Students of classic architecture are well familiar the Georgian Period. The term “Georgian” is used to describe a style of architecture that was originally popular from around 1720 to 1830, during the reigns of British monarchs George I, II, III (who was in power when America declared and fought for its independence) and IV. Some of the distinctive features of the Georgian style are a strong sense of symmetry, paneled windows, dormers, mansard roofs and “quoined” corners, meaning a series of cornerstones from the foundation to the roofline, with staggered or columnar edges. Much of what is called “Early American” architecture falls within the Georgian school. This style has enjoyed a tremendous resurgence in the last couple of decades and is frequently used to convey a sense of importance or stateliness, on bank branches for instance, or on upscale homes. (Love those McMansions, right?)
Montgomery Ward had a “Georgian Period” of its own, shorter and of course much later than the original. From the mid 1930’s up until Wards froze all new construction in 1941, many new and remodeled units were cast in the Georgian mold, to great effect in my opinion. The motivation for Wards in this case was straightforward – prior to 1935 or so, there was no consistent exterior theme to the company’s stores, and Wards wanted a distinctive look, one that would impart a quality image. Concerned that a modern style would age poorly and be out of style after a few years, Wards opted for a “colonial” look, according to Chain Store Age, “because of its perennial appeal, its naturalness and its uniquely patriotic atmosphere”. It was a good thing, because (unbeknownst to Chain Store Age, or anyone else, including Ward employees at the time) the style would have to carry the company for nearly two decades, until new construction was finally restarted in 1958.
Another benefit to the Georgian designs Ward put together was the cost flexibility they allowed. For mid-level markets, such as Glens Falls, NY (the seventh photo above), cheap standard brick could be used, painted or stuccoed over in a cream color. For higher end stores, more expensive facing brick was used, and for major market units such as Detroit’s huge Gratiot Avenue store (fourth photo above), they could go all out, adding such flourishes as large columns on a rounded corner, all the while maintaining harmony with the Georgian look. Like A&P, who would later adopt the Early American exterior style for multitudes of its supermarkets, the interiors of these stores generally did not follow the colonial theme.
In the early 1930’s, Montgomery Ward was in deep trouble. Having quickly converted its handful of “display stores” into standard retail units, and well aware of how far they were trailing Sears, Wards launched a frantic store construction program. With 36 stores at the end of 1927, the company opened 208 more stores the following year and another 288 in 1929. Wards went from no stores to over 500 in just over three years! As one might expect, this incredibly rapid rollout of stores by a company whose entire previous experience was limited to mail order led to chaos. Mail order employees were pressed into service as retail store managers with negligible training. Profits went into the tank (Wards had a $9 million loss in 1931 – undeniably the deepening depression made matters worse), and rumors began to fly that Montgomery Ward faced no choice but to merge with Sears.
Wards needed a hero, and in 1931, one came at the behest of J.P. Morgan and Co., Wards’ major stockholder. He was 57-year old Sewell Lee Avery, a respected Chicago businessman who was chairman of United States Gypsum, the nation’s largest manufacturer of plaster and wallboard, and who sat on the boards of U.S. Steel, Armour and Company, Container Corporation of America and a number of other firms. Avery had taken over his father’s plaster business in 1905 and combined it with a number of competitors to form U.S. Gypsum, and was a true darling of Wall Street in those depression days, able to operate lean and still make money. When J.P. Morgan and Co. asked, Avery eventually agreed to take on the challenge of leading Wards out of the swamp. Interestingly, he would continue to head U.S. Gypsum during the entire 25 years he ran Montgomery Ward.
Three key actions marked Avery’s early tenure at Wards. First, Avery immediately put the Sears-Wards merger rumors to rest. Secondly, a number of the weaker stores were closed off the bat. Most importantly, Avery installed a team composed of some of the sharpest young retail talent of the day to help run the business. First was Frank Folsom, head of merchandising, who came from San Francisco’s Hale Bros. department store chain. Raymond H. Fogler, VP of operations for the stores and the nine gigantic mail order catalog houses, came to Wards from W.T. Grant Company. Walter Hoving was R.H. Macy’s star executive vice president in charge of sales, and at Wards he would assume charge of the catalog, company advertising and package design. Walter Baumhogger, a 13-year company veteran with a fine track record in Ward’s Chicago store district, was put in charge of the retail store division.
Under Avery and his new team, major improvement at Wards came about fairly quickly. The loss for 1932 was $5.7 million compared to $9 million the previous year, and in 1933 Wards turned a $2.2 million profit. The retail stores, formerly an albatross, accounted for the improvement in profits, offsetting a small loss on the company’s mail order business. In January 1935, Fortune magazine profiled the company’s turnaround, calling it “a notable rejuvenation of the Ward company“. Avery had lived up to the heroic expectations.
Ward’s store system was grouped along similar lines to that of Sears, with “A”, “B” and “C” designations. In 1935, according to the Fortune article, Wards had seventeen “A” stores, large units in major population centers. The “B” stores were by far the largest group, with 453 units, medium sized stores in towns ranging in population from 5,000 to 75,000, with an average of 20,000. The “C” stores, only 19 units at the time, were smaller stores that carried a lineup limited to tires and auto accessories.
