Unbuttoned: New York’s Lost Department Stores

New York’s Lost Department Stores

Whether or not you shopped there, you should be sorry to see Henri Bendel and Lord & Taylor’s flagship go.

The “street of shops” at Henri Bendel in 1981. CreditCreditEdward Hausner/The New York Times

On Saturday, Henri Bendel, the department store whose brown and white stripes once defined the concept of the boutique as a carnival of gewgaws and glamour, will shut its doors for the last time. It has been a slow farewell, 24 stores blinking out like fireflies since the start of the year, culminating with the shuttering of the New York flagship this week. (The website will stay open until Jan. 31.)

It comes two weeks after Lord & Taylor on Fifth Avenue held its last fire sale, leaving its echoing Italian Renaissance halls empty in order to make way for a new tenant. (Other Lord & Taylor stores, as well as its website, remain open.)

Both events were signaled last fall (though at first Lord & Taylor said it was simply downsizing and would keep a presence on the ground floor of its famous building). As a result, locking the actual door was almost an afterthought. Most of us have already done our mourning and bemoaning, our breast-beating about the digital future.

It may be inevitable — such emporiums are going the way of the glossy magazine, which is going the way of the dodo — but that doesn’t mean we should be cavalier.

Lord & Taylor, after a face-lift in 1977.CreditNeal Boenzi/The New York Times

It is true that retail is a Darwinian world, one in which only the ruthless and omni-channel-adept survive. B. Altman and Bonwit Teller closed back in the last millennium, and the sky did not fall. Gimbels and Alexander’s are no more.

The rumors around Barneys New York on Madison won’t go away. Saks Fifth Avenue just shut its women’s store in Brookfield Place in downtown Manhattan, and almost no one blinked. (Though that may have been because few people realized it was there; in any case, it’s worth noting that both Saks and Lord & Taylor are owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which is in turn controlled by NRDC Equity Partners.)

Yet never fear: The Saks crown jewel on Fifth Avenue across from Rockefeller Center is in the midst of a much-heralded makeover, complete with the arrival of L’Avenue, the canteen of Avenue Montaigne, to feed the ravening fashion hordes. Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus are coming. Thus the world turns on the engine of capitalism.

While the end of the Saks downtown women’s experiment, which lasted approximately two years, is mostly the story of a business bet on a consumer group that never materialized, the demise of the other two stores — each present for more than a century — represents the end of an idea.

What were these grand department stores but monuments to our shared history, repositories of group memory? That’s why, whenever the end of the department store comes up, people immediately begin to quote everything from Émile Zola and “The Ladies’ Paradise” to Judith Krantz and “Scruples.” It’s why Midge Maisel was given a day job working the switchboard at B. Altman.


In 1942, Lord & Taylor offered night shopping for war workers.CreditThe New York Times

They represented not only consumption, but also much more: the way New York became a city of aspiration, invention and reinvention. They were about communion and the treasure hunt for identity; rites of passage individual and generational. In their walls, memories lie. Losing them, we lose a piece of our own past too.

Few stores embodied it as much as the flagship of Bendel’s, currently owned by the beleaguered L Brands (which has other problems thanks to Victoria’s Secret). When it was on 57th Street, up until the late 1980s, it was known for its trendsetting past, as the place that introduced Coco Chanel to the United States and employed Andy Warhol as an illustrator. In its Fifth Avenue space, behind its grand Lalique window, shoppers browsed beneath a soaring atrium backed by a sweeping staircase.

Or Lord & Taylor, with its 11 floors of grand proportions and democratic attitude, more affordable and approachable than the haute Bergdorf Goodman to the north, focused on the virtues of American sportswear.

Together, they elevated even the most mundane purchase to the level of so-called experience and entertainment, concepts discussed today as a breakthrough in retail thinking. As if.

That was always what these stores provided. Lord & Taylor once had a concert hall. It had the first lunch bar. Bendel’s created the “street of shops” within its shop in its 57th Street incarnation.

Not to mention the fact that both stores were run by women long before the industry at large woke up to the need to address its own gender imbalance: Geraldine Stutz, who presided over Bendel’s from 1957 to 1986; and Dorothy Shaver at Lord & Taylor from 1945 to 1959.


B. AltmanCreditKeith Meyers/The New York Times

Unlike the e-tail world, which exists in the unmoored present, these stores all came with a past.

I am one of those people who always found the abundance of the department store overwhelming as opposed to comforting. (My reluctance had less to do with the efficiency of the online world than with my own personal option anxiety.) But I know there are many who didn’t feel that way, who saw the muchness of color and texture and product as a psychic comfort.

They didn’t go to stores to buy, necessarily, but to revel in a world that offered sensory delight without judgment. Unlike in the boutiques of today, no one followed you around watching to see if you would buy. You were anonymous until you didn’t want to be.

I associate these stores with my grandmother, who left school at 12 during the Depression and for whom browsing was a joy. If Walter Benjamin saw the arcades of France as the last refuge of the flâneur, the department stores of New York were the refuge of those who wanted, for a moment, to pretend they were enjoying the life of the flâneur. To escape into fantasy.

And I remember lining up behind velvet ropes to be bedazzled by the Christmas windows. (Lord & Taylor did those first. too.) Being seduced by the perfume spritzers and the idea that you could experiment with impunity — Bendel’s was the first retailer to have its own fragrance — and by the free makeovers. (Lord & Taylor was the first store to offer those.) Having friends who came in from out of town and wanted to shop at them the same way they wanted to see the Empire State Building.

Bonwit Teller, whose windows were once designed by Salvador Dalí, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, and which was housed in a building on 57th Street with Art Deco bas-reliefs flanking its ninth floor, was unceremoniously demolished to make room for Trump Tower in 1980. Fah! to history. That’s an omen, if I’ve ever heard one.

Both the Lord & Taylor building and Bendel’s have been designated landmarks, so at least the physical plants won’t suffer the same erasure, but still.

Once, during my scavenging days in the 1990s, I happened upon the monumental chandeliers from B. Altman’s 34th Street store in the cavernous warehouse of an urban archaeology outpost. Buried among the oak filing cabinets and the cast-iron radiators, coated lightly in dust, they looked like crystal monoliths from another time.

Vanessa Friedman is The Times’s fashion director and chief fashion critic. She was previously the fashion editor of the Financial Times. @VVFriedman

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page D1 of the New York edition with the headline: Recalling Gilded Palaces of Retail. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe


Published at Wed, 16 Jan 2019 15:58:01 +0000