Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Leaving Lord & Taylor

Main entrance to Lord & Taylor (1914)

Goodbye to yet another great American department store.  

Lord & Taylor’s Fifth Avenue flagship palace, built in 1914 in Italian Renaissance style, closed its doors on January 2.

Soon a company called WeWork, a decidedly 21st century enterprise, will carve the space into offices and meeting rooms available to the general public.  WeWork’s design team takes itself as seriously as did the building’s original architects, the firm of Starrett & Van Vleck.

Of course, it has been many years since shoppers could take the elevator to the tenth floor and dine in the Wedgwood Room or the Loggia: a cup of clam broth, a tongue sandwich; Cantaloupe Lillian for dessert.*  

And decades have passed since a fountain and frieze of glazed terra cotta decorated the walls and ceilings of the Cut Flowers Department.**

The Cut Flowers Department was located on a second-floor balcony; the
 Rookwood Pottery Company of Cincinnati created the architectural faience.

Once upon a time the Toy Department displayed its mechanical water toys in a 7 ’x 16’ tank.  Between 1914 and 1938, the Sixth Avenue Elevated conveniently stopped just a block away from the store.

Yet even as change came to Lord & Taylor, the store had a habit of standing still.  It evoked an earlier city.

I don’t mean that the store seemed quaint.  Rather, it connected generations:  for us, the tail-end baby boomers, to the city where our mothers emerged from the Depression and war, and fully came of age.   

A child feels very comfortable being held by the hand as an adult knowledgeably navigates a large, old building.  Such a place was Lord & Taylor, just like Grand Central Terminal. 

Lord & Taylor (1914)

The store has a long history.  Samuel Lord and George Washington Taylor opened their shop in 1826, far downtown on Catherine Street in a neighborhood now known as Two Bridges.  French satins, Indian shawls, and the like were purchased abroad.  The merchants aimed high.

Over time, Lord & Taylor moved north to the Lower East Side neighborhood, and then to Broadway where Lincoln’s funeral procession passed its black draped building in 1865.  But the city kept moving uptown, and in 1912, the company purchased land on Fifth Avenue between 38th and 39th Street.  The new store – with 600,000 square feet of floor space, a carriage and automobile entrance, and an employees’ gymnasium – was completed in 1914. 

Lord & Taylor was designed for women but its president – no surprise – was a man, Samuel Rayburn.  In the early 1920s, he became captivated by “the Little Shavers,” a quirky collection of small male and female dolls with odd names and colorful outfits.  Hand-crafted of cloth, with painted faces, the Little Shavers quickly became a fad among women and girls alike.

Drawings of Little Shavers from an article by Elsie Shaver

Two sisters, Elsie and Dorothy Shaver, had imagined the dolls after moving from Arkansas to New York City after World War I.  Elsie turned them out and Dorothy marketed them.  That is how she met Rayburn, who soon hired her to join his staff.  Dorothy rose through the ranks, establishing the store’s Bureau of Fashion & Design in 1925.  Soon after she was elected to the Board of Directors.  And in 1945, she became president of Lord & Taylor.

$110,000 Earned by Arkansas Girl announced a New York Times headline one year later.  She was the first woman to head a major retail store.  

Dorothy Shaver, 1950s

Dorothy Shaver brought Lord & Taylor into the modern age.  She had a gift for spotting trends and shifting tastes.  During the late 1920s, she decided to introduce modern art and home furnishings.  Off she went to France and brought back furniture, rugs, silver, glassware, and paintings by Utrillo, Braque and Picasso, which were exhibited in the store.

In 1932, Shaver introduced “the American Look,” championing American designers such as Claire McCardell.  She opened branches in the suburbs, helped establish the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute, and generously supported the Greater New York Fund and the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies.

Eventually she became a vice president of Associated Dry Goods, which owned Lord & Taylor.  She died in 1959 at the age of 66.

“We came to New York on a fast-running, extra-fare train from Chicago because Elsie was in a hurry to start her career,” Dorothy Shaver once told a reporter.

“I had no thought of a career for myself, then.  I just came along for the ride, and because New York sounded fabulous and exciting.  It was, and has been, fabulous and exciting to me ever since.”

Dorothy Shaver introduced the American Beauty
rose as a symbol of Lord & Taylor

As Joan Didion reflected in her 1967 farewell to New York, Goodbye to All That:

“I still believed in possibilities then, still had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.”

And the same for Dorothy Shaver as she strode through her department store, across the travertine floors edged with black Egyptian marble.

She really understood what Lord & Taylor meant to its patrons.


The Loggia Restaurant (1914)

*Cantaloupe Lillian, named after the actress Lillian Russell, was a half-cantaloupe with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in the middle.
**The Rookwood Pottery was established in 188o by Maria Longworth Nichols, inspired by her visit to the 1876 U. S. Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.  Many of its designs relate to the Arts & Crafts Movement.  The company is still in business.

1 comment:

  1. Janet Scardino used to love to shop there and would take me with her a few times. I remember this pair of brown leather pants that were seriously gorgeous, but an unreachable $28. I revisited them many times.
    You're right, it was a real link to older New York. Now what constitutes the Old Guard - Barney's?
    Things always change. Argh.

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