Located 11th Street NW between G and F Streets, DC’s Woodward and Lothrop building is iconic: it appears in books and as a case study for developers, and we’ve even featured it ourselves (twice!). But while most of the attention focuses on the famous department store that lived in it, the building itself tells the story of how fast fashion eclipsed department store retail in the United States.

The Woodward & Lothrop building, sometime in the 1910s. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

Woodward and Lothrop was founded in Washington in 1880 and settled into its flagship location on the 1000 block of F and G Streets NW in 1886. Architect James G. Hill designed the company’s eclectic five-story headquarters, and real estate investor Calderon Carlisle funded the project.

The building was no skyscraper, but it shared the language of taller buildings: arcade windows and expansive showrooms covered in neoclassical ornament. The rich mix of materials included mahogany and French glass.

Thanks to continued success, owners Samuel Woodward and Alvin Lorthrop purchased most of the block by 1897. New acquisitions were renovated or expanded, notably a large addition in 1902 on G Street.

A picture from an advertisement in the 1913 edition of Rand McNally’s Pictorial Guide to Washington. Photo from Streets of Washington.

Chicago architect Henry Ives Cobb was hired to unify and modernize the building. The result was eight stories and 400,000 square feet of retail space adorned with cast iron and leaded glass.

Cobb’s design spoke to his Chicago roots. The building’s two commercial levels featured elaborate ornamentation and American-made cast iron piers. The third floor was narrower and hid its steel frame under rustication. The subsequent four stories wear a Beaux-Arts uniform and end in a heavy cornice. This segmentation resembles that of Chicago skyscrapers.

For F Street, Woodward and Lothrop hired Frederick B. Pyle to build a terra cotta segment of the building. While designed to appear as a distinct structure, it was always integrated into the larger building.

Here, you can see the terra cotta part of the building, which runs along 10th Street. Photo from Douglas Development.

By 1927 the building took on its present appearance after the original Carlisle Building had been destroyed. Woodies, as it was affectionately known, operated here until 1994 with only modest changes.

The Woodies building after 1926, viewed from 11th and F Streets, NW. Image from Streets of Washington.

By the end of the 20th century, the entire chain was bankrupt. The Washington location was abandoned, and its building auctioned to the Washington Opera. The Opera’s plans to convert the landmarked space into a theater failed, and five years later it was acquired by developer Douglas Jemal.

The company renovated the space in 2002, putting offices on most floors and returning the ground level to retail space. Now a jaunt around the block allows you to shop at Zara, H&M, and Forever 21.

Image from Douglas Development.

Woodies led the way for department stores, both the rise and fall

These new tenants are no modern Woodies — because the department store as a business model is long in decline. In Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, author Elizabeth Cline delves into how department stores were revolutionary when they arrived at the turn of the 20th century, but by the end of the century, that revolution turned against them.

The Woodward & Lothrop floor at Christmas time, sometime in the 1960s. Photo by StreetsofWashington on Flickr.

In 1900, textile, patterns, and readymade home and clothing items under one roof gave upper class women a safe, socially acceptable escape from the household. These items’ relative affordability meant a person didn’t have to make all their own clothing anymore. By the post-war era, American pockets bulged, ready-to-wear was king, and competition was fierce in the industry. Mail order catalogs allowed you to peruse your regional chain’s offerings, or you could drive to Montgomery Ward, Belk, or Burdines for mid-market sales.

But like its contemporary the land line, the department store model was due for change. Cline notes that by the 1970s malls and discount retailers mushroomed across America. These were descended upon by price conscious Americans — with an evaporating middle class, who would shop for mid-priced clothing? At the dawn of the 21st century, shopping preferences were clear: Forever 21 or the designer from whom the chain borrowed inspiration.

In the era of fast fashion — piles of stylish clothing go from sketch to store in a matter of weeks, selling for small sums — the moderate department store was too slow and expensive. Department stores tried to meet the new expectations, hastening their own demise with untenable discounts and a dwindling clientele.

Woodies was a casualty of this changing economy. Many of its stores were acquired by Macy’s and Bloomingdales, chains that expanded nationally and weathered the shift partly by focusing on higher end customers. Woodies fell victim of its refusal to evolve — or as critics of fast fashion’s labor and environmental effects argue, devolve.

Yet the signature building remains intact. The space itself epitomizes the changing retail tides of history. The eclectic buildings first brought together by Woodies have been recycled, reorganized, and parceled out to individual owners again. The structure remains to tell the tale.