Tuesday, December 22, 2020

When Downtown Christmas Shopping Was a Much-Anticipated Yearly Event :)

As we shopped and shipped gifts online, this year, due to COVID, Mark and I were talking about how things used to be, as if we've finally become our own grandparents lol. 

No, but seriously, Christmas shopping used to be an "event" - especially before shopping malls were a thing.  

Even after malls became a thing, it was still a bigger deal to travel downtown from the suburbs of our respective cities, Cincinnati and Detroit, to the big multi-level downtown flagship department stores, at least once a year for Christmas.  

In Cincinnati, I lived about 15 minutes from the Kenwood Mall, which was one of the first upscale shopping malls in the country - now known as Kenwood Towne Centre.

And yet still, it was a special treat, a big anticipated event, to go Christmas shopping in downtown Cincinnati - one we stopped doing, when I still fairly young, with my parents instead choosing Kenwood, which just wasn't as much fun, to be honest.

Regardless, in Cincinnati, at the time, the big downtown department stores were, in this order of their upscaledness (word?) - Mabley and Carew  (which later became Elder-Beerman - which although at first was upscale, eventually became like JC Penney in the 1980s).

The next level was H&S Pogue (Pogue's) and Shillito's as the big regional archrivals, then McAlpin's (now Dillard's), and then your moderate/cheap department stores like Sears, JC Penney, and Montgomery Ward. 

Until the early 1970s, Elder-Beerman downtown was "the" downtown Christmas department store headquarters for adults, as its only locations were downtown, at that time, whereas the others were expanding into suburban shopping malls. 

Mabley and Carew (later Elder-Beerman) initially occupied the first few floors inside Carew Tower,  eventually sharing the space with Pogue's, until both later moved. 

Despite Cincinnati having taller skyscrapers since, Carew Tower is still Cincinnati's most recognizable historical landmark; the patriarch skyscraper of Cincinnati's signature skyline at the heart of the city, presiding over both Cincinnati's famous Fountain Square and the Ohio River.

I've entered many cities via car, in my 52 years - and I still think  that Cincinnati has one of the most unexpected and dramatic entrances of any city in the U.S., when coming from I-75 South. 

You're driving along green fields and hills in Kentucky, which get increasingly steep -  then all of the sudden, you're plummeting down a hill (which used to be called "Death Hill until they leveled it a bit more in the 1980s).

Then, as you round the bend between two hills, all of the sudden, Cincinnati seems to pop up out of nowhere,  right across the river, like "Hi, surprise - you didn't expect that, did you?" ... 

That's Carew Tower, second skyscraper on the left, in the below photo - goldish-brown color, illuminated with yellow-gold lights. 

(Not the golden-brown lower building on the left - that's actually a bridge, and not the I-75 bridge - it's Roebling Bridge - named after its engineer, J.A. Roebling, who also designed the Brooklyn Bridge :)

This was Mabley and Carew, at Carew Tower,  in its heyday at Christmas  ... 

Mabley and Carew and H&S Pogue actually shared this space for some time, until both moved (see below) ... 

However, even though M&C/Elder-Beerman had moved their flagship store to a new location downtown shortly after I was born, as did Pogue's (see below), Carew was still decorated for Christmas, and it still looked very much like this at Christmas, when I was a child.

In fact, though the building is primarily used for offices and even condos today, the main hall still looks like this today, the main art-deco-esque hallway has been mostly preserved ... 

As mentioned above, in the mid-1960s, M&C (later Elder-Beerman) moved their flagship downtown store to ... whatever monstrosity this was, also downtown ... 

... which I believe we also visited, but I can't remember a single thing about it, probably because there was nothing remarkable about it. 

I mean, it looks like a cinder block on stilts.  Ew?

As old-school awesome as Carew Tower was, though we children admired it, it wasn't the main downtown attraction destination for children. 

In fact, in the early 1970s, it was the downtown Pogue's (in its new location) that the most memorable for children, at least on the inside, until Shillito's at Christmas solidified their Christmas reign later that decade  ... 

... not only because of the animated window displays, which everyone else had too, but likely because they had the ice cream mezzanine bridge, serving Graeter's ice cream :)

I still remember the smell of Pogue's, after you entered the revolving doors  - which, of course, you just had to go around several times in, as a child, like you were Will Ferrell in Elf lol. 

The lights, the decorations - always stopping for candy or popcorn ice cream at the mezzanine levels of the stores :), 

As I recall, there was also a ladies' tea room, at the end of the hall, where ladies' clubs and men's rotary clubs held their annual Christmas luncheons, dressed to the 9's, but I can't remember the name of it. 

Speaking of fine apparel, I also remember Gidding Jenny, which was the premiere women's clothier in Cincinnati.

It was the sort of boutique where you actually had to have an appointment, and I can't remember if children were literally not allowed to go inside, or we just felt unwelcome by the snooty ladies inside - or maybe we were just bored.  

Regardless, even though I was a pretty shy, quiet child around adults and in public, I remember not feeling welcome and spent most of my time outside, while my mom shopped there, maybe once or twice.

I also remember making friends outside with other kids, who typically waited outside with fathers or grandparents, so I can't tell you what the inside looked like from memory, but the outside was pretty cool. 

As an adult, the original Gidding Jenny building is still one of my favorite of the smaller Cincinnati buildings, if you look closely at the Art Nouveau architectural accents - the tile of which, I just now discovered, was provided by none other than internationally renowned Art Noveau pottery artists, Cincinnati's Rookwood Pottery - although I didn't know that, as a child -  I just thought it looked mythical and magnificent :)

As a child, I remember trying to decide if this little architectural accent was, in fact, the evil gorgon Medusa, and if one of the colorful-but-snooty ladies inside was, in fact, Medusa, turned to stone herself  - guarding the store as fiercely as the beautiful-but-snotty sales ladies inside and the security guard at the front door  lol ... 

