A Sparkling Vintage Life

Farewell, