baltimore_stewarts_department_store

By BaltimoreStyle



Was there ever a signature more distinctive in the Baltimore landscape than the one that belonged to Stewart’s? The giant “S,” sharp as a bolt of lightning, followed by the boldly tossed off script, managed to be both elegant and powerful.

That snazzy, sassy signature sprawled across every Stewart’s department store façade from downtown to Westview to Golden Ring, and was emblazoned on charge-a-plates, shopping bags and hatboxes. It is what I remember most about Stewart’s— more than the jaw-dropping staircase of the York Road store or the eerie tunnel of shops that led to the Timonium branch with its glittering imported Irish crystal chandeliers, more than any childhood dress or special Christmas purchase. The Stewart’s logo spoke of what being grown up meant to me as a child; it was an emblem of sophistication and charm and class.

Stewart's BaltimoreIn retrospect, it’s odd that my youthful memories of Stewart’s are unequivocally connected with elegance when, during the 1970s (when I would have been a young customer there), the adjectives tossed at Stewart’s were far less kind. “Staid,” is how one Sun article described the store. “Static” and “non-aggressive,” said another. “While other stores went for youth,” wrote The Sun in 1982, “Stewart’s was long associated with the older, more traditional customer.” This was not meant as a compliment.

Throughout its tenure as one of Baltimore’s grande dame department stores, Stewart’s always seemed to be outshone by the three H’s— Hutzler’s, Hochschild Kohn and the Hecht Co. (formerly the May Co.)— Baltimore’s homegrown stores. As Michael Lisicky explains in “Hutzler’s: Where Baltimore Shops,” Stewart’s was an outsider, the only one of the “Four Corners” stores owned by a non-local, and a gentile to boot.

“Stewart’s managed a quality store but always seemed to be in Hutzler’s shadow. It never received the loyal following that the other stores enjoyed,” writes Lisicky, who points out that even former Gov. William Donald Schaefer “never thought much of Stewart’s.” “If you wanted to get the good stuff you went to Hutzler’s,” Schaefer is reported saying. “If you wanted to get ordinary stuff you went to Hochschild Kohn or the May Co.” About Stewart’s, he remained uncharacteristically mum.

But despite its contested status, Baltimoreans did shop at Stewart’s— it wouldn’t have survived 82 years otherwise— and its history, particularly in its suburban outposts, reveals a store that offered more than just quality merchandise and fine service to its customers, though it did both of those things. Nearly 30 years after Stewart’s disappeared, former employees still speak about their work experiences there with a warmth and loyalty that would be hard to muster in the current era of box store shopping. To the summer workers and “floaters,” department managers and cosmetic representatives, Stewart’s offered a beautiful work environment, fair wages and rewards, and, quite often, a step up the company ladder. In a more modest world, this was the stuff of dreams.

Stewart's BaltimoreThe three H’s already had at least 20 years of business (and in Hutzler’s case, closer to 50) under their belts when Louis B. Stewart, a former railroad magnate who presided over New York’s McCreedy and Co., bought Samuel Posner’s dry goods store on the northeast corner of Howard and Lexington in 1901. Posner had taken a gamble in moving his Lexington Street business to the six-story white palace that he commissioned from architect Charles E. Cassell, and there was no question the structure was splendid. Characteristic of the Italian Renaissance Revival style, the building was highly ornate, boasting row upon row of columns, carved laurel wreathes and bushy-maned lions heads caught in mid-roar. Construction costs, however, proved insurmountable for Posner, and the business soon became Stewart and Co. Later, the store would become part of Associated Dry Goods corporation, a New York-based consortium of department stores that would come to include chains such as Lord & Taylor, Robinson’s, Pittsburgh’s Joseph Horne Co. and St. Louis’ Stix, Baer & Fuller.

Stewart’s asserted itself into the Baltimore shopping scene right away, and by May 1902, the store’s display advertisements in The Sun were touting all manner of merchandise, including “fancy striped lawn shirtwaist suits” (“$1.98 value for $1.25”), kimonas [sic] “with fancy borders and the long flowing sleeves; worth 75 c., for 50 cents,” and “plain linen wash skirts” for $1.98. The millinery department, according to the ad, “has been ‘the talk of the town,’” and the “Wash Goods” department (later known as Fabric and Notions) offered shirting madras and sheer corded chambray for home seamstresses.

When the store celebrated its first Christmas in 1902, ads reminded shoppers on Christmas Eve that “the last few hours for Christmas gift buying will be fraught with a hurry and bustle and excitement unknown at other seasons of the year,” and advised them to shop at Stewart’s, “the brightest, most helpful, and safest Christmas store.” The ad also included a tempting price list of goodies for the Christmas table, including “cream almonds,” vanilla marshmallows and fruit paste from the store’s candy department, as well as “home dressed Howard County turkeys.”

