Monday, July 19, 2010

Wards in Huntington Beach, 1966

The circa 1965 artist’s rendering above shows the Montgomery Ward store that opened the following year at Huntington Center, an indoor shopping mall located in Huntington Beach, California, at the intersection of Edinger Avenue and Beach Boulevard, near the San Diego Freeway. Huntington Beach, located in Orange County, is officially nicknamed “Surf City USA”, a nod to its 8.5 mile long beachfront on the Pacific Coast.

Now I’ve never been handy with a surfboard (by virtue of the fact that you actually have to stand up on the things), and every time I’ve set foot in Pacific waters they’ve been freezing, but I do like to explore old stores. And to the best of my knowledge, unless something’s changed recently, this baby still exists! Abandoned, boarded up and likely falling apart, but still standing.

Things were very bright in the early 1960’s, though, when shopping centers were popping up all over the country, and as mentioned with ridiculous frequency on this site, nowhere was the action more…uh, active than in Southern California. All the conditions were right for phenomenal growth – exploding population, youth-dominated culture, growing middle-class affluence (with thousands of aerospace and defense-worker families in the area) – and that’s exactly what took place.

By the mid-sixties, Montgomery Ward had designated SoCal as the centerpiece of its expansion strategy. In a speech before the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce in May 1966, at which point new Wards stores had recently opened in Covina, Ventura and Fullerton, and would be soon forthcoming in Huntington Beach, Norwalk and Rosemead, Wards president Ed Donnell declared the company’s intention to make the greater L.A. area its “largest metropolitan district”. Going forward, one out of five new Wards stores would be opened there. At the time there were 7 full-line retail stores and 12 catalog stores in the area, while the company’s largest district, Chicago, had 12 full-line stores and 27 catalog outlets.

I have to think that beyond the obvious appeal of the dynamic Southern California market, there was another possible reason behind this. Prior to his tenure at Wards, Donnell was Sears, Roebuck and Co.’s Los Angeles district manager, part of that company’s “Far West” territory. The Sears stores in SoCal were in a class by themselves – much larger average size, often very striking architecturally, and a strong first place in sales. As a result, that region was by far the most important in power and influence within Sears. To go head-to-head with his former company in their best area would have been an extremely hard thing to resist. (A great read for those interested in retail history is “The Big Store” by Donald Katz, a history of Sears that emphasizes the 70’s-mid 80’s. The book’s opening story, about the demotion of a Sears executive from the hallowed West Coast top spot to the same but far less prestigious job in Chicago, is told in a riveting fashion. Seriously, who needs James Patterson when you can read this stuff?)

In April 1964, two months after the Beatles’ three consecutive appearances on the Ed Sullivan show, the Long Beach Press-Telegram announced plans for a new shopping center in Huntington Beach, to be anchored by The Broadway, a well-known local department store chain, J.C. Penney and Montgomery Ward. Initially slated to open in the fall of 1965, only The Broadway’s store ended up being ready at that time. The rest of the center would open a year later. Huntington Center’s official grand opening festivities kicked off on November 16, 1966, at which time the Beatles were all growing moustaches and had begun work on their Sgt. Pepper album. (Ok, I’ll can the Beatles references from here out.)

Beatles. (Sorry!) Early press reports had mentioned the Wards unit would be Huntington Center’s largest store, but as it turned out, the Penneys store surpassed it slightly, with The Broadway coming in a not-too-distant third in the square footage sweepstakes. All three anchors had freestanding auto centers. Some of the other notable tenants at Huntington Center included women’s specialty shops such as Lerner Shops and Mode O’Day, men’s retailers Harris and Frank and Bond Clothes, the legendary See’s Candies (I literally cannot pass one of their stores without buying something), local mainstay Thrifty Drugs and Food Fair, a major player in the supermarket world up and down the East Coast but still a relative newcomer to California.

