Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Bring Back the San Fernando Penney's!

You know, there must be some people who read this site regularly and wonder – “Dave, you’re a blogger. Why don’t you ever take a stand on anything? You never weigh in on the big issues of our time. You’re always on the fence. Asleep at the wheel. Out to lunch. AWOL!”

Well, friends, I want you to know that I hear you, and today I’m answering the call! And the issue I herewith weigh in on is one that is, or should be, near and dear to our classic retail-loving hearts. It can be summed up in one phrase:

Bring back the San Fernando J.C. Penney.

When a national retail chain closes shop in a long-standing location, it’s typically news – in the local area, that is, and not far outside it. But this summer, when J.C. Penney ended an 80-year tenure in San Fernando, California (the city of San Fernando, specifically, which lies within the San Fernando Valley, part of Greater L.A.), it set off a furor that popped in and out of national headlines for weeks.

On Saturday, July 28th, despite rallies in the local community, online petitions, celebrity pleas, tons of local news stories and national coverage from the likes of the Huffington Post, the public radio show Marketplace, Bloomberg Businessweek (Plain old “Business Week” was much more concise, right? But hey, it’s his magazine now!) among others, J.C. Penney shuttered the San Fernando store, which had existed in its current location since February 1953.

Official comment from JCP on the matter has been terse, putting it charitably. “We would not have moved forward with this difficult decision if we did not believe it was absolutely necessary for the future growth of our company”, the company’s press response read.

Speculations behind the closing have been raised (and shot down) from several angles, with some alleging the closing was part of an effort to trim costs in light of huge losses JCP has experienced this year as a consequence of its controversial rebranding/repositioning efforts.  Others contend the small store (60,000 square feet with just over half of that space devoted to selling, three floors, no escalators), long an anomaly for Penney, is a poor fit for the rebranding concept. Still others claim the San Fernando location itself has been unprofitable for years.

It’s easy to understand why San Fernando residents are upset about losing their Penney store, an obvious point of pride for the community. The store has been an anchor for their downtown at a time when most big-name retailers long ago abandoned downtown locations for the “wide open spaces” we refer to today as malls and shopping centers. Certainly it was handy – while Penney has no shortage of huge stores in The Valley, it’s hard to beat “down the block” for convenience, even though selections were limited compared to standard Penney stores. There’s the longevity factor – the San Fernando location far outlasted the hundreds of downtown Penney stores built through the decades up until the late 50’s. Indeed, had JCP opted to close it down in 1970 or 1980, the uproar might never have materialized.

Lastly, the store’s timeless deco-influenced facades, front and rear, remain a thing of beauty. Most late 1940’s/early 1950’s Penney stores across the country were very plain in appearance, while the San Fernando unit exemplifies the extra effort that many national retailers poured into their California locations. Just two years ago, the building’s owner, Ashkenazy Development, spent some $350,000, including the services of a historian, to restore the facades and the “Penney’s” blade sign, which reportedly hadn’t worked for nearly forty years. 

The story took a nasty turn on the second night after the store’s closing, when residents discovered sign crews (after dark, with the company name on their truck covered up) pulling the “J.C. Penney Co.” lettering off the back of the building and one worker preparing to go after the neon blade sign with a torch, all in violation of an order to leave them alone pending a historical preservation hearing. The removed letters were reinstalled the next day.

At this late date, it seems unlikely that J.C. Penney will reopen the store, but you have to admit it would be a great public relations gesture and would serve to counteract some of the negative publicity the company has received in recent months. The “Save San Fernando’s JCPenney” site features a couple of interesting concepts for expansion, should JCP reverse their decision. At any rate, the store’s designation as a historic site appears to be assured. Rightfully so.

Our goal here, of course, is to depict great stores like this in their heyday, and once again I thank the J.C. Penney Archives at the DeGolyer Library at Southern Methodist University for their invaluable cooperation in supplying these photos – festooned in Grand Opening glory, followed by an interior view, then front and rear facade views from after the festivities cooled down.

