle Hut and Victory Garden), shows the same stretch of West 42nd Street, a pre-Chrysler building skyline, and offers further evidence of park bench enthusiasm.

 Postcard: Pisark's

The retailer had been growing steadily for several years by the time Stern's built the 42nd Street flagship store. It was founded in 1867 as the Stern Brothers Department Store in Buffalo, New York. Just one year later, the company operated out of a one room store on Sixth Avenue, As the store grew, they eventually moved from the Sixth Avenue location, and built built a six-story Renaissance Revival building on West 23rd Street in 1879. Here it is in 1899:

Image: NYPL Digital
And again in 1905, after a few renovations and additions:

Stern Brothers’ dry goods esta... Digital ID: 809803. New York Public Library
Image: NYPL Digital
The building still stands, but now houses a Home Depot that only seems to stock house paint, potted plants, and light fixtures. (If you need actual tools or hardware, venture to the outer borough locations.) Still, it's a pleasure to shop in because of natural light afforded by the huge windows and open floor plan.

Stern Brothers
Mattron flickr
In 1913 the company moved from this location to build a new flagship store on West 42nd Street, across from Bryant Park, where it would remain for many years. That building was nine stores tall, with a separate entrance for those wealthy enough to be in the know. The new building was a big enough deal for the Indiana Limestone Company to use it and the neighboring Aeolian building in a 1921 advertisement for their product.

Image: NYPL Digital

As one of the larger department stores in the city, Stern's had a vast inventory of goods. Here are some entertaining bits from the store's directory:

Subway / Basement Level - buying offices, and among other things, something called the Bryant Park Shops
Street Level - impulse buys for women (jewelry, cosmetics) and convenience for men (shoes, suits, etc.), and umbrellas, which have their own department
Street Floor Mezzanine - "surgical aids," cameras
2nd Floor - children's, lingere (These always on the same floor in most large department stores, and usually not too far from linens and bedding -- an entire female existence centered around sex.)
3rd floor -- fashion, fur, leather
4th Floor - domestics - drapes, bedding, and linens
5th Floor - fireplace shop (I know it's relevant for the early 1900s, but in today's context it's hilarious.)

The Department Store Museum has a complete listing, and other useful Stern's info.

By the late 1960s the sales in everything had declined significantly. The flagship store was moved to Bergen Mall in New Jersey, taking with it, West 42nd Street's status as a retail center. The building was sold and torn down to make room for the Grace Building, built by the W.R. Grace Chemical Company, and designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill Architects (SOM).

W.R. Grace Building, January 2012. Photo: A. Kumer

Construction started on the Grace building in 1971, and was completed in 1974. It is one of two buildings in the city to have a sloped facade. The other, also designed by Bunshaft is the Solow building. The design of the Grace building is rumored to come from the rejected sketches of the Solow building facade.

Though retail still exists on the ground floor of most of the buildings on this block, I doubt any have a fireplace department.

Other Sources:
To read more about The Stern Brothers' former locations, click here.

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