Commentary
7:11 am
Sun September 1, 2013

Recalling Stewart's Department Store Amidst a Fourth Street Revival

Credit Submitted photo

One afternoon last week I was pleased to see that a chain link fence has been erected around the old Stewart’s department store building at the corner of Fourth Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard. Once the busiest corner in the city when downtown was the center of shopping and movie-going for the region, the building has stood empty for seven years, ever since Hilliard Lyons moved its headquarters to the PNC Tower. The fence is a sign that some construction is about to begin on the site, and that’s great news.

Mary Moseley, president and CEO of the Al J. Schneider Co., has a controlling interest in the property, which is one of the keystones of our city. According to Business First, she plans to fill at least part of the building with a hotel. Such a prospect promises more stability along Fourth Street, which is enjoying a kind of revival right now that hasn’t been seen in quite some time. But considering all this caused my mind to travel back in time to the days when Stewart’s was much, much more than just another store.

My memories of Stewart’s go back only to the early 1950s. My grandmother, by way of contrast, could remember when the “new” Stewart’s opened in 1907. As a young woman, she had her first charge account there, and when I opened mine, she told me the story of the time the management called her mother—my great-grandmother—to make sure it was all right for her to charge a coat! She wasn’t a bit indignant, though; she thought it was a good example of how Stewart’s took care of its customers, and she remained loyal until the day she died.

For decades, a shopping excursion downtown was likely to include a visit to Stewart’s. And why not? They sold everything there. From the minute you passed through the revolving doors on Fourth Street, it was like entering another world.

It even had smells of its own. The first impression was perfume—a mixture of scents that blended into is own odor. In hot weather, Stewart’s was always cool, even in days when air-conditioning was rare. Then there was the candy department, redolent of chocolate. The luggage department smelled of leather. And the section where they sold fabrics and embroidery materials—just inside the second-floor door to the parking garage— smelled of dye. And it made your eyes burn.

The first floor was always busy, and often it was decorated for the season. In springtime, for instance, there was an indoor pool banked by plants and flowers; a pretty girl in a flowing skirt was paid to swing while canaries in cages serenaded her. At Christmas, we stood in the cold and watched mechanical displays in the windows (and compared them with the other “big” windows at Sears and Kaufman’s). If you arrived before opening time the morning after Thanksgiving, piping hot cups of complimentary hot chocolate were served.

My family inevitably included a meal, or at least a snack, in our shopping trips. Most days my mother, brother and I wound up in the basement—in the luncheonette. For years, a mural there featured a three-dimensional tree, which changed its leaves (or lost them) according to the season. And the background changed too. Standard fare at the luncheonette included such delicacies as date-nut bread and cream cheese, enormous club sandwiches, and the best hot-fudge sundaes I ever tasted. If you were short of cash, you could charge lunch, a novelty in the days before VISA and MasterCard.

Other days, if we had more time, we’d go up to the Orchid Room on the sixth floor, where the air of gentility was almost too thick for schoolboys, but the food was worth waiting for. The Orchid Room was decorated in the art-deco style of the 1940s, and you almost expected to see Joan Crawford or Jean Arthur join the line of ladies waiting for tables.

Waiting was something you did at Stewart’s. You waited while your mother tried on hats. Or shoes. Or looked at coats. And you waited (an eternity, it sometimes seemed) for your car, if you used Stewart’s garage. You waited for an elevator—but when it arrived, the operator would greet you with a cheery, “Going up, pleee-iz.”

Not all of my memories of Stewart’s are as comforting as a chicken salad and chocolate milk shake, though. As a small child, I quizzed my grandmother and mother about why the black women were standing at the entrance of the luncheonette, unable to enter. Grade-schoolers sense injustice, and perhaps it was fitting that I should feel the pain of segregation in a place that seemed so accessible and welcoming to me.

I also learned about limits at Stewart’s. Not being able to buy everything my heart desired. This was especially hard because Stewart’s had the best toy department in town, probably in the region, with wonderful imports from England and Germany and Austria, and in the period immediately after World War II they were much cheaper than they are now. I still recall with wonder the huge papier-mâché castle and tin soldiers displayed there.

Stewart’s was also a place to experiment with growing up. On my first real downtown excursion without adult supervision, two friends and I (with $5 in my wallet) rode the bus back and forth, ate breakfast at the Florida Orange Bar near Broadway, and visited many departments at Stewart’s before going to a matinee at the Rialto Theater down the street. The tang of freedom was unforgettable.

Soon there will be jackhammers tearing apart the insides of this once-grand emporium. Although that will be sad, a new life for a grand building promises to make our city a more appealing place.