As a postscript, here’s a sidenote from the “Basic Data Sheet”, a centrally-maintained dossier of sorts, for this store, last updated in 1971 and now part of the JCP archives. It’s interesting to note who Penney’s regarded as competition in those days -within a four-mile radius, there were department stores: Ohrbach’s, The Broadway, Robinson’s, a small Sears “hard-lines” store, discounters White Front, Kmart, Gemco and Cal Stores (sister division of Baza’r stores). “Fantastic Fair” one of my ultra-faves, is also listed, but I’m pretty sure they were gone by that time. (I’ll have to do a 10-part series on that one someday.)There were also the variety stores Grants and Newberrys, and apparel stores Scotts, the Melody Shop and Sally Dresses. The Penney’s unit outlasted them all.


  1. Why don't they just attract another soft goods retailer that can serve the community just as well,or better, than JCP

  2. Sad indeed. I'm with you in feeling the reopening of this store would generate some much needed good PR for the beleaguered chain. Grand job as always.

  3. Three cheers for your stand on this Penney's! The closest I have been to this store is the Bay Area, but I am all for historical preservation, especially when the object of the effort is a venerable concern like Penney's! I wonder if Penney's expected the backlash against their decision, and weighed that likelihood as they chose the route that they did.

  4. A shame. I wonder why -- after all those years (and with the kind of competition it had 50 years ago) they suddenly decided this one wasn't profitable enough to support? It seems to me it doesn't have all that much competition out there now.


  6. It's difficult to know why anachronistic stores like this hold-on. Sears still has urban neighborhood stores in LA and Chicago but virtually nowhere else. I've wondered what kind of economics have kept those stores going, esp. when the neighborhoods have not fared well.

  7. I have to wonder how Dixie Square Mall would look today if it never closed. It's horrible and appalling how that place was left to rot, but amazing how it was preserved like an ancient ruin. And few people realize this, but the Turn-Style there actually closed long before the rest of the mall. Most of the stores shut down in 1978 or 1979, but the Turn-Style closed in January 1974, despite being a "new" addition to the mall... built in 1970, in a slightly more modern period than the rest of the mall was built, which was in 1966. Seems strange to me that Sears didn't have a store there, since 99% of malls in the USA do. The only malls that don't seem to be more "upscale", and Harvey, Illinois of course is not a nice city at all. It puzzles me that the mall was ever built in the first place, considering how industrial that area was. As for the lack of Sears, which started in Chicago after all, I figure that maybe they weren't as interested in trying mall stores because their name was already known in the area. I don't think JCPenney really had a clear identity until the "Penneys" name/logo area which spawned the Dixie Square branch. It really is an anomaly to see a mall close, and even more disturbing how this one became an eyesore. I'm used to seeing shopping centers with "basic" stores like supermarkets failing, but malls are huge and so much more expensive to build. Also, urban decay was pretty much accepted as a fact of life by most Americans starting in the 50's, but most people are only used to seeing ancient city buildings in ruin. A postwar mall in ruin is a real oddball.

    Perhaps if Dixie Square were still open, the Penneys would have eventually gotten the JCPenney logo (as it did for The Blues Brothers film scene) in the 80's? And maybe the mall could have gotten an arcade or a cinema? If the neighborhood around it were safer but still poor, it would have at least been nice if the mall had stayed open, but maybe the JCPenney anchor would have closed and ended up maybe as a store such as TJ Maxx, Marshalls, HomeGoods, Ross, etc.

    1. The mall was a mistake--arguably, Harvey was already in decline before groundbreaking.

  8. Great article as always. I rarely chime in on blogs, but in this case I had to point out that in the grand opening photo you have posted, is none other than a 1953 Buick Skylark, which is an exremely rare and desirable car today. 1,069 were built and all had a sticker price of well over $5,000! Beautiful car.

  9. The photos remind me a lot of the long since closed JC Penney store that I grew up with in Pacific Beach, San Diego CA. It was a small store, but it had a full basement and a mezzanine, it served the community well until it closed in the 1980's. I can imagine that the writing was on the wall when they opened the huge one about 10 miles away in Fashion Valley Mall in 1970. After Penney's closed, the old space was immediately leased by Walker Scott's, a local chain and they did business there for quite a few years. Before the dawn of malls, Penney's stores were much more modest local stores, I am not sure the mega mall stores were such a great idea.

  10. I should have looked more closely at the pictures before I commented above. In picture #2, the floor design is identical to the store I had mentioned, the basement floor pattern was the same but the color was reversed. Lighting fixtures were identical as well. I would have loved to see what that store looked like inside prior to closing, I'm sure a lot of that stuff has been remodeled away as our local store's stuff was back in the 60's and 70's.