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Wanamaker legacy at 100

Fabled building still serves thanks to the vision of many.

In Macy's atrium, the renowned light show glimmers above holiday shoppers, as it has for decades. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)
In Macy's atrium, the renowned light show glimmers above holiday shoppers, as it has for decades. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)Read more

In a horse-and-buggy age, it rose as a 12-story temple to retailing. It stands today as a place of worship for a metropolis of pedestrians, poets, and holiday shoppers enchanted by the tradition it embodies and the majesty of its architecture.

One hundred years ago Friday in Philadelphia, William Howard Taft stood on a stage above the bronze eagle statue inside the Wanamaker Building and dedicated the city's first modern department store. The presidential visit capped seven years of construction on the monolith at 13th and Market Streets that, after renovations through the decades, is now one of the largest office buildings in the 21st-century city.

Much can be said of its longevity. It housed John Wanamaker, a department store name that became as famous as Strawbridge & Clothier, Gimbel Bros., and Lit Bros. a few streets over. It outlived them all, as shopping went suburban and corporate and those names vanished.

But the true marvel of this anniversary is that the very building that houses the only remaining department store in downtown Philadelphia (now a Macy's) has itself to thank for its salvation.

The nearly 1.9 million-square-foot edifice of granite walls framed with steel was constructed with such spare-no-expense vision it has inspired awe among generations of Philadelphians who flowed through it.

That emotional power inspired even the moneyed investors who bought and sold the building in tenuous years and who lovingly transformed it for a modern-day economy.

“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."

"Astonishing," is how David Hollenberg, an architect who worked on its $250 million restoration in 1989-92, breathlessly described it. "It's an incredible building."

The man who persuaded Brickstone Co. to buy and restore it back then, John J. Connors, can barely conceal his love for the building he wishes he could say was still his. Brickstone lost ownership to Amerimar in 1997, when an investment partner pushed to divest.

"If you're going to be in the historic-rehab business, Wanamakers is the brass ring," said Connors, who recalls building specifications like ingredients in a favorite recipe. "It's the holy of holies."

In May, the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects bestowed its Landmark Building Award on the soon-to-be-centenarian. One member of AIA's preservation committee praised it for more than its architecture.

"You can be a 21st-century Philadelphian looking at what appears to be a 1950s light show but being within a 100-year-old space," said committee cochair Shawn Evans. "That is what Philadelphia is about."

Constructed over a city block, the building was conceived not just as a majestic linchpin to the burgeoning Wanamaker retail chain, but as a world-class destination.

The structure, designed by renowned Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, stands in the shadow of ostentatious City Hall, itself completed just a decade before Taft's visit to the eagle.

"I joke that it and some of its neighbors were the box that City Hall came in," Hollenberg said. "City Hall is very flamboyant, and this is just a very chaste, serene, dignified, solid, masculine building as a backdrop to it."

John Wanamaker's lavish financing and vision are reasons the building has enduring value. Another is Burnham's imagination: "It's a tribute to him and to all the people who have owned it before us," Gleason said, "that it's still functioning 100 years later."

The sheer size of Burnham and Wanamaker's creation can be underestimated against the contemporary skyscraper-dominated skyline.

Each floor is about the size of three football fields; if constructed at street level, they would swallow 12 city blocks.

"Wanamakers was, literally, the engineering marvel of its time," Connors said.

When it opened, it was the city's first fully sprinklered commercial structure and had nearly four dozen elevators, most of them hydraulic and powered by pistons that shot 250 feet into the earth. It had cooling and heating systems that prevented weather damage for decades, too, he said.

Sales areas were organized around a central court that rose five floors and overlooked the bronze eagle below - the statue had been at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. The Crystal Tea Room, with its towering ceilings and two long banks of elevators, beckoned on the ninth floor.

John Wanamaker had a colossal pipe organ shipped to Philadelphia on 13 railcars, then rebuilt in the grand court and played publicly for the first time in June 1911.

In 1956, Wanamakers unveiled its towering atrium display of Christmas lights.

With suburbanization, however, came shopping malls and decline for Wanamakers and its peers. In 1978, John Wanamaker's heirs sold the chain; the flagship store was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The famous pipe organ continued to serenade customers, a relic of its larger-than-life past. Hollenberg said his wife, a New York native, still tells stories about her first encounter with it.

