Friday, April 10, 2009

Montgomery Ward's Georgian Period

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!


  1. the Gratiot Ave Wards in Detroit remained open until the early 1980s and was tore down and a supermarket was built on the site. the store was located about 1/4 mile north of 7 Mile.

  2. My hats off to you, Dave! What a wonderfully written pieced. You certanly covered a lot and many of these things I had not heard of. I did not know Ward had difficulty in the 30s. I certainly did not know of the aeizure by the US Army (which I feel was definitely unconstitutional). But I like the happy bit of info on Rudolph the red nosed reindeer! So amazing and interesting! Great post.

  3. Ottawa, IL has an old Wards building in the downtown from that era. It is now a Children's Clothing store. It is at the corner of Jefferson and La Salle St, you can't miss it. It still has the old sign.

  4. Marion Ohio has an old Wards of a similar vintage. I snapped a picture of it once, but can't seem to find it.


  5. I don't use these words often in connection with Montgomery Ward, but these stores are beautiful. They are tastefully and consistently styled and any chain would be happy to have had them in their fleet.

  6. Anonymous - Thanks for that update. What a true beauty that one must have been!

    Didi - Thanks very much! It's a pretty interesting story, especially about Avery's conflicts with FDR. If CNN and Fox News were around then, you could imagine the lead-in coverage - "Day 3 of the Montgomery Ward showdown!..."

    Anonymous - I looked it up on Windows Live Local, and wow, that's a great one! They were timeless buildings, for sure.

    Dan - Let us know if you come across it. Thanks.

    Steven - I totally agree. It's hard to imagine classier stores than these.

  7. Hello!

    I'm a long time reader of your blog but I think this is my first comment. I love collecting pictures of these Montgomery Ward's stores.

    Here are a few you might like to see.

    Cumberland, MD:

    Morgantown, WV:

    Cambridge, OH:
    (I think. Not positive about this one.)

    I loved seeing all the other ones you posted. I have seen a few more of them around, but have no pictures, boo.

  8. Nessa - Thanks so much, and I'm a big fan of your Flickr page! Those are great photos. I'll put a note on the post with links to them. The Cumberland store in particular is a knockout! It looks like the Morgantown store has been modified a good bit on the first floor, but still looks nice, and I really like the "W" capstone up top. I'm almost certain that the Cambridge location was a Wards store as well, with a balustrade roof (like the Rome, GA store on the post) instead of the more common mansard roof. The storefront was obviously bricked in sometime later. Thanks again!

  9. Thanks, I'm so glad you liked them. I'll keep an eye out for more. :)

  10. As promised, here is the link to the Georgian-style ex-Montgomery Ward's in Marion, Ohio. Look closely and you can see a faded Montgomery Ward painted on the side. This was taken with a Motorola Krzr cell phone camera! 26, 2009 7:02 PM

  11. That last post was from Dan, by the way!!!

  12. Dan - Thanks for the great photo -(I'm impressed with the Krzr photo quality, for sure!) These are without doubt some of the classiest stores that ever existed. Were it not for the painted sign, I'm sure most would be clueless it was ever a Wards. And even the painted sign shows great attention to detail, matching the distinctive Wards font of the day.

  13. Dave,
    Your article was fantastic. I grew up with Wards. My father went to work for Wards in Chicago in the thirties. First designing the displays for the stores nationwide then to customer service as Serv. manager in Muskegon, MI('38)then transferred to Menands (Albany)NY ('43)then back to Chicago and onto Kansas City, MO('44)where he was District Service Manager in charge of 29 stoes in Missouri, Arkansas and Kansas. I loved to travel with him in the summer to the different towns. He was then transferred to Detroit('54) where he first set up the Allen Park distibution center and then the Auto Service centers. I worked in five different stores starting with the Dearborn store in 1955. If I were to tell the whole story it would take ten pages so I will end it here.......Phil

  14. Phil - Thanks so much, I really appreciate it! It's always a pleasure to hear from someone who worked in one these classic stores in the heyday, and especially so in your case - a two-generation Wards family.

    I have a promotional photo of the Allen Park distribution center from shortly after it opened, which you may already have. If not, I'd be glad to email it to you if you'll shoot me your email address. Mine's on the "profile" section. Thanks again!

  15. A beautiful example of a Georgian Montgomery Wards is located on State St. in Madison, WI. It is the first phase of what is now a three city block performing arts ceter, called the Overture.

  16. There's a Georgian Wards on Michigan Ave. & Schaefer in Dearborn, MI that last I saw, still retained it's classic sign well past the closing of the chain (it remained open until the very end!) Google maps still shows the building, though the Google Street View confirms that the store has been demolished.



  17. Aaron - Thanks for those great links - that's a very cool set of documents you have on the Dearborn Wards site redevelopment there! It's a real shame that the store was too far gone to reuse - the concepts that incorporated it were very attractive.

  18. There is a Monkey Wards store from teh Georgian period in downtown Marion Ohio. The facade was remodelled in the 1970s when the windows on the street level were covers in stucco panels and used to Fulfillment Corporation of America as office space. Then in the 1990s the panels were removed and the front somewhat restored. The building was the converted to office space. it is an elegant looking building!

  19. There was a Georgian-style Monkey Wards in downtown Salt Lake City, similar to the first and second pictures. I became aware of the building in the early '80s and it had been remodeled into a bank by then. I thought it was a fairly new "retro" building until I recently came across pictures of it as a Wards in the '40s and '50s. The styling of the building held up very well and it looked 'fresh' until 5 or so years ago when Old Navy moved in and completely re-skinned the exterior. Old Navy's gone now, but alas, so is the Georgian-style of the original architecture.

  20. Anonymous - thanks off that update on the Salt Lake City Georgian Wards - wow, it's a shame that the store made it so long with its original exterior only to lose it to a retailer who lasted less than five years in the space!