by Michael R. Allen
Yesterday, crews arrived to downtown’s Railway Exchange Building to begin installation of the giant Macy’s sign that will replace the already-removed Famous-Barr sign atop the building. (Famous-Barr’s midtown warehouse already sports new lighted Macy’s signs, although at night the old signs show behind them and read “M–Y’s and “MA—S” instead of a confident “MACY’S.”) This passage of signage is the fulfillment of a year-long transition that ends the lifespan of St. Louis’ last local department store chain. Famous-Barr was an original tenant of the Railway Exchange, built in 1913.
While the May Company had long allowed the downtown flagship to diminish in quality and allure, the store was a reminder that St. Louis was once a vibrant metropolitan city that had developed fine examples of the modern downtown department store. After the other downtown department stores — notable Scruggs-Vandervoort-Barney in 1967 and Stix, Baer and Fuller in 1984 — closed, the downtown Famous-Barr remained open and seemed like it would be open forever. Its hours cut back over the years, and its patrons were a small group toward the end. Yet the cultural value of its presence showed that downtown St. Louis still kept one tradition alive, and not in a second-rate fashion but in a particularly local way.
Now the downtown space will be occupied by one of the hundreds of Macy’s stores, a fact that insults both St. Louis and New York. Both cities have lost the uniqueness of the brand identity, albeit slowly: the stores had long become chains, changed ownership and standardized merchandise long before Federated bought both Macy’s and Famous-Barr. Now, the slump hastens and only the most culturally deprived shoppers will be enthusiastic to shop at Macy’s, a name that now denotes only a department store rather than a certain sort of store.
Of course, the downtown department store itself is an endangered species, and has been close to extinction since the late 1960’s. Now that downtown St. Louis real estate is highly valued again, perhaps the downtown store here is about to go extinct. The value of the Railway Exchange Building to Federated Department Stores exceeds the value of the store inside. With their move to cut jobs downtown, there will be empty office floors to remodel. The company is also planning to consolidate the store on the five lower levels of the building, vacating two floors used by Famous-Barr. Could it be only a matter of time before the store is liquidated and the building converted to condominiums? The crews working on converting the store have not been remodeling the space as much as putting a new coat of paint on surfaces. The work looks tentative, as does Federated’s commitment to downtown.
Whatever happens to the downtown Macy’s store, the period of the urban department store is effectively over in St. Louis. We have lost our last downtown department store, a passing that even forty years ago would have attracted more attention than it does today. With the combined factors of population dispersal, market dominance by discount and specialty retailers, the retail downtown centered on the Galleria shopping mall and the May Company’s own treatment of the store, the downtown Famous-Barr is mourned by few. Contrast that with Chicago, where Federated is stamping the meaningless Macy’s brand on the meaningful and loved downtown Marshall Field’s store. This move provoked anger and a petition campaign, neither of which prevented the destruction there because neither caused any economic consequence to Federated’s decision.
The cultural consequences of the loss of downtown department stores and of downtown commercial culture are pretty big, though. Still, as long as few people recognize those consequences (and people have had fifty years to recognize them), what difference does closing the the last local downtown department store make to all but a handful of people?