And if this was, in fact, the end of her dragony tail lol. 

I could only imagine the mysterious goings on inside.

But alas, aha!   Another great childhood mystery is solved!

Because I found this old picture of the inside of Gidding Jenny!

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz, that's it?!? 

What a letdown.  I was sure Medusa was hiding in there.  

Now that I see a picture of it, I vaguely remember that circular sofa in the general setup, but as I said, I don't think I was inside long. 

Okay, I'm all grown up now, but I still prefer the outside - because the inside was super boring! 

Nothing to really look at, you just sit down and people model clothes for you. 

I guess this made adult women feel like pampered queens or something, I don't know, but I think that's super boring - plus I'd feel incredibly uncomfortable and falsely entitled, sitting on golden velvet couches and having people wait on me hand and foot - but that sort of thing was, of course, right up my mom's alley lol. 

Now, as far as actually visiting Santa, Shillito's was the place to go, Shillito's always had the best Santa. 

Now, the outside of their down flagship store was pretty boring ... 

Except for two things ... the first being their outdoor Christmas decorations ... 

And the marquee, theater-style Art Deco entrance. 

In fact, I'm pretty sure the dramatic theater-style Art Deco doors were a large part of Christmas shopping feeling like an event ...

And the inside was your stereotypical department-store-at-Christmas fun madhouse, and though this picture was taken in 1937, Shillito's still looked pretty much like this inside, even in the early 70s, and you had to go upstairs to the mezzanine to wait for Santa, standing in line in his toy-making shop first ...

As I grew older, by the 1980s, Shillito's quickly bypassed Pogue's to become the place to go for window displays.  Every year, children looked forward to seeing what those crazy Shillito elves were doing.

In fact, even when the store changed to Lazarus and then Macy's, we still called them the Shillito elves lol. 

Here are the Shillito elves, through the years -  beginning in the 1970s and ending with the very last Shillito's elves display in 2005 ....

Though Shillito's was bought by Lazarus, and finally Macy's, Macy's never occupied the space, and the building has been since abandoned - which you can tour for a price (which no thank you, I don't think I'll be doing, preferring my fond memories to sad, decrepitated physical remnants.)

As for the Shillito elves, not to worry - various Cincinnati stores and banks have bought them and they can still be seen on display, all over the city :)


Now, for Mark's Christmas shopping memories in Detroit :)

Now, Detroit had the big national department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord&Taylor, and Nieman-Marcus, when Mark was a child in the mid-60s, which only arrived in Cincinnati by the 1980s, as well as FAO Schwarz.

However, Detroit's big go-to for Christmas were also regionals, just like in Cincinnati, only they were ...

Hudson's ...

Hudson's archrival,  Crowley's ...

Also there was Kern's ... 

And, of course, they also had their Detroit version of the snooty ladies' apparel store called Jacobson's ... 

... which eventually went more moderate department store for men, women, and children, as well as home products ... 

 ... and in fact is still around, in Grosse Pointe and upscale areas, returning to the small  boutique idea they began with, to survive. 

And, of course, the most memorial shopping "event" that Mark looked forward to, every year, was also the ice cream mezzanine, which only Hudson's had - so it was Hudson's for their ice cream, their window displays, and the elaborate Santa's ice castle for Mark  :)

That's Mark in the photo - JUST KIDDING - it was actually taken at Hudson's in the late 1940s lol. 

They also had an ice-cream mezzanine, which served a Mickey Mouse Sunday (one giant scoop of vanilla, two small chocolate wafers as the mouse ears, with Detroit's famous Sanders' hot fudge, of course, Sanders being still around ) ... 

I think it's interesting how much the inside of Detroit's downtown Hudson's looked so much like Elder Beerman, Pogues, and Shillito's, at the time, if you compare them to the photos above  :) 

However, he says the windows outside ... 

... paled in comparison to what he initially described to me as "the big tree that looked like a wedding cake, made of lights" on the outside .... when he was really little ... 

... but all of that was nothing compared to what the entire 12th floor interior transformed into every year - the North Pole and Santa's castle! 


Okay, we didn't have anything like that.  I gotta say, that was pretty elaborate  for the 1960s and 70s - no wonder he remembers it!

Okay, he wins - we didn't have anything like that! 

Also, Mark remembers going to the big Christmas parade at Hudson's every year ...

Hey, wait a minute - not fair - I don't think we had a Christmas parade in Cincinnati!?!

At least I don't remember going to a single Christmas parade in Cincinnati, downtown or in the suburbs, like ... ever?

Maybe there was one we just didn't go?

We usually just watched Macy's New York parade on TV, so I don't know, but I don't remember attending a single one.

Okay, he and Detroit win again!

(Except in football and sometimes baseball, but that's another story).

I'm sure that all of these seem lame, to children born in the 1980s and after - and the light displays are laughable compared to what we have today ... 

Downtown Detroit, Michigan, 2020

Downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, Christmas 2020.

Here in downtown Lexington, Kentucky, Christmas 2020

And yet I can't help but wonder if we lost some magic, along the way, with urban sprawl into suburbs, trading magic or quick convenience? 

The once-a-year downtown Christmas shopping as an "event" we looked forward to, each year, simply doesn't exist, anymore :(

Ah, well, there are still good memories to be had - so to good memories, wherever you're from and whatever makes you nostalgic for Christmases past :) 

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