Christmases past: Remembering the grandeur that was Wanamaker’s

The Woodmere Museum recently acquired the midcentury design concepts by John Winters, staff artist with Wanamaker’s Department Store for 25 years.

''Hard Candy - View from Santa’s Castle'' by John Winter. (Woodmere Museum)

''Hard Candy - View from Santa’s Castle'' by John Winter. (Woodmere Museum)

Faced with a second holiday season with COVID-19, many people are coping with renewed limitations on celebrating, and even re-thinking Christmas gatherings altogether.

Remember when Christmas was grand?

Once upon a time, the Wanamaker’s Department Store went all-out for holidays. For 25 years it kept a staff artist, John Winters, to imagine the store’s seven-story Grand Court as a fantasy tableau. He designed the 150-foot-high space with architectural sets, water features, custom-made chandeliers, and live dancers in costumes.

Winters designed for Wanamaker’s from 1948 to 1973, while also maintaining a fine art practice, painting modern and abstract canvases. He died in 1983.

”Christmas 1968” by John Winters (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)
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Last year, his Wanamaker’s design portfolio popped up at auction at Freeman’s in Philadelphia, with about three dozen conceptual sketches and pastels he made for the Grand Court, such as The Ballet of Fragrance, The Magic of Glass, and Santa’s Candy Castle.

William Valerio, the director and CEO of the Woodmere Museum in Chestnut Hill, snapped them all up. About a dozen are now framed and hanging at the museum.

“What’s so wonderful about these drawings is that they’re documents of creative installations that involve music, that involve dance, that involve visual display,” said Valerio, who had not known about the sketches before. “This is a part of Philadelphia’s history. Wanamaker’s was a pioneer in so many aspects of modern retail. One of them was the celebration of the holidays.”

Woodmere Director and CEO William Valerio. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

The store always put on the nines for holidays year-round, and even played a part in the invention of Mother’s Day. The Wanamaker’s Department Store, what is now Macy’s at 13th and Market streets in Center City, was designed as part of the American Renaissance architectural movement, bringing the ambition and grandeur of Roman classicism to modern urban cities.

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With an interior space as enormous as its central Grand Court, the store needed an artistic vision to match. It found that in John Winters.

Originally from Omaha, Nebraska, Winters studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, and later became an administrator with the Works Progress Administration (WPA). He eventually moved to Philadelphia and got a job in the Display Department at Wanamaker’s, designing retail set pieces and window decorations for decades.

”First Air Voyage in America” by John Winter. (Woodmere Museum)

For his Grand Court designs, Winters created thematic displays using elements of fashion, performance, and architecture that allude to Greek mythology, Japanese gardens, and European court galas. His drawings show a three-dimensional sensibility, filling the space deeply with rows of set pieces and performers, as well as drawing the eye upward with ostentatious vertical pieces, like a full-sized hot-air balloon draped in swooping canopies.

The drawings include notes explaining kinetic engineering (“moving color overhead”) and design nuances (“glass is flexible”).

The displays were meant to inspire both joy and commerce: many were designed with products in mind. The Magic of Glass was a tribute to Corningware; the Ballet of Fragrance was called “Coty’s Court,” after the cosmetics brand.

”Coty Court (Ballet of Fragrance)” by John Winter. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Several sketches include an element that is still iconic today: the large brass eagle in the middle of the floor. The presence of the eagle lends a scale and familiarity to the space that, otherwise, may seem like an otherworldly Broadway fairy tale.

“I don’t think the contemporary world, with the constraints that exist, allow architects to even imagine on that scale. I mean, there’s some extraordinary airport designs that have these kinds of spaces, but not department stores,” said Valerio. “Wanamaker wanted to create an experience inspired by the American Renaissance idea that the spaces of the modern city would be as elegant as the great palaces of Europe of the past.”

Valerio bought the Winters portfolio last year and intended to display them during the 2020 holiday season, but a surge of COVID-19 last winter suddenly forced all museums to close. The images are now hung in a hallway of the Woodmere Museum until Jan. 9, mostly to just get them up and seen. The scholarship will follow.

close-up detail of ”Nutcracker” by John Winter. (Woodmere Museum)

When there is more time and staff to spare, Valerio plans to have research done at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, where the Wanamaker’s papers are archived, to hunt for historic photographs that match the sketches.

Valeriod said the Woodmere has one of Winters fine-art paintings in its collection, a nude, but it is in need of restoration so has not been on display for many years.

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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