Wanamakers at 100: The Glory of Commercial Romanticism

More

The early 20th century department store was more than a retailing machine. It was almost a house of worship.

wannamakerorgan-body.jpg

The console of the Wanamaker Grand Court organ, which has six keyboards as well as a pedal board that is played with the feet, controls the world's largest playable pipe organ/ REUTERS

The Philadelphia Inquirer celebrates the centenary of one of the world's most notable retail buildings, Wanamaker's. Although retailing space has been downsized to a Macy's in the original grand first three stories, and most of its 1.9 million square feet are now filled with private offices, the once legendary department store edifice retains its unique aura as a proud survivor.

"It's a fantastic building . . . one of the most incredible," said Stephen J. Gleason, executive vice president of Amerimar Enterprises Inc. in Philadelphia, whose company owns the building and who visited the famous Wanamakers light show as a child.

"It's a cliche, but they don't build buildings like this anymore," Gleason said. "From the gold leaf in the lobby to the beautiful column capitals and the dentil moldings throughout the space, the ceiling height, it would be cost-prohibitive, if not impossible, to replicate."

The early 20th century department store was more than a retailing machine. It was almost a house of worship, a form of material uplift, built with the supreme confidence that art and craft would inspire traffic and sales. (A short history of the founder and his successors is here.) If this sounds exaggerated, listen to one of the organ concerts that are still presented, thanks to restoration by Macy's and the support of music lovers. It took 13 railroad cars to bring parts for the assembly of the original instrument, originally built for the 1904 St. Louis World Fair, and a triumph of electro-pneumatic control.

Capitalism is supposed to be rational, despite recent evidence to the contrary. What was glorious about late 19th and early 20th century America was how many individuals, families, and companies literally pulled out all stops for the sake of glory and civic pride, assuming buildings and organizations would go on forever. We shouldn't forget the organ's builder, Murray Harris, so committed to the project that his company went bankrupt.


Jump to comments
Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center and holds a Ph.D in European history. More

Edward Tenner is an independent writer and speaker on the history of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Chicago and was executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He is now an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, where he remains a senior research associate.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Do Men Assume They're So Great?

Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of this month's Atlantic cover story, sit down with Hanna Rosin to discuss the power of confidence and how self doubt holds women back. 


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

From This Author

Just In