By 1928, Christmas at Stewart’s included performances by the employee Christmas choir, a tradition that, beginning in 1934, culminated in an annual radio broadcast. And in the 1930s and ’40s, historic Baltimore scenes, re-created in miniature against a backdrop of giant bells, filled the store’s Christmas windows. In 1931, the store became the first in the city to boast air-conditioning. Eventually, the store even installed heat lamps on the Howard Street side of the building to keep customers warm as they window-shopped. A store memo also advised that “cruisewear and bathing fashions can be modeled on the sidewalk under the heat lamps with hardly a chattering of teeth among the models…”

For some employees, working at Stewart’s downtown could be as exciting as shopping there. Retired teacher and Parkville resident Audrey Noellert was 18 when she began working for Stewart’s part-time in the late 1950s, beginning in Notions (though she didn’t sew, something that was unusual for that department), where she earned a dollar an hour selling needles and thread, slippers, hairnets and “those little packages of Woolite you’d buy for traveling.”

During lunch breaks, she would go upstairs to the employee lunchroom where there was a piano, and a scene that sounds like it could only unfold in the movies would come to life: “I would start playing piano,” says Noellert, “and everyone would gather round and sing and do silly things” before lunchtime was up and people went back to work.

Stewart's BaltimoreNoellert was later chosen to be on Stewart’s College Board, the store’s contingent of young, female sales models. “They [store executives] called us up for a meeting, and began looking us over and sizing us up to be on the College Board,” remembers Noellert. The young women chosen would be given one or two outfits from the junior department to model throughout the store. “We got to keep the outfits,” says Noellert. “We would walk around with name tags on, and our pictures were in the paper when we were advertising Stewart’s.

“I remember the day they were picking us out they were asking us what we intended to do,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Teaching.’” But she was asked if she ever thought about being a buyer for the store. It was something she hadn’t considered, but it was an offer that was often made to promising employees.

Baltimorean Don Alexander began working in Stewart’s downtown toy department for 60 cents an hour during Christmas 1961, before being moved to the linen department. “I couldn’t believe that we had tablecloths that sold for $700,” he says. “Swiss organza, hand-appliquéd, linen, double damask. It was really the age of specialization. There was nothing that you couldn’t buy if you wanted it.”

Alexander worked at Stewart’s for 17 1/2 years— as a buyer for books, records and religious articles (which were sold on the mezzanine of the downtown store), and later as the buyer for the Budget Store in the basement of Stewart’s at Reisterstown Road Plaza and downtown, as well as a buyer for Millinery, Handbags and Hosiery. There, the ladies at the counter would remove stockings packed three pair to a box and gently push their hand inside to show off the shade to be matched with a customer’s dress purchase.

Stewart's BaltimoreStewart’s regularly promoted from within, Alexander says, recounting spectacular buying trips to Taipei, Geneva, Istanbul and Florence. But he recalls the small favors, too, like the 20 percent employee discount or the dinner voucher for a meal in the employee cafeteria placed in every paycheck for part-time people who worked nights. Or the bulletin that was distributed around the Reisterstown Road Plaza store when he returned from fulfilling his draft obligation. It read, “No more bugle calls. Don Alexander is back from the army. He will be buying for the Budget Store,” Alexander recalls. “They made a big thing out of it. That’s the way they were. The department stores were wonderful to their employees. It was a fun, fun experience.”

Like other department stores of the era, Stewart’s began moving outward to the suburbs beginning in 1953 with its York Road store, located on a 10-acre lot near the intersection of Walker Avenue and designed, according to The Sun, “to blend into the essentially suburban and residential character of the site.” 

Stewart's BaltimoreThe brilliantly white brick store boasted 78,000 square feet of selling space (it was later expanded to include 110,00 square feet), an elegant restaurant, The Terrace Room, and decorative touches like a floor-to-ceiling glass wall with fiberglass curtains and murals of Homewood House, the Washington Monument and the Federal Hill skyline decorating walls inside. No wonder Towson alumni magazine editor Ginny Cook, who worked in the coat department as a student in the 1970s, recalls that “everything just sparkled.”

“When you walked in that front door, it was quite lovely,” she says. “You would walk in and you would feel as if you were somewhere.”

Cook remembers the niceties of the job, how the employees were required to dress up, and how they were trained in good service. “You helped people try on things with no expectation that they would buy it,” she explains. “We would take the coats off hangers for customers [and assist them in trying them on].”

