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Wanamaker’s – Department Store Archeology Now Macy's but Still Fascinating! - Philadelphia, PA

Posted on: January 20, 2010

Even though the Wanamaker’s Department Store building in downtown Philadelphia PA has been taken over by Macy’s, if you look closely you can still see signs that this place used to be the grande dame of department stores in her day.

Here are a few snapshots of some of the retail archeological finds I saw on our quick trip into Center City before Christmas.’ve actually never seen the organ without it being obscured by the giant Christmas Tree, but here’s a shot to show you how cool and old fashioned it is (thanks to Wikipedia for the use of this image))

As a quick refresher, Wanamaker’s was the first department store in Philadelphia and one of the first department stores in the country. The current building harkens from 1910 and originally had 9 of its 12 floors designated for retail. Now only a handful of them are shopping destinations, but the building still houses the fabulous Wanamaker Organ, which gives a hint to the fabulosity that the store once had.

When you’re walking in through some of the vestibules off of the street you can still see the intricate mosaic work and the stylized JW signature emblazoned in the center.

wanamaker mosaic
The fluorescent lighting and my photos don’t do them justice, but the colors are just wonderful in a very art nouveau palette.

There are a number of these “stairways to nowhere” around the store. This one was located in the young mens department and perfectly contrast the elegance of years gone by with the hyper casual lifestyle of today (sigh.)

Wanamaker Stairs To NowhereEvidence of the Great Egyptian hall can be seen if you look closely at the beams on the 3rd floor:

The Egyptian Hall Wanamaker'sDown in the cosmetics section there are a number of these giant state seals lining the walls, which bring out the lovely gold of the stair railings in the background.

State Seal WanamakerI’m not sure what era this light fixture is from, but by the look of it’s wonderful sculptural glass shade and formidable metalwork, I’d say it’s not of this era, or last half decade easily!
Wanamaker Lighting FixtureAnother staircase to nowhere.  That curving brass bannister and faded burgundy carpet just screams “This used to be a tres elegant place!”
Wanamaker CherubsI bet those cherubs had a much nicer shade back in the day, but I guess I should just be glad they haven’t been replaced by halogen torchieres.

So if you’re in Center City Philadelphia and want to go on a retail archeological dig, and envision what this place would’ve been like in her heyday, pencil in a visit to Wanamaker’s – and show me what I missed!

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  • Amazing!

  • NS

    Ah, but the grand stairways do go somewhere!

  • Ken Hutchins

    The stairs “down” near the women’s shoe department, lead to a lower mezzanine level book shop. It wasn’t in the “bargain basement, where besides the normal discounted and reduced priced merchandise was located, the “WanaFrost” “soda and ice cream fountain was located. This is the level that would have allowed access to the 13 St Market Frankford Elevated (subway) station.

    Along the Chestnut St side of the store, where woman’s makeup is located, the stairs to the upper mezzanine lead to the former Wanamaker Ticket Office, and I believe the Wanamaker Station of the US Post Office. The Wanamaker Post Office is now located across 13th Street, in the 1234 Market St building (SEPTA Headquarters). The Wanamaker ticket office has relocated to another building in center city Philadelphia. I also think there was a travel agency located in the same mezzanine.

    At one time, the department store and it’s offices, were located in the entire building. Now, the upper floors of the building are home to civil courts, offices, and a catering facility (and formerly the department store restaurant) The Crystal Room.

    For many years, the building was the last location in Philadelphia that retained wooden based escalators. And the building was noted for retaining elevator operators into the early 1970s I believe.

    • Thanks for the very cool info Ken! Makes me want to pay a lot more attention to these details next time we go to the light show. Scary to think that will be in less than 2 months!

    • Adele DiTommaso

      I remember the Wanafrost stand in the basement. I was just telling my son’s about it. They had the best custard and before my Mom and I would go home on the EL, she would buy me a custard. That bought back some great memories from my childhood. We have so many good memories. I was always in Town with my Mom. We would have lunch in the Crystal Tea Room. They had a toy dept, that I just loved ,and they had the rocket ship you could ride on the ceiling. I was able to take my son’s there when they were little and they are in their 30’s now. They had some beautiful window treatment at Christimas too.

      • oh Adele, what great memories and what a grand place Wanamaker’s must’ve been. I’m so glad folks got to enjoy it, and hope that my website helps people to remember how important places like this are to us all. Now you’ve got me wanting a frozen custard! 🙂 Thanks for stopping by the Retro Roadmap.