Housing Complex

Woodies’ Rise and Fall Show D.C.’s Shifting Retail Geography

The Woodward & Lothrop store at 11th and F streets NW, circa 1915 (Library of Congress)

The Woodward & Lothrop store at 11th and F streets NW, circa 1915 (Library of Congress)

In 1880, Samuel Walter Woodward and Alvin Mason Lothrop opened a small store at 75 Market Space in downtown D.C. and called it the "Boston Dry Goods House." Seven years and two locations later, they cut the ribbon on a much larger store, now bearing their two surnames, at 11th and F streets NW that was better suited to the company's rapid growth—though not big enough to prevent a crush so great that many of the female shoppers lost their bustles. In the 1920s and 1930s, business boomed, the store slowly gobbled up adjacent properties, and profits climbed even through the Great Depression.

Three-quarters of a century later, the store was gone, and the property and neighborhood were so blighted that developer Doug Jemal had to beg and plead and agree to build a storefront out of his own pocket in order to convince H&M's terrified executives to set up shop there.

The story of the rise and fall of Woodward & Lothrop, D.C.'s premier department store for much of the 20th century, is documented in Woodword & Lothrop: A Store Worthy of the Nation's Capital, a new book from department store historian Michael J. Lisicky. The book says much about D.C.'s changing retail culture as department stores took over and then slowly faded away. But it also highlights the dramatic shifts in the District's retail geography.

An ad for Woodies following a 1925 expansion (courtesy of the Richard Longstreth Collection)

An ad for Woodies following a 1925 expansion (courtesy of the Richard Longstreth Collection)

When Woodies, as it was long known, opened at 11th and F in 1887, critics complained that it was "practically in the wilderness," according to Lisicky. The store and its many customers quickly proved the critics wrong. Just six years later, a businessman named Abram Lisner moved the Palais Royal department store from 12th and Pennsylvania NW to 11th and G—just a block from Woodies—and "was sharply criticized for not opening a location on F Street, Washington's main shopping street."

Palais Royal at 11th and G streets NW, in 1893 (Library of Congress)

Palais Royal at 11th and G streets NW, in 1893 (Library of Congress)

Lisner, too, was successful and helped establish the full neighborhood as a retail center. Even still, the Hecht Company department store was "at a disadvantage" because it "was farthest from the center of shopping"—all the way at 7th and F, not quite four blocks from Woodies.

Then came the suburbs. Garfinckel and Co. became the first downtown D.C. department store to expand into the suburbs, according to the book—though Lisicky refers to the store as being in Spring Valley, Md., when it was really in the D.C. neighborhood bearing that name, in the space now occupied by Crate & Barrel.

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Above: Garfinckel's in Spring Valley (photo courtesy of the Richard Longstreth Collection). Below: Crate & Barrel in the same location (Google Maps).

In 1950, Woodies opened its first suburban store, in Chevy Chase, Md. Former Woodies president Waldo Burnside told Lisicky that the Chevy Chase store was about "location, location, location. ... It was our first branch store, and it was sensational." Shoppers flocked to the store from Northern Virginia and Potomac, Md. In 1965, Woodies and Hecht's both announced plans to open stores in Tysons Corner, which became the D.C. region's biggest shopping center and was, according to former Woodies president Edwin Hoffman, "where you made things happen." The suburbs were the new epicenter of retail.

Which of course was terrible news for the downtown department stores. Lisicky attributes much of the decline of downtown shopping to the 1968 riots, which were certainly a factor. But the stores also cannibalized themselves by setting up branch after branch outside city limits, which shoppers reached by car.

The opening of the Metro might have changed that. At first, it was a major disruption, due to the crippling construction of the system. But when it finally opened, it gave Woodies a boost as the only department store with a direct Metro entrance from the Metro Center station. However, the Metro also removed some of Woodies' underground space, and poor marketing and management compounded the store's struggles.

In 1994, the company filed for bankruptcy. The May Company, together with J.C. Penney, bought the company's assets. Some Woodies stores would become J.C. Penney stores; others would become Lord & Taylor or Hecht's, both owned May. But May wasn't interested in Woodies' historic downtown store, which languished until socialite Betty Brown Casey bought it with a harebrained scheme to make it an opera house. In 1999, Casey was persuaded to sell the property to Jemal, who spent years courting tenants unsuccessfully until H&M finally signed on to his very generous deal.

Now, of course, F Street is thriving again. The Woodies building is home to H&M, Zara, Madame Toussaud's, and a host of offices. The geographic epicenter of retail is once again shifting to downtown and other urban neighborhoods. But homegrown department store giants like Woodies may be a thing of the past.

Correction: This post initially misidentified the first store to sign on with Jemal as Macy's; in fact, it was H&M.

  • Lauren M

    Michael Lisicky, author of Woodword & Lothrop: A Store Worthy of the Nation's Capital, will be at the MLK Library on Nov. 18th at 6:30 pm to talk about Woodie's. All are welcome.

    901 G Street NW, 3rd Floor
    Washington, DC 20001
    Nov. 18, 6:30 pm

  • Gregory

    Lisicky fast-paced and shortchanged the Downtown shopping era by not including the Holiday Puppet Displays and the famed "Washington Shoppers Plate" a credit card that allowed shoppers to shop at Garfinckel's Woodies, & hechts Department stores located in the Downtown Shopping District. Woodies was doom to fail, long before the April 1968 riots. The Wooodward owner of Woodward and Lothrops was a local commercial realtor, and not retail guru. Woodward built the historic Woodward Building located at 15th & H Street, NW, which also was a commercial flop! The Opera purchase only exacerbated Jemal's desire to save downtown department stores and sign retailers. The cost to get the property from the Opera damn near kill Jemal's chances to sign a retailer and renovate the property.

  • Tony

    I understand that these books can seem fast paced but my copy of the book has a whole chapter called 'Washington Shoppers Place' and explains how the card worked. Perhaps you missed it. Downtown Washington was surely on its way down before the riots.

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