There were five suburban outposts total, including Timonium and Westview (which opened in 1970), and Golden Ring (1974), but perhaps the most beloved was the Stewart’s at Reisterstown Road Plaza. Opened in 1962, it was the most stylish of all the Stewart’s stores, a fact Stewart’s promoted in a pamphlet designed to introduce customers to the highlights of the store. Designed by Raymond Loewy and William Snaith, the new store was indeed as “stunning” and “dazzling” as Stewart’s purported it to be, the façade a modern amalgam of glass and curves and concrete.

Inside, Stewart’s, now owned by Associated Dry Goods, spared no expense or detail. A “broken glass mirror floral arrangement”was the focal point of the Shoe Salon (where salespeople were encouraged to wear the merchandise), while the Country Clothes Shop had walls of ash wood and sconces from Normandy. Louvered wooden doors replaced curtains in the fitting rooms of the Bridal Salon and the Fur Salon, where the rooms sat in the middle of the selling floor as a convenience to customers. There was the Garden Shop with a gazebo designed to showcase outdoor furniture, the D’Arrigone Salon of Beauty with “whisper quiet Lecromatic styling chairs,” murals and chandeliers and a Kirk Silver department.

Stewart's Baltimore“It was a beautiful store, clean and well-maintained. It felt so glamorous to work there,” says Susan Reinstein who did just that from 1973 until the store’s closure. “And there was a sense of professionalism from the top. You wanted to do a good job.”

Although Reinstein never worked at Stewart’s full-time (she is a teacher for the Baltimore City Public Schools), she still maintains that Stewart’s “changed my future and my destiny.” It was there she met her husband of 31 years, when she “floated into the Men’s Department.” (Weddings among Stewart’s employees at Reisterstown Road Plaza were not uncommon).

Employees and shoppers have very particular memories of Stewart’s at Reisterstown Road Plaza: of the BLTs and tuna fish sandwiches in the Chesapeake Room, just next to Silber’s Bakery, of the Notions department that sold oddities from saddle soap to boxed Playtex bras, of the older sales staff that completed sales slips by hand and made all the shirt displays and clothes racks look perfect. This Stewart’s was part of the community before folks spoke of such things.

Stewart's BaltimoreEdwina Smith, a 22-year veteran whose positions included managing the Reisterstown Road store and buying junior’s and women’s lingerie, recalls that one of the most exciting times at the Plaza Stewart’s was Old Fashion Bargain Days, (continued on page 140) held in the 1960s during early July. The sale was tied into an antique car show sponsored by the shopping center. “We all dressed up in old-fashioned costumes,  in caps and skirts,” Smith remembers. “This was a big sale day— we really did business with that.”

For Pikesville resident Debbie Shavitz, Stewart’s holds an honored place in her memory, one she revisits each time she drives past Reisterstown Road Plaza.  More than 30 years ago, she was a single parent with a small daughter, and every application she made for credit was turned down. She approached the Hecht Co., a store where her aunt worked, thinking the family connection might help. No luck. “No one wanted to give me a shot,” she says bluntly. One afternoon Shavitz called Stewart’s, and an African-American woman in the credit department told her, “if you get here by 5 o’clock, I’ll help you get a credit card.” “And that started me off in my credit history,” says Shavitz.  “I owe everything to that woman and that department store. And I think she was the kindest woman. Maybe she knew the position I was in and just wanted to give it a try.”

By the late 1970s, Stewart’s was struggling. It had fallen behind on both marketing and merchandise trends, and some critics faulted the chain for failing to expand to the new shopping malls in Hunt Valley and White Marsh.

At Reisterstown Road Plaza, departments slowly shrunk so that Fine Dresses became simply “Dresses,” and Better Sportswear merged into Moderate Sportswear. And even though the store began catering specifically to a younger clientele with such fashion must-haves as Calvin Klein jeans, it was too late.

Stewart’s closed its downtown store in 1979, the second of the big four to do so (Hochschild Kohn was the first). The Sun estimated a crowd of 3,000 to 4,000 shoppers blocked traffic on Howard Street during the closing sale days. They were let into the store in small groups to maintain control, and it took more than an hour to clear the store at closing time.

Stewart's BaltimoreBy 1982, rumors had discount-heavy Caldor replacing Stewart’s stores, something that became fact in 1983 with the Reisterstown Road and Golden Ring stores closing in January. Westview closed a week afterward, with the York Road and Timonium stores following suit in March 1983.

The Howard and Lexington store still stands, now an office for Catholic Relief Services. The Timonium building, still camouflaged behind other businesses, houses state government offices and a Loehmann’s in its lower level. The York Road building is a state office building, as is the Reisterstown Road Plaza building, where the studios of classical radio station WBJC are housed behind the arched façade. The building has been painted a dull shade of tan, but the curves and glass remain. All that’s missing is the beautiful merchandise and the familiar Stewart’s signature.

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