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