And so it continued for the next 30 years or so. A new wing was added in 1986, including a fourth anchor, Mervyn’s. But time and the myriad changes in retail would eventually take their toll on the mall and of course, on Wards itself. In 1992, J.C. Penney left for the greener pastures of nearby Westminster Mall, taking over the J.W. Robinson space left vacant by the Robinsons-May Company merger. A 1996 merger brought about the closure of The Broadway, when parent Broadway Stores (formerly Carter Hawley Hale) was bought out by Federated Department Stores, who would convert the Fashion Island Broadway store in nearby Newport Beach to a Bloomingdale’s.

In early 2001, Montgomery Ward, the last original anchor at Huntington Center, closed down when the chain itself ceased operations. In 2004, a massive redeveloping of the mall took place, in which most of the enclosed mall was torn down. In its place rose a new, upscale open-air “lifestyle center” now known as Bella Terra Mall. The one original structure to be reused was The Broadway store, now a Kohl’s with a three-toned paint job over the store’s funky 60’s textured walls.

The Wards store, now detached from the mall, sits to the side, abandoned and unloved - except by fans of old retail, that is. This website has some great photos taken in 2006. Since then, the signage has been removed but the labelscars are still visible, and of course the unique bas-relief “MW” logos still exist.

See it while you can – on the way to the beach, of course!

Pictured below, just for fun, is the Wards store in Ventura, another attractive store which featured the same architectural style (including the simple, elegant pendant lighting) as the Huntington Beach location. This store opened at the Buenaventura Shopping Center six months before the HB store, on March 2, 1966.

Chris Jepsen of the great O.C. History Roundup website informs us that plans are afoot to build a Costco on the Wards side of the former Huntington Center. So if you want to see it, you'd best "carpe the diem, seize the carp", or something like that!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Ah, 4th of July Memories!

One of the great things about our national holiday is the opportunity to enjoy a picnic meal and play games in the great outdoors. Something about that fresh air combined with the smell of good food – you just can’t beat it. Our family is no different – we love it!

And where do you think we went yesterday – some lame state park or other place like that? No way!

We went right down to our local 7-Eleven and set up our picnic right there in the parking lot! It was so convenient, and the great thing is you can pack extremely light – almost everything you could need is right there in the store. You have to be careful when sending your kids in to buy things, though – or they’re likely to come out with extra stuff (read: candy) everytime!

Now I know you’re probably thinking (among other things) “Wow, I’ll bet that pavement is really uncomfortable to sit on!” Not at all. After ten minutes or so, your butt falls asleep – problem solved!

The only issue we ran into involved one of our favorite outdoor games – lawn darts! Sure, those things are dangerous even in a soft, mushy backyard, but on concrete they bounce like a son of a gun! (“Ooh, sorry about that! I’ll run into the Sev for some gauze and adhesive tape!”)

All in all we had a great time, though. Why, we’ve even begun to scope out Walgreens locations for Labor Day – goodness knows there are enough to choose from!

Today is the third anniversary of this website. I just want to say that your readership, comments and emails and lately, your patience – are deeply appreciated.

Hope you’ve had a wonderful holiday as well!


(Oh… and I really do like state parks!)

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Fair Comes to Wards

For 85 years, Montgomery Ward had been a landmark Chicago institution. The irony was that after all those years, the company maintained only one retail store within the Chicago city limits (inside a portion of their home office complex) and a minimal presence in the greater metropolitan area (a medium-sized store in La Grange and a few others). In 1957, with Wards in an expansion mode for once, that finally changed. Even so, several more years would go by before the Montgomery Ward name would grace any additional Chicago area storefronts.

On June 25, 1957, as reported in the Chicago Tribune the next day, Wards announced their purchase of The Fair, a Chicago-based traditional department store chain with a flagship store on State Street, plus three suburban branch stores. For the foreseeable future, the stores would continue to operate under The Fair name, and the current management would remain in place. The appeal for Wards was clear – in a period where they were trying to gain critical mass in select markets across the country, they would have a jump start in Chicago. Just as important, Wards now had a presence on “that great street”, Chicago’s legendary retail row, alongside Marshall Field & Company, Carson Pirie Scott and other such luminaries.

