For many longtime Washington residents, The Woodward & Lothrop department store, or Woodies as everybody knew it, is a touchstone for memories of easier days and simpler pleasures when Washington was much younger.
The looming 9-story building at 11th and F Streets, NW, taking up virtually an entire block in the heart of old downtown, served as the stage for many happy moments and a reminder that shopping has long been a key form of entertainment in the nation’s capital.
Left: The Woodies building after 1926, viewed from 11th and F Streets, NW. Image from the collection of David White. Right: The Woodies building today. Photo by the author.
Walter Woodward (1848-1917) and Alvin Lothrop (1847-1912) came from New England; Walter was born in Maine to a family of shipwrights, and Alvin came from a Massachusetts farm. They met and became fast friends while working as clerks in a Boston dry goods store beginning in 1870. By 1873, they had started their own dry goods business in Chelsea, Massachusetts, but there was a limit to how much they could expand there. In 1879 they decided they needed to find a larger market. Woodward traveled to the Midwest—Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri—as well as Baltimore and Washington, to size up prospects. In a famous telegram back to this partner, he declared, “Alvin, Washington, D.C., is the place for us.”
Woodward seems to have been the hard-charging entrepreneur of the pair, whereas Lothrop was the personable, detail-oriented manager. They opened their first Washington store, called the “Boston Dry Goods House,” at 705 Market Space, opposite the Center Market, in 1880. The following year, they moved a couple of blocks west to 921 Pennsylvania Avenue, where they filled a larger, five-story shop equipped with a steam-powered elevator.
The store had a large sign proclaiming “One Price,” meaning that everything in the store was marked with a fixed price, a break from the traditional haggling over prices that was standard in dry goods shops. They also adopted the practice of stocking seasonal clothing in advance of the actual season, bringing in summer clothes in the middle of a January snowstorm, for example. I really can’t explain why this marketing strategy worked so well, but it did, and eventually it became universal industry practice. Woodward & Lothrop, Inc., began to take business away from older, less progressive stores.
The pair of young commercial Turks also had their eccentricities, particularly Woodward, a consummate Type-A hard-charger with a “hair-trigger temper” and known for his brusqueness. For example, he insisted on conducting grueling interviews of his agents whenever they returned from buying trips, firing pointed questions at this victims and demanding simple yes or no responses.
He also developed the habit of angrily flinging pens across his office if they didn’t work properly. As many as 6 or 7 might be strewn about after he had worked his way through the morning’s mail, and his secretary would have to wait for a quiet moment, after Woodward had “simmered down,” to discreetly gather the pens up and replace their nibs. These anecdotes come from a 1955 history entitled From Founders to Grandsons: The Story of Woodward & Lothrop, prepared by Martha C. Guilford of Woodies’ public relations division.
This view, from the early 1920s, highlights the original Carlisle building completed in 1887. Image from the Library of Congress.
An important milestone came in 1887, when the store moved from Pennsylvania Avenue to the corner of 11th and F Streets NW, part of an emerging trend of commercial establishments abandoning flood-prone Pennsylvania Avenue for the higher ground of F Street. Calderon Carlisle, a prominent attorney and real-estate investor, offered to construct a new building for the store at a cost of $100,000. This five-story Carlisle Building became Woodies’ headquarters for the next forty years.
The building was designed by James G. Hill (1841-1913), Washington’s leading architect. Hill had designed the original Bureau of Engraving and Printing building and was also at work on the Atlantic Building (930 F Street NW) a block away when he undertook the Woodies project. His Carlisle building was in the emerging Chicago commercial style, with large, arcaded, Romanesque-Revival windows near the top; tall showroom floors; and restrained neoclassical trim.
The show windows on the bottom four floors were of “highly polished French plate glass,” according to Guilford, and inside were woodwork and furnishings of cherry, poplar, and mahogany, all equally highly-polished. Interior ceilings were painted in “graded shades of light blue and ecru,” while the walls were a light terracotta color with a hand-decorated frieze.
The building was on the leading edge of department store design and was meant to serve as a prominent entertainment destination, impressing passersby and drawing them in. Once inside, the finest customer amenities were provided, including an elegant reception room on the mezzanine level, enclosed by an ornamental mahogany balustrade, where ladies could wait for their shopping companions to arrive before embarking on a romp through the aisles.
Evidence of the store’s technological prowess could be found in the Martin & Hill Electric Cable Cash Railway, a Rube-Goldberg contraption that included a small track running in all directions throughout the building’s four shopping floors. It transported cash from station to station in small “German silver box cars” that raced about at 14 feet per second. Mayhem ensued at least once a week when somebody’s excitable pet dog, driven crazy by the zippy little boxes, would break loose and go tearing after them, barking madly.
The large, new building allowed for expanded lines of goods. In December 1888, Woodward observed to The Washington Post that “our new bric-a-brac department has led everything, and this trade has been truly phenomenal,” although the article frustratingly does not divulge what particular bric-a-brac was so irresistible.