In 1939, Montgomery Ward made an unlikely yet enduring contribution to America’s pop culture heritage. A Ward advertising copywriter named Robert L. May was assigned to put together a giveaway booklet for the stores to hand out as a Christmas promotion. He came up with a humorous twist on Clement Clark Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas”, only this time a ninth reindeer was added to lead the pack – Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. The little story was an instant hit. Years later, Wards transferred the rights to the story to May, whose brother-in-law Johnny Marks soon wrote the famous song based on it, with Gene Autry recording the resulting multimillion-selling hit.
In the Wards executive suite, high drama was becoming the order of the day. Ward’s chairman, Sewell Avery wielded an increasingly autocratic leadership style, and was beginning to drive away key Wards management talent. In 1937, Walter Hoving left to take the presidency of Lord & Taylor. Two years later, Frank Folsom quit to become the CEO of Goldblatts, a Chicago-based department store chain. A frustrated Raymond Fogler, by then president of Wards, resigned a few months afterward with no new job in hand. Fogler would soon rejoin his alma mater W. T. Grant, where he would enjoy a long, successful run through the forties, fifties and sixties as Grants’ president, then as chairman of the board. It was very destructive pattern for Wards, as Avery proceeded to run the company as a virtual one-man show, driving away scores of talented managers over the ensuing years, leaving the billion-dollar company with virtually no middle-management ranks. The company was effectively becoming a training ground for managers for its competition.
While these developments were mainly discussed only within retail executive and Wall Street circles, there was a public side to Avery’s exploits. Highly distrustful of the government and deeply disdainful of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Avery made the headlines with increasing frequency in the early and mid-1940’s. (Oddly enough, as the Fortune article points out, Roosevelt’s polices did much to help farm family income, a factor which had to have played a part in Ward’s sales increases with that all-important demographic.) Avery’s first clash with the Roosevelt administration was over the National Recovery Act (NRA), a New Deal agency created to regulate industrial competition. Avery withheld the $30,000 charge assessed by the NRA to Wards, and as a result was one of the very few companies to be denied the right to display the famous eagle logo, a symbol that could be seen literally anywhere you turned in 1933. The NRA was ultimately declared unconstitutional, to Avery’s delight.
Throughout World War II, Avery battled constantly with the War Labor Board, refusing to sign a 1942 labor contract that he felt would force Wards to become a closed shop (mandatory union membership). Ultimately, F.D.R. issued an order forcing Avery (and Wards) to sign the contract, which he begrudgingly did. Two years later, things came to a head again, when the government demanded an extension of the agreement pending an election. Avery, feeling that the contract “violated employees’ rights”, refused to sign off on the extension. Roosevelt, “As commander-in-chief in time of war”, warned Avery that the work stoppage was delaying the delivery of farm implements and other goods necessary for the war effort, threatening “further action” if Wards did not comply. Avery refused to obey the president’s order, and on April 26, 1944, “three olive-drab Army trucks rolled up to Montgomery Ward’s main entrance”, as related in a Time Magazine article entitled “Seizure!”, which described the spectacle in detail the following week:
“Out jumped a 44-man unit of battle-helmeted Military Police under command of Lieut. Ludwig Pincura. Bayonets glinted in the afternoon sun. Followed by four enlisted men, Lieut. Pincura began his bloodless invasion. On the eighth floor the five pairs of Army brogans clattered across the green-and-white-squared linoleum, then moved noiselessly through the deep-carpeted executive offices.
Sewell Avery was not surprised to see them. He smiled. After a moment's embarrassed silence, Lieut. Pincura said: "Under authority vested in me by the President of the United States I am taking over this plant."
Asked Sewell Avery: "Does that mean I have to leave?"
"Yes," said the commander of the Army of Occupation."
And so it was. Montgomery Ward was now under the control of the U.S. Army, and 69-year old Sewell Avery, who refused to comply every inch of the way, was bodily removed from his office by two servicemen, as immortalized in this famous photo. The “occupation”, which Time surmised was on questionable legal ground, lasted four days, and all the while president Roosevelt was on vacation in Warm Springs, Georgia. Eventually, the whole case was scrapped.
Things would get worse (although not necessarily this crazy) for Wards before they would get better.
The photos above, from Chain Store Age, depict Montgomery Ward stores opened between approximately 1935 and 1940. Top to bottom, they are: (1) Hagerstown, Maryland, (2) Kansas City, Kansas, (3) Enid, Oklahoma, (4) Detroit, Michigan – Gratiot Avenue, (5) La Grange, Illinois, (6) Dearborn, Michigan, (shown here in late 2006 and torn down only last year *sigh*) (7) Glens Falls, New York, (8) Trenton, New Jersey and (9) Rome, Georgia.
For years I drove by the La Grange store without the slightest clue as to the building’s Wards heritage. It is now home to an Italian restaurant called Bella Bacino’s. If anyone has an update on the fate of any of the other stores, please let us know!
Below is a very highly modified Georgian from the same era, a West Palm Beach, Florida unit. King George must have had a winter place there.
Thanks to Nessa for sending along links to some great photos she has taken of the following Georgian-style Wards buildings - Cumberland, Maryland, Morgantown, West Virginia and Cambridge, Ohio. Check out her Flickr page to see many other photos with a great sense of history and fun!