Walkabout: Brooklyn’s Abraham & Straus, part 2

1910 Selling floor, A&S. Photo: Museum of the City of New York

(1930’s Abraham & Straus new addition. Photo: Museum of the City of New York)

Read Part 1 of this story.

Before Brooklyn became part of New York City, there was an Abraham & Straus. The iconic Brooklyn department store was founded as Wechsler and Abraham in 1865, as a small dry goods shop on Fulton Street, between Washington and Johnson Streets. By 1883, the store had expanded, filling the new cast iron-fronted Wheeler Building on Fulton Street, between Gallatin Place and Hoyt St. By the time Nathan and Isidor Straus family bought out Wechsler and changed the name to Abraham & Straus, it was 1893, and the store, and Brooklyn itself, was at its peak. Since moving to its present location, the store encompassed the entire block faced by Fulton, Gallatin, Livingston and Hoyt. In addition, Abraham & Straus also had a series of warehouses across Brooklyn, with the closest being only blocks away on State Street, between Court and Boreum. They also had a system of catalogue stores to serve customers on Long Island, filling orders from those warehouses.

The store on Fulton Street was decked out in the finest quality furnishings and the displays were opulent, featuring the best the retail world had to order in a large number of departments. Abraham & Straus was truly a shopping wonder, a store who’s only real rival in Brooklyn was Frederick Loeser’s Department Store, a couple of blocks away, on Fulton Street. Other large and important retailers like Namm’s and Martin’s would later come to Fulton Street, but these two stores were the biggest, the fanciest, and the best.

The Straus family suffered the tragic loss of Isidor and Ida Straus, who died on the Titanic, in 1912. After that, the family, which also famously owned Manhattan’s R.H. Macy & Co., split their holdings, and Nathan Straus’ family took over the running of Abraham & Straus. In 1928, the store began a multi-million dollar expansion, with a large new addition, and changes throughout the rest of the store buildings. The new store building was designed by Starrett and Van Vleck, masters of department store architecture. Some of New York City’s most revered stores were designed by them, including Lord & Taylor, Bloomingdales, and Saks Fifth Avenue. They also designed the American Stock Exchange and the Downtown Athletic Club.

The new addition was Art Deco to the core, with little or no contextual relationship to the Second Empire and Romanesque Revival buildings to which it is joined. Instead, it ushered the Jazz Age into Brooklyn, with a modern boxy building with nine or ten floors, with classic Deco setbacks. The best of the new addition can be found on the Hoyt and Livingston Street sides, which haven’t been as altered as the Fulton St. façade. Inside, Deco details remain, most especially in the bank of elevators in the center of the new store. They still have their original nickel and bronze hardware and doors. These were among the last store elevators to be manually operated, with uniformed operators, in the city.
Around the same time, just as the Great Depression set in, Abraham & Straus joined Filenes, Lazarus and Bloomingdale’s to create Federated Department Stores, betting that the strength of a united company, able to pool expenses and resources, would help all members survive the Depression. Amazingly, through restructuring their sales force, and instituting an across the board 10% pay cut, no one at Abraham and Straus was laid off.

By the 1950’s, Abraham & Straus, now commonly called “A&S”, began expanding to the suburbs, following the great migration to the ‘burbs after World War II. They opened their first branch in Hempstead in 1952. Their famous Brooklyn rival, Loeser’s was losing ground, and going into bankruptcy, and A & S was able to buy the Loeser’s in Garden City. Brooklyn’s flagship Loeser’s, on Fulton Street, closed that same year, ending after 91 years of business. A&S continued to grow, opening a huge store in Paramus, NJ.

The 1970’s saw more expansion, as A &S revamped their logo and their image, trying to go for the more upscale customer. They expanded into high end malls, like the Mall at Short Hills, in New Jersey, as well as malls in Eatontown, NJ, Babylon and White Plains. The flagship store in Brooklyn was working to upscale its image as well. Fulton Street was changing, as was Brooklyn. Much of A&S’ core customer base was leaving Brooklyn for the suburbs, and the more upscale stores of Fulton Street were closing, and were being replaced by stores carrying more inexpensive goods.

