Philly Love Note: the Wanamaker Building

    It took a while for me to understand why I love going to Macy’s so much. Aside from whiskey, records, books and sandwiches, I rarely enter the marketplace. (Macy’s sells none of these things.) But I often find myself going to Macy’s, and talking about Macy’s, and thinking about Macy’s. I even “Like” Macy’s on Facebook and subscribe to the store’s e-newsletter. Though I admit I cannot recall them, I’ve probably had dreams about Macy’s. It’s bizarre.

    But recently it hit me: I don’t love Macy’s; I love the Wanamaker Building.

    A history of gathering

    When John Wanamaker purchased the old Pennsylvania Railroad station in 1876, he transformed it into the city’s first department store. Wanamaker, an ambitious man, wanted to do more than provide excellent customer service and high-quality products ― he also wanted to create a thriving public space for art and culture.

    The layout of the store was designed to foster gathering and conversation. Original murals and art works were commissioned. There was a dining area on the 9th floor called the Crystal Tea Room, once considered the largest in the city. A massive pipe organ from the St. Louis World’s fair was purchased and radically expanded in order to pump live music throughout the store.

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    Wanamaker also offered his employees an array of benefits, including free medical care and access to recreational facilities. In short, it was a wonderful place to shop, hang out and work.

    Where magic could happen

    My first Wanamaker Building Experience happened when I was eight years old, watching a movie that was filmed there called Mannequin. The movie’s about a mannequin-manufacturer (Andrew McCarthy) who is employed by a department store called Prince & Company. And when he encounters a mannequin (Kim Cattrall) that’s actually a living, breathing, time-traveling Egyptian woman, guess what happens?

    Yes, the two fall head-over-heels in love, and everyone thinks it’s insane (which it is). But, for my fragile young mind, the building was a place where magic could happen and where the impossible was possible. Many years later, perhaps that sentiment still means something to me.

    Following Wanamaker’s death in 1922, the store underwent new permutations with each new owner. Now it’s Macy’s Center City. Many things have changed, but some of Wanamaker’s original, unique flourishes remain. The Crystal Tea Room is gone, for instance, but the 28,604 pipe organ is still played daily (except for Sundays).

    One of my recent visits was on Black Friday. I wanted to see the store in full swing, and I luckily arrived just as the organ was blasting and the hourly holiday light show was happening. It was, in a word, psychedelic.

    For many people my age (I’m 33), the holiday shopping tradition isn’t grounded in the images of department store cheer found in classic films like Miracle on 34th Street, or A Christmas Story, but in images of people trampling one another to death in a rush to get the hottest new product. For us, that romance is dead.

    Also, people my age tend to think that big department stores are evil, so we make an effort to buy from local, independent retailers. Stores like Macy’s simply don’t attract us the way they did our parents and grandparents.

    A Christmas tradition

    But the holiday season is still the optimal time to visit the Wanamaker. Though John Wanamaker’s dream of creating a social and cultural hub isn’t really evident today at Macy’s, this time of year brings out those possibilities, and stimulates the imagination. People are driven by a giving, communal spirit, and it’s this energy that Wanamaker originally wanted to produce and reproduce.

    Back in the glory days of the Wanamaker store, people used to meet at German artist August Gaul’s humongous bronze eagle statue that still sits in the building’s Grand Court. “Meet me at the eagle,” some sources claim, became a common saying.

    Though times have changed, I ask you, fellow Philadelphians: Meet me at the eagle?

    Elliott Sharp is a freelance music journalist. This essay was published on Philly Love Notes.

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