The origin of The Fair dates back to 1880, just seven years after Wards’ own founding. Starting out as a “little jewelry shop with a 16 foot frontage on State St.” as the Tribune put it, the company prospered quickly and within a few years added a number of other lines, mostly clothing and other soft goods. The Trib article mentions that The Fair’s founder, E.J. Lehmann, was credited in some circles as “the originator of the modern department store”, although I’m sure there’s been no shortage of others willing to lay claim to that title. Lehmann also receives the honors for being the “first to price merchandise to the odd penny”, i.e. charging $5.98 for a six-dollar item.

Ten years later, word of The Fair’s success had reached America’s newspaper of record, the New York Times, in a May 9, 1890 article that (in the quaint style of the day) proclaimed some exciting news: “A Big Commercial Scheme. – Chicago to have the largest store building in the world.” The “scheme” was the construction of The Fair’s new store, a massive 12-story structure covering an entire half city block, bordered on three fronts by State, Dearborn and Adams streets. While The Fair’s flagship store would be a downtown Chicago landmark for nearly 100 years (it was torn down in 1984), the “largest store” distinction would only apply until 1902. That year, R.H. Macy and Co. opened what is still referred to as “The World’s Largest Store” (as the huge red billboard on the corner of the building continues to remind us) on Herald Square in New York City.

In 1925, stock in The Fair was offered publicly, and controlling interest passed to none other than Sebastian S. Kresge, founder of the famous Detroit-based variety store chain that bore his name and would, many years later, become Kmart Corporation. Although Kresge would control The Fair for over 30 years, he kept a hands-off approach, preferring to let local management run things. The Fair’s operations were never combined with the (many times larger) S.S. Kresge Company. Eventually, formal ownership of The Fair was transferred to the Kresge Foundation, who in turn would later sell it to Montgomery Ward.

In 1929, The Fair took its first (and last for a long time)expansion steps, starting with the January buyout of E. Iverson & Co., who operated a single department store at 1342 Milwaukee Avenue. More significant was its first suburban expansion a few months later. Starting in the late 1920’s, a number of key downtown Chicago department store firms began to open outlying city and suburban branches in what author Richard Longstreth has termed “Bringing Downtown to the Neighborhoods” in his wonderfully informative piece of the same name. In this period that preceded the “shopping center era”, these stores were usually stately structures located in the…well, “downtown” of the suburb in question. The early years of this trend saw three well-known Chicago retailers – Marshall Field (Evanston, Lake Forest), Goldblatts (Hammond, Joliet, Gary) and Wieboldt’s (Evanston, River Forest) as most active. In April, The Fair established retail branches in two buildings in west suburban Oak Park purchased from the Nicholas Company, a hardware store, one located at the corner of Lake and Marion streets, the other at 126 North Oak Park Avenue. By 1936, the operations were consolidated into the Lake Street location, and the adjoining three-story building was also acquired that year. The newly expanded Oak Park store was completely modernized and air conditioning installed as well.

For the next 15 years, things would remain more or less status quo for The Fair, but the 1950’s saw a new injection of excitement into the old firm. The Fair would open new stores in two of the area’s highest-profile shopping center developments. This included the “pioneer” Chicago-area shopping center, Evergreen Plaza, which opened in 1952 in southwest suburban Evergreen Park. The brainchild of famed developer Arthur Rubloff, Evergreen Plaza caused a national splash at the time of its opening. At 170,000 square feet, The Fair was by far the center’s largest store at the time of opening. Evergreen Plaza’s other department store, Carson Pirie Scott, had a much more modest 44,000 square feet. In 1963, Carsons reset the balance with the opening of a much larger square foot store at the Plaza. Other stores at the “L-shaped” shopping center included Lytton’s and Maurice L. Rothschild, two popular area men’s and women’s apparel chains, a Jewel Food Store (and a Kroger, too!), S.S. Kresge and the first shopping center-based Walgreens.