"She was in a dressing room right behind the organ, and it started to play, and she screamed - had no idea what was going on," Hollenberg said. "The notion that a 12-square-block building would be permeated by organ music at regular intervals every single day of the year was amazing."

But flagging business was becoming a drain on the herculean building. The flagship traded hands to Michigan real estate investor A. Alfred Taubman in 1986 before being bought a year later by Brickstone and partners.

Brickstone was convinced that if the top seven floors were converted to offices, and the basement to parking, the building could become economically viable for decades to come.

"This wasn't a renovation to sort of see what needed to be upgraded," Connors said of the historic-tax-credit project. "This was a completely new building in an old building shell."

Brickstone enclosed the top seven floors with glass panes engineered to block out the sound of the organ. The owner also upgraded many of the elevators; created separate access for office tenants; modernized electrical, lighting, and other systems; and did much more.

"We are constitutionally incapable of cheap," Connors said. The goal was to create top-tier office space so alluring tenants would pay high rents and never leave.

Amerimar was so enamored of Brickstone's work - and the sale price, which was not disclosed - that it bought the building with investment partners in 1997. But rather than rebrand it, its owners carved "The Wanamaker Building" into its facade in 2005, after winning over the city Historical Commission.

"We actually made our case to them at the hearing that we were trying to protect the Wanamaker Building brand and preserve the identity of the building," said Marita S. Osborne, Amerimar's general manager at the site. "That swayed them."

Amerimar also converted the fourth and fifth floors to offices, following the template Brickstone set.

Today, the building is fully leased, with 5,000 office workers and three stories devoted to Macy's, which took over in 2006. After Wanamakers went bankrupt in the 1990s, a procession of other stores - Hecht's, Strawbridge's, Lord & Taylor - came and went.

Macy's undertook a $700,000 upgrade of the light show and made the pipe organ fully operational. The retailer also inherited the Dickens Village holiday display from a shuttered Strawbridge's down the street.

Store manager James Kenny, 59, who grew up watching the light show and who worked for Strawbridge's before joining Macy's, loves that commuters cut through every day on their way to work.

"When you walk through my building - I call it my building," Kenny said, chuckling as he corrected himself - "through the Macy's building, there's plaques all over the wall, whether it's [to] World War II, to where President Taft dedicated the building. There's one tremendous history here."

One that, restoration architect Hollenberg believes, is nowhere near its end.

"I'm not great at predicting the future, but I think we're looking at the future," he said. "Long may it thrive!"

Milestones at the Wanamaker Building

1904: Construction of the 12-story, 1.89-million-square-foot building for the John Wanamaker department store begins at 13th and Market Streets. The architect is Daniel H. Burnham.

1911: On Dec. 30, President William Howard Taft attends a dedication ceremony for the newly completed, first modern department store in Philadelphia.

1922: Department store founder John Wanamaker dies.

1956: Wanamaker's premieres its Christmas light show, several stories high, in the atrium.

1978: John Wanamaker's heirs sell the chain. Flagship store is added to the National Register of Historic Places.

1986: Woodward & Lothrop Inc., owned by real estate investor A. Alfred Taubman, buys Wanamaker's then-16 stores.

1987: Brickstone Realty Co. and partners buy the Wanamaker Building.

1989-92: Brickstone embarks on a $250 million historic renovation, converting the top seven floors to office space, the basement to a parking garage, and making other sweeping upgrades.

1994: Woodward & Lothrop files for bankruptcy.

1995: Wanamaker's stores vanish; the flagship becomes a Hecht's department store.

1996: The site becomes a Strawbridge's.

1997: The site becomes a Lord & Taylor. Amerimar Enterprises Inc. and partners acquire controlling interest in the building. Amerimar converts the fourth and fifth floors to office space.

2005: "The Wanamaker Building" is engraved into the facade.

2006: The site becomes a Macy's. The Dickens Village holiday display is brought over from a nearby shuttered Strawbridge's.

2008: Macy's completes $700,000 light-show upgrade.

2009: Repairs on the massive historic pipe organ are completed, rendering it 100 percent operational for the first time in years.EndText