In contrast, newspaper coverage of the store’s annual “opening” each October, when new fashions were presented to the public, was often substantial and detailed. In 1894, for example, the Post surveyed the fresh stocks in Woodies’ aisles and reported that “Everything this season is rough and shaggy…. Zibilines and English tweeds are leading and Bannockburns are also popular…. The ultra-fashion for evening gloves is a dainty lemon shade with broad black back stitching…”
Further reverie ensues regarding silks, cloaks, suits, and of course hats—large hats, “much larger than usual; mostly velvet and trimmed with birds and ostrich plumes” and shaded “hunter’s green, bluet, and cherry, with rosettes of jet and gold.” The well-dressed woman of 1894 was truly a sight to see.
The sale of all that bric-a-brac and ostrich plumes meant a never-ending need for additional space. Since moving into the Carlisle Building in 1887, Woodward & Lothrop steadily expanded out into the rest of the block, gradually buying and taking over small commercial buildings that one by one were attached to the store complex.
In the 1890s, the buildings along F Street were added, all but the Rich’s shoe store at the opposite end. Mid-block commercial space was also snapped up. Then a big step was taken in 1899 when the company bought the large property spanning the north end of the block, which fronted on G Street and had been home to the St. Vincent Female Orphan Asylum. After a new home for the asylum was completed north of Eckington in 1901, Woodward & Lothrop immediately began work on a large, new state-of-the-art addition, completed in 1902.
The 1902 building on G Street remains a strikingly elaborate Gilded Age gem. Designed by Chicago-based architect Henry Ives Cobb (1859-1931), the 8-story building is articulated into four pleasantly contrasting sections: the richly ornamented first two floors, with their 2-story cast-iron piers proudly made in Jersey City, New Jersey; a narrow, rusticated third story that was the first element of the facade to be hung on the building’s steel frame; another four stories above that are decorated in an elegant Beaux-Arts style with Corinthian piers and ornamental spandrels; and finally a large, heavily bracketed cornice.
The south (F Street) end of the Woodies block appears to contain a single, large building that is similar to the 1902 building but more modern in style. This structure was designed by Washington architect Frederick B. Pyle (1867-1934) in the spare, neoclassical style that would become his trademark in the 1920s. The design uses South Dover marble on the facade of the lower two floors instead of cast iron, plain brick for the central five stories, and ornamented terracotta at the top.
This building was erected in several complex phases. The first part of the building to go up was a slim, one-bay-wide segment on F Street in 1912. The following year, the F Street facade was expanded by replacing several older structures and creating a large, five-bay-wide building in the middle of the F Street side of the block. In 1925, the building was further filled out in the mid-block area behind it, and then finally in 1926 the original Carlisle Building on the corner of 11th and F was replaced, completing the structure as it remains to this day. In-house architect Linden Kent Ashford (1893-1953) designed the 1920s expansions, which matched the original Frederick Pyle design.
Left: Photo from 1912 of construction of the first segment of the “modern” half of the Woodies building. Image from the Library of Congress. Right: The same view today. Note that the original bay is slightly wider than the later additions. Photo by the author.
As its building steadily expanded, so did Woodies’ workforce, departments, and services. As reported by Guilford, Woodies’ staff grew from 35 in 1880 to 300 when the Carlisle Building opened in 1887. In 1917 there were 1,700 employees, and in 1954, when the book was written, Woodies employed “an average of 4,500 during regular seasons and 6,000 during busy holiday seasons.”
The store attempted to provide everything a person could possible want once they left their home. There was a dining room, beauty parlor, travel agency, messenger service, and tourist information desk. For customers or employees who fell ill, a medical clinic, staffed with a full-time physician and nurses, was on hand.
In addition, a variety of non-shopping entertainment was always waiting to delight Woodies’ customers. Beginning in 1890, the store showed free art exhibits to a city which had few other opportunities to see fine art. A show in 1900 featured works by Raphael, Titian, Van Dyke, and Rembrandt, on loan from the British National Gallery. A motion-picture theater was installed in 1913, and beginning in 1915 it screened special educational films produced by the Washington Post for children.
Perhaps most memorable for many Woodies customers over the years were the elaborate window displays, particularly the ones done at Christmas time. A large display department was kept at work constantly inventing dramatic new window exhibits, many of them unrelated to Woodies’ merchandise. 1930 saw the popular “Washington of the Future” exhibit. A Post article in 1961 described the Civil War centennial display then in Woodies’ windows and also mentioned an exhibit of live penguins that had been staged in June, with special air conditioning added to give the animals some modicum of comfort.
The company’s signature Christmas displays were done in friendly rivalry with other downtown department stores, including Kann’s, Hecht’s, and Lansburgh’s, and tended to the warm-and-cuddly. A 1960 roundup of Christmas displays in the Post found a teddy bear village at Hecht’s, Santa’s blacksmith shop at Kann’s, and Kittenville, USA, at Woodies. The display department might easily spend more than a year planning for these annual exhibits.
A Woodies delivery truck circa 1912. Image from the Library of Congress.
