Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A good history of the great department stores

Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class
by Jan Whitaker

This is an interesting book about the history of the grand department stores. It gives only passing mention to Herpolsheimer's but talks about many similar stores and the unique features they had, such as rooftop zoos, playrooms and train rides.

The Train Lives On!

I have just learned the train is now on display at the Grand Rapids Public Museum! It was donated to the museum in 2000 and will be on display Nov. 22 thru Jan 4. The train now belongs to the museum and will be preserved there.

This document has lots of interesting information about the train.

Perhaps one day it will run again. It would complement the carousel nicely!

Here is the Museum's website. I did not find anything on the train there.

Many thanks to Kristy Harrington, Marketing and Public Relations Specialist for the Public Museum, for sharing this information with me!

The History of Herpolsheimer's / Herp's

I nearly fell out of my seat during the movie The Polar Express, when the train passed a large dowtown department store called Herpolsheimer’s. Later in the movie we learn that one of the characters lives in Grand Rapids, MI. Having grown up there I knew that Herpolsheimer’s was a real store in Grand Rapids. How could the movie speak so personally to my childhood? It turned out that the author, Chris Van Ellsberg, grew up in Grand Rapids as well, so he wrote in references to his hometown and his memories.

I have looked around on the web but have found virtually no information on Herpolsheimer’s. For those who are interested, I present this brief history, based almost entirely on my own recollections. If you can add more information or details, please add them to this blog or contact me at pedirob @ gmail.com.

The downtown Herpolsheimer’s store was a fixture in Grand Rapids for decades. From the architecture, I would guess the building dates to around 1940-1950. When it opened, the store was touted as one of the most lavish and technologically advanced stores of its time. It featured a multi-story display window which usually showcased a huge American flag. Local lore held that it was the largest display window in the world, but I cannot tell if that was a fact or just a reflection of perhaps exaggerated civic pride. The store even had its own parking garage in the basement, a rather innovative concept at the time. The building included an elaborate conveyor belt system which carried packages to the parking garage. The idea was that shoppers could make purchases in various parts of the store and then pick them all up at once as they went back to their cars. The basement contained mostly clearance and discount items, but it also had a truly unique attraction for the kids -- a working, child-size monorail train suspended from the ceiling. I rode this as a teenager, and although I could barely fit in the cars, I’m glad I did it when I had the chance. (A similar elevated train operated at Meier and Frank in Portland, OR through 2005, when the store was shrunk and converted to Macy's. In 2006 the Santa's Wonderland was relocated to the basement of the the store, and the train was put on a non-operating display, because the ceiling was too low to operate it there.)
At some point the company shortened the name to Herp’s.

Visiting the store for the first time in the 1980s, I could sense I was witnessing an anachronism, a fragile moment frozen in time but about to vanish. Everything had a nostalgic appearance: yellowed light fixtures, brown rotary dial phones, old-style elevators and clerks ringing up purchases on massive, noisy mechanical cash registers. A sign suspended over the sidewalk read “Shop tonite ‘til ____,” recalling the once novel idea of staying open into the evenings. The store was well maintained but clearly dated and a little worn around the edges. I was never there during its heyday, but I can imagine that Herpolsheimer’s was quite an experience during the Christmas holidays in its early years. I can imagine the fancy store windows, the animated displays, the cash registers clanking, mountains of packages going down the conveyors, and kids squealing as the train ran around. It must have been quite an experience.

Former President Gerald Ford, a Grand Rapids native, met his wife Betty while she was working as a fashion coordinator at Herpolsheimer's. (Thanks to Amy Buttery for contributing this fact.)
By the 1980s, however, suburban malls had decimated downtown retail stores. In an effort to stimulate downtown shopping, the city closed off several blocks of Monroe Avenue, the main retail “strip” downtown, to create an outdoor pedestrian mall and park area, known as Monroe Mall. Herp’s stood right at the end of the outdoor mall. The city added benches, landscaping, art and fountains where the street used to be. Concerts, ice skating in the winter and other events attempted to lure people back to the heart of the city.

Around 1985 Herp’s and a development group unveiled a plan to use their downtown store as the anchor of a new, indoor downtown mall. A smaller, leaner Herp’s would occupy part of the building; the rest of the building, along with the adjacent Gantos building, would be converted into mall space. City planners hoped the mall would draw shoppers away from the suburbs and revitalize downtown shopping.

The plan sparked outcry from historic preservationists, as the historic Gantos building would be gutted inside and out to become an atrium and retail space, obliterating all historic elements of its architecture. In addition, a new two-story skywalk would connect the mall with a parking garage across the street, blocking a classic scenic vista as drivers approached downtown.

The plans proceeded over these objections. Herp’s temporarily consolidated the entire store into the basement while the renovation took place above. The Gantos building was destroyed; and the ugly skywalk went up. The exposed girders of the skywalk formed an “M” design which happened to be the architect’s first initial. Was this a coincidence or a subtle monument to himself? The Herpolsheimer building fared better; the exterior retained most of its original appearance. Herp’s also elected to return to the full Herpolsheimer’s name, in the belief that the longer name sounded more upscale.

Around 1986 the new mall, named City Center, opened amid great fanfare. Styled in the aqua and pink of the “Miami Vice” look which was all the rage at the time, the mall looked shiny and new but lacked any real character. Herpolsheimer’s returned to the upper floors of its building, and the basement became a food court. The overhead train remained in place and continued to operate. Most of the stores along the outdoor Monroe “Mall” relocated to City Center, leaving the Monroe Avenue pedestrian mall a barren wasteland of vacant storefronts.

In the 1990s Herpolsheimer’s was acquired by the Lazarus department store chain and adopted the Lazarus name. This company later became part of Macy’s operated as Lazarus-Macy’s until 2006, when Macy's converted all of its stores to the Macy's name.

City Center never really took off and never gave the suburban malls any serious competition. Why this concept failed in Grand Rapids when it worked so well in other cities is a matter of speculation. What is certain is that around 1992 City Center closed its doors, and the city essentially gave up on downtown retail. The Monroe Avenue pedestrian mall was torn out and the street reopened to cars.

In a rather unusual retrofit, the Grand Rapids Police Department took over the City Center building and made it into a new police headquarters. The police dropped the now-outdated Miami Vice look and remodeled it to resemble a generic office building. The eyesore skywalk came down. Today the Herpolsheimer’s building still stands but carries few traces of its original appearance. One can still see evidence of the large display window.

The producers of The Polar Express researched period photographs to create a movie version of Herpolshiemer’s reasonably similar to the original. Today, Herpolsheimer’s, Monroe Mall, and City Center are all gone with only the slightest traces remaining. But thanks to The Polar Express, memories of Herpolsheimer’s will live on for years to come.

Grand Rapids Public Library has several photos of Herpolsheimer's, including the elevated train, on its website.

Please add to this site!

If you have information on the history of Herp’s/Herpolsheimer’s, please blog it or email me (robert @ gmail.com) and I will add it to the site, giving credit of course. Any comments are most welcome as well. Thanks!
Some things I would like to know....
-Your memories of Herp’s/Herpolsheimer’s
-Any specific dates
-Any other information
-Anything in the way of photos
-Did Herp’s/Herpolsheimer’s have any other locations?