A & S began a publicity campaign featuring live mannequins in their windows, featuring high school students from area schools, including Manhattan high schools, who modeled designer clothes in the Fulton Street windows. Each “mannequin” would model for an hour at a time, wearing the hottest and most current designer outfits from labels like Pierre Cardin. The live models were so popular that they literally stopped traffic, and were causing accidents, and the show had to be taken inside. It was still popular, drawing large crowds into the store. The store bragged that in spite of the popularity of polyester and other 1970’s fashion fads, only the best designer clothing was modeled by the male and female models. No poly.

A&S was known in the industry for having the best buyer’s training program in the business. Buyers who graduated from A&S went on to the best stores in the country. (One of my first trips to Brooklyn when I first moved to NYC in 1977 was to interview for this program. I didn’t really want to be a buyer, I just wanted a job. They must have sensed that, I didn’t get in. There weren’t a lot of African-American buyers at the time, either.) In spite of their excellence in store management, display and merchandising, things weren’t going well for the chain. They overreached in several disastrous suburban expansions, trying to grow out of financial trouble, and finally, it all came crashing down.

Traditional department stores were suffering in the early 1990’s, with familiar names going into bankruptcy across the country. In 1992, Federated Stores merged with Allied stores, and A&S was merged with Jordan Marsh stores. That year Macy’s filed for bankruptcy, under Chapter 11. Two years later, they were acquired by Federated Stores, and the Macy’s brand was merged with A&S/Jordan Marsh. In 1995, Federated dropped the A&S name, and changed all of the stores still operating to Macy’s, including the flagship Fulton Street store.

Today’s Macy’s on Fulton Street is the second largest Macy’s in the NYC area, second only to the Manhattan flagship. It is also one of the highest performing stores in the chain, in spite of the fact that it is run like a poor stepchild, receiving hand-me-downs, and stocked like an outlet store. Cane waggers such as myself could argue that all stores seem to be run badly these days, but Macy’s is especially disappointing. So much of A&S’ superior charm disappeared with its name, including the amenities of the classic A&S lunchroom, which in the 1970’s and ‘80’s, was the only place to eat on Fulton Street, aside from the much more expensive Junior’s, or the lunch counters at McCrory’s and Woolworth’s. The cynic in me thinks that Macy’s is biding its time until gentrification hits the street, at which time they will suddenly make upgrading the store a priority. That is a slap in the face to the thousands of less than upscale folk who have been dutifully spending their money there all these years, making this store one of the most profitable in the chain.

One could, instead, look to the department store as an incubator of technology and societal change. The development of these large stores necessitated new building techniques, new innovations in air conditioning, heating systems, and lighting. The elevator bank and escalators were developed in part to accommodate the needs of large department stores. One need only ride Macy’s 34th Street’s old escalators still in the back end of the store to see how these necessary people movers have changed over the years. The department store was responsible for the mass production of clothing and other goods. True, there was a large market in both mail-order and smaller store orders, but the popularity of the department store was a catalyst in factory production of clothing and other goods, spurring the creation of the garment center and the fashion industry as we now know it.

Socially speaking, the rise of the department store heralded the advancement of women in society. All of the great department stores were geared to the shopping needs and wants of a female customer. Going shopping, either alone, or with friends, was one of the few acceptable places a woman of a certain class could go without an escort. Working in a department store was also socially acceptable for less affluent women. Not that the working conditions in many stores was ideal. The stores usually had no female supervisors of any kind, and the day was long, and hard on the feet. Many stores would fine a clerk for sitting down for any reason, and pay was poor. Many immigrant women ended up in the back rooms of stores, including Abraham & Straus, sewing and doing alterations and fittings. Many of these women were only teenagers, and there is a famous picture of teenage girls going into the Fulton St. store to work. Yet, in time, women would organize for better working conditions, and rise to supervisory and buying positions, becoming executives in the industry far earlier than women’s rise in other businesses.

Abraham and Straus was part of it all, and remains a fond memory for many, and leaves a fine group of buildings that need to be landmarked and preserved for the future. We can still have that, at least.

Part 1: Brooklyn’s Abraham & Straus

1910 Selling floor, A&S. Photo: Museum of the City of New York

In-store entrance on Livingston St. Photo: Plummer & Assoc.

Teenaged garment workers going into Abraham & Straus, early 1900’s

Photo: The Department Store Museum

A &S Lunchroom, 4th floor. 1965. Photo: Pop Art Machine

Photo: Municipal Arts Society

A & S dining room. 1965. This looked the same in the 1980’s when they closed. Photo: wnyc.org

Art Deco elevator from A & S, Fulton St. Photo: Dipity.com

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