Of course, the shopping was always the most important form of entertainment, and since the store’s earliest days free delivery was offered for all purchases. Woodies’ delivery trucks were everywhere in the early years of the 20th century. As remembered by a Post reader in 1984, “The [store’s] polished horse-drawn delivery vans were a familiar sight on all the residential streets, clop-clopping along. They were a darkish, reddish color (maroon? mulberry?) and the driver, who handled the reins, wore a matching livery, and so did the ‘jumper’ on the seat beside him” who carried packages to customers’ front doors.
In 1946, the company bought out one of its old rivals, the Palais Royal department store, located in the block just to the north of the Woodies building. The Palais Royal became the Woodies North Building, allowing for significant expansion. The firm soon undertook an elaborate reorganization of merchandise, spreading everything out between the two buildings, and in 1951 an underground tunnel was completed connecting them under G Street.
In that same year, a 240-car parking garage was constructed just north of the Palais Royal building, marking the furthest extent of Woodies’ downtown property (a striking art deco warehouse and service building had also been built near Union Station in 1937). The company floated a scheme in 1965 to tear down the Palais Royal, the adjacent McLachlan building (which it had recently acquired), and the parking garage and replace them all with a large new building connected to the old Woodies complex via a bridge over G Street. However, fortunately, nothing ever came of that idea.
The purchase of the Palais Royal store in 1946 had included conveyance of its leases to three small suburban branches, which Woodies maintained as its own stores. Two were in Arlington (one in the Pentagon concourse) and another was in Bethesda, serving for many years as Woodies Budget Store. But these small stores could not fulfill Woodies’ vision of a grand emporium stocked with a multitude of goods. No, the real action beginning in the late 1940s was in developing large, suburban stores that would pull people in as shopping destinations, just as the downtown store had done for so many years.
As chronicled by Richard Longstreth, the rival Hecht Company was out in front on this trend, opening a large store in the boondocks of Silver Spring in 1947. Woodies responded in 1950 by opening its luxurious Chevy Chase store, designed in a dowdy, semi-neocolonial style but with an interior by the preeminently modernist Raymond Loewy firm. Woodies went on to add more than a dozen additional suburban branch stores in the 1950s and 1960s, most of them located in the mammoth shopping malls that were then attracting so much business.
The company was always known as Woodward & Lothrop (that is, after a third partner, Charles E. Cochrane, was bought out in its first year). While the store itself was initially called the Boston Dry Goods Store, that moniker was dropped at some point before World War I.
The “Woodies” nickname came much later, and apparently was an irritant to some. The Washington Post reader who in 1984 remembered the old delivery trucks also testified that it was not until the 1960s “that I first heard [the store] referred to as ‘Woodies,’ and then by teen-agers who were too lazy to utter five syllables. And it was a long time after that before the store itself succumbed and began using ‘Woodies’ in its ads. As for me, I still say Woodward & Lothrop’s.”
So, what went wrong? How did the company go from such dominance of D.C. retailing to bankruptcy in 1994? Woodies may have been innovative in 1880 but by 1980 it was too set in its ways and falling behind. Deep-pocketed outsiders, like Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, and Neiman-Marcus, began moving into the Washington area and aggressively catering to upscale shoppers. Other national retailers also successfully focused on specific types of products rather than offering a bit of everything, as had been Woodies’ forté.
The company—not unlike other old-time department stores—seemed unable to recast itself for the new age of retailing. Then in 1984, the chain was sold to Detroit real estate investor A. Alfred Taubman for $227 million. In an interview with the Post in 1985, Taubman stressed that he wasn’t going to change anything at Woodies, which must have made some people happy but probably wasn’t the best strategy for the chain.
In looking back on the Taubman purchase in 1995, the Post commented that the “chain’s fate was sealed” with the 1984 purchase, because it had been financed with loans backed by mortgages on Woodies’ property. The company became so saddled with debt that it could not afford to invest in modernizing itself. It was only a matter of time before the venerable chain folded.
The downtown building underwent a very restrained face lift, overseen by noted post-modernist architect Michael Graves, in 1986. But it was in for hard times. After Woodies declared bankruptcy in 1994, the May Department Stores bought the chain’s assets, converting some of the stores to the Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s nameplates but abandoning the original downtown location.
In 1996, the building was bought at auction by the Washington Opera for $18 million, using money donated by Betty Brown Casey. The opera company hoped to convert the building for use as a theater, but the cost of doing so proved unaffordable, and the building was sold again, in 1999, to developer Douglas Jemal for $28.2 million. Jemal renovated the structure in 2002 to provide office space on the upper floors and retail at ground level.
In addition to Guilford’s book, sources for this article included many newspaper articles, as well as Richard Longstreth, “The Mixed Blessings of Success: The Hecht Company and Department Store Branch Development after World War II” in Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture (1997). Also, an unsubmitted application to add the downtown building to the National Register of Historic Places and a history of the building prepared by Traceries, Inc., in 1997 were graciously made available by the D.C. Historic Preservation Office.
Cross-posted at Streets Of Washington.