The Golden Age of Shopping: Downtown Newark
Written by NJ Historian
In a time before malls and regional shopping centers filled New Jersey's landscape, Newark was a prime shopping destination. Imagine hopping into the family car, on a bus, or train in the 1940s or 1950s and spending the day in Newark shopping, eating at restaurants, or watching a show. Crowds on busy streets passed by stores with large plate-glass windows displaying the newest fashions and most modern conveniences. While the intersection of Broad and Market streets, known as the Four Corners, was Newark’s commercial hub, just a few blocks away, the area around Military Park presented a different kind of experience It was known as "Ladies’ Mile" for the stores that catered to the elegant ladies who bought the finest objects in America. This was the Golden Age in Newark. But as quickly as it came, it ended by the 1970s, when new indoor malls and big-box stores began to spring up in suburban locations such as Menlo Park and Bergen County. These behemoths of commercialization in Newark still stand today, battered by neglect, but still proudly displaying the names of the stores that were synonymous with downtown Newark. Yet, all good things must come to an end, and for the iconic buildings on two blocks of Broad Street between Cedar Street and New Street, their time has come.
The McCrory's building on the corner of Cedar and Broad Streets, is a four-story, eleven bay, brick, rectangular building constructed in phases between 1892 and 1900. The Art Moderne, terra-cotta clad exterior that we see today on the front of the building was added in the late 1940s. The original brick, circa 1892, is still visible on the Cedar Street side, but all of the windows have been boarded up. A large sign, stylistic of the Art Moderne era, was over three stories in height and remains affixed to the building. The first floor also had a marquee that extended across the front and around the corner.
|The William V. Snyder Dry Goods Store, circa 1910.|
The McCrory's store on the opposite side of Cedar Street followed suit and built a platform on the outbound side in August 1929, directly opposite Kresge's. Again, the only access was through the store. Since it was on the outbound side, this platform was used mainly as a store exit. The platforms drew people into the stores just to change cars between routes in the tunnel and routes out on Broad Street. The subway lasted until 1938, when the rails were paved over and buses operated in the subway until 1966, however historians believe that the platforms closed much earlier than 1966. Today, the McCrory's platform has been sealed, but the Kresge platform is still visible underground. McCrory's continued to operate in Newark until the mid-1970s.
S. Klein, On The Square is an eight-story, five bay, skeletal steel frame structure with brick and terra cotta cladding. Newark architect William E. Lehman designed this building in 1923 as part of the Goerke's Department Store complex. On December 2, 1937, it became Hearn's Department Store. James A. Hearn & Son, founded in 1827, at one point had been Macy's main rival in New York. Over the years, at least three additions were made to the rear of the building, resulting in a very narrow, but long building that forms an "L" at its rear along Halsey Street.
S. Klein, On The Square opened in 1949 in the former Hearn's building. The company was owned by Meshulam Riklis Rapid American Corp., who also owned the McCrory store chains. In addition to Newark, S. Klein stores were located in Alexandria, Maryland, New York City, and Virginia. At their Newark location, the company erected a large sign on the building facade and remains a local landmark. The "S." is two stories tall and "On The Square" covers an area over four floors in height. The name “On The Square,” means, “honest and straight up." S. Klein was a different kind of store, unlike its predecessors and the more upscale department stores in Newark such as Hahne & Company and Bamberger's. S. Klein's was a more economical shopping alternative and catered to the working class. In 1946, Time featured Klein's, providing some insight into how S. Klein's was different from other retailers:
S. Klein's operated its Newark store until 1976 and has remained vacant since."Klein's is not a pretty place. Its floors are bare. There are no saleswomen. Customers must select dresses themselves from the crude iron racks, try them on in crowded public dressing rooms. Klein's does not advertise—except to keep customers away on holidays when the store is closed."
|Broad Street circa 1950s, showing the S. Klein Store and the new Art Moderne facade on McCrory's.|
The Schrafft's Building is a three-story, five bay, brick, Colonial Revival-influenced commercial building. It is located on the corner of Broad and West Park Streets. Constructed in 1933, Schrafft's was a chain of high-volume, moderately-priced New York restaurants connected to the Schrafft's food and candy business of Boston. They offered large, pleasant dining rooms "in the better areas," which often attracted women who were in these areas for shopping, such as "Ladies Mile" in Newark. Women out for lunch represented the bulk of the customers at Schrafft's restaurants. Schrafft's was one of the first restaurant chains to perfect a "signature style" of interior decor including walnut woodwork and early American period furniture. Most of the Schafft's chain closed by the late 1970s, including the Newark location. The building was vacant for a number of years after its closing. The upper floors have remained vacant since at least 1985 and sometime after 1985 the first floor reopened as a retail operation called "Beauty in Everyone."
The Wiss Building is a ten-story, three bay, "L" shaped building constructed in 1910. It was built for the Wiss Company, a Newark-based manufacturer of scissors, shears, and retail jewelry. At the time of its construction, it was considered one of the tallest buildings in Newark. Its front facade was constructed of limestone, glazed terra cotta, marble, and pressed metal. Originally, the first floor boasted one large storefront with offices above. Over time, the first floor was subdivided and the marble front removed, replaced by a variety of commercial signs. Architect Henry Baechlin, who also helped design Symphony Hall, designed the Wisss Building. The ground floor housed the Wiss Jewelry Store, the retail division of the scissor and shear manufacturer. The 1935 and 1940 Newark City Directories list the Lee Anna Hoisery Shop and the Broad Street Linen Shops. In addition to its scissors and shears, the store sold china, watches, diamonds, and silverware. The company commissioned their own line of Lenox and China under the name Wiss and Sons. The store's motto was "a diamond for every purse." Smaller retail establishments and professionals rented the upper floors.
|The Wiss Building, circa 1920.|
|The Wiss Building, 2013.|
The last historic building on Broad Street to meet the wrecking ball is an Art Moderne Building built circa 1930. The building is a three-story, single bay building with a curved corner entrance. The exterior of the building is limestone and is characterized with an organic chevron-ornamented frieze and an overall horizontal emphasis. This sleek building housed Loft's Candy Store in 1935 and other retail stores on the upper floors. In the 1940s, the first floor housed Jordan's Ladies Wear. In the 1970s, the building was substantially renovated to house King's Sea Food and more recently Planet Wings. These later renovations gutted the building of its historical integrity.
The Broad Street streetscape has changed numerous times since the first commercial buildings were built in the late 1800s. As time passed, uses evolved and the size and configuration of the buildings made them undesirable for new tenants. Newark as a whole suffered from the growth of suburban shopping centers in the mid-1960s and 1970s. Once suburban sprawl took root, the once-popular department stores of Newark lost their allure. In addition, soaring crime rates and the rise of undesirables in Newark contributed toward this decline. Despite attempts to renovate and rejuvenate the sites, only the first floor retail shops remained viable and in some cases, the buildings never reopened. Some buildings were more fortunate. Kresge's was renovated and now houses retail and offices. Others, such as Hanhe's & Company, sit idly, waiting to saved. By late winter 2013, the two block area of Broad Street, between Cedar and New Streets, will be reduced to rubble. In their place will rise a modern glass and steel office high-rise, the future headquarters of the Prudential Insurance Company, which has called Newark home since 1875. Perhaps this new development will spur the preservation and rehabilitation of the remaining stores and shops that once made Newark a grand city.