Department Store Blues: When Lord & Taylor moved to Fifth Avenue – and when they’ll move out

The landscape of New York City is filled with large, elegant buildings, the former homes of lavish department stores.

So many neighborhoods are defined by architecture left behind by former shopping emporiums; the stretch of Broadway that runs from City Hall to 23rd Street is dotted with old stores. The Sixth Avenue stretch of Ladies Mile, of course, has been revitalized with big-box national retailers like Home Deport, Bed Bath and Beyond and Old Navy.

Macy’s has famously made Herald Square its home since 1902. It sits near other old department stores long ago vacated by competitors. High-end department stores fled even further north, following the trail of moneyed elite along Fifth Avenue — Saks, Barney’s, Bergdorf Goodman.

But one single holdout kept guard on that stretch of Fifth Avenue between the Empire State Building and the New York Public Library.

Worsinger/Museum of the City of New York

For almost 105 years, Lord & Taylor has lured shoppers to its handsome flagship store between 38th and 39th Streets, even as the neighborhood transitioned to office towers and store-front retail destinations. Many considered the Lord & Taylor Christmas window displays to be one of New York’s finest contributions to the holiday.

But the tradition has come to an end. In October the building was sold to coworking space WeWork, and yesterday, Lord & Taylor announced they would move out of the building entirely after this year’s holiday season. (They had originally suggested they would at least keep a smaller retail presence in the building.)

When they moved here in 1914, Midtown Manhattan was a very different place indeed.

NYPL


Lord & Taylor’s at Fifth Avenue and 38th Street, in the 1920s, photo by the Wurts Brothers (courtesy NYPL)


Lord and Taylor Department Store opened the doors to their tony Fifth Avenue address one hundred years ago yesterday, on February 24, 1914.

“Half way between Madison Square and Central Park on the west side of Fifth Avenue, is the new Lord & Taylor store in the very centre of the sphere of fashionable activity of the city and is convenient to all the transportation lines, to the hotels and restaurants and to the theatres.”

The store traces its lineage to a three-story women’s clothing store on 47 Catherine Street, which was opened in 1826 by Samuel Lord and George Washington Taylor. Nearby, men could find equally fine fashions at the clothier of H & D.H.. Brooks (today Brooks Brothers) at Catherine and Cherry Streets. Catherine Street is hardly a place where you would look for high-end brands today, located between the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges.

Lord & Taylor had subsequent locations in Manhattan at Broadway and Grand Street and, later, at Broadway and 20th Street on Ladies Mile.

Flash forward to 1914 — the new store was an automated wonder, according to the New York Sun, equipped with a system of conveyor belts. “[T]he human equation has been eliminated wherever possible and machinery performs its part quietly and out of sight.”

Shoppers could also escape to the tenth floor for “a dainty luncheon” or some afternoon tea:

 

The Mandarin Room, at its opening:

MCNY/Wurts Brothers

 

The building was constructed in the go-to architectural style for department stores — Italian Renaissance Revival — and built, naturally, by the go-to architectural firm for such places, Starrett and Van Vleck, also known for Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue.

The new store made a unique appeal to the male shopper with its tailored men’s department, “a realm of complete masculinity”. There was a men’s-only entrance on the 38th Street side where gentlemen could access the Manicuring Parlor. “[M]ake your purchases, be shaved and manicured, change your clothing, if you like, and leave without passing through any of the departments where women’s goods are sold.” In addition, the entire fourth floor was “devoted to men’s apparel and accessories for motoring.”

The store also had featured an Equestrienne Section, including “a mechanical horse, duplicating the actual motion of walking, trotting, or cantering.”

Employees could even once take their lunch on the roof of the department store (pictured here in 1919).

Museum of the City of New York

And what could you buy at Lord & Taylor in 1914? Here’s a sample of product listings from the December 13, 1914, edition of the New York Times:

 

In 2007, the Lord & Taylor building was made an official New York landmark. And so the building will still be around, even in the establishment that made it such a special place will be gone for good in a few months.

One question remains — are the classic Christmas window displays also gone for good? They were, after all, “the first to create Christmas windows for entertainment, rather than for selling merchandise.” Could the building’s new tenant WeWork come up with something interesting?

(Portions of this article were taken from my 1914 article here)