In late 1956, the company opened up its second shopping center location at Old Orchard, the “Jewel of Chicago’s (shopping center) collection” as termed by Women’s Wear Daily columnist Samuel Feinberg. Nestled in the upper income suburb of Skokie, Old Orchard was a beautifully-designed outdoor shopping center, replete with courtyards and fountains amidst the who’s who of Chicago-area retail. Originally planned as a development of Marshall Field & Company on land that they owned, Field’s ended up selling most of the property, with the exception of the land on which their own store would stand (although they would maintain a high degree of sway over the tenant mix and other key decisions at Old Orchard) to Philip Klutznick, who had recently developed the famous Park Forest “planned community”, which included a shopping center as a central feature, and would go on to develop Oakbrook Center. The Fair occupied the second anchor spot within Old Orchard, although at 121,000 square feet, the store was dwarfed by the Marshall Field’s store at the opposite end of the center, a behemoth nearly triple its size. When Montgomery Ward took over The Fair soon after the Old Orchard store opened, a large hardware department was added.

The last Fair store opened five years after the Wards buyout of the company, and in a sense it was the most surprising. In 1962, Montgomery Ward joined forces with Carson Pirie Scott and Wieboldt’s to open Randhurst Center, a huge enclosed mall in Mount Prospect, the first major shopping center in the Northwest Suburbs. Randhurst was groundbreaking in many respects, from the center’s unique ownership structure to the highly advanced triangular architectural design by the famed Victor Gruen. At a time when Montgomery Ward was striving to establish its modern image in the minds of the American buying public, they made the amazing decision go with the staid Fair nameplate on the highly publicized, nationally renowned Randhurst project. The store’s exterior design was anything but staid, however, and those colored, illuminated panels still shine on in my memory (I only knew the store in its later incarnation as a Montgomery Ward). See the first photo above.

In the book “Satisfaction Guaranteed” by Booton Herndon, a very entertaining look at the first 100 years of Montgomery Ward, chairman Tom Brooker related the problems that had faced Wards all along with The Fair, of management set in its ways (and in my opinion, a scale too small to effectively compete with the likes of Fields, Carsons, Goldblatts and Wieboldts). Combined with that was the huge opportunity cost of mothballing the Montgomery Ward name in the crucial Chicago market. The inevitable conclusion was that the old-line department store model embodied by The Fair was a poor fit for a mass merchandiser like Wards, and the time to convert The Fair stores to the Wards nameplate and system finally came.

The first Fair store to be converted, of course, was the Randhurst unit, which took place in November 1963, a year after its original opening. (An auto center had already operated under the Wards name for some time by then.) In late 1964, the Oak Park, Evergreen Plaza and Old Orchard units became Montgomery Ward stores as well. In the fall of 1965, the last and biggest conversion took place, a major renovation of the gigantic State Street store, which would then become the largest of the 500-plus Wards stores at the time. The circa-1890 exterior was stripped away, replaced with a sleek new look “with windows recessed under protected arcades”, as the Chicago Tribune put it. And of course, all-new area Montgomery Ward stores were in the works as well – at Dixie Square Mall (1965), Yorktown (1967) and many others to follow.

The Fair had moved on, and the funky, diamond-like “MW” logo now stood in its place.

The first photo is a circa 1962 postcard view of The Fair at Randhurst. Second is a Kresge publicity photo of Old Orchard, circa 1957 followed by an aerial photo of Evergreen Plaza from a 1953 Urban Land Institute bulletin. The Fair's units are visible in the foreground of both photos.
Below, from the Library of Congress, is a 1964 view of the downtown Fair flagship – the temporary “Montgomery Ward" sign is already in place. Last, from around the same time, is an artist’s rendering of that store’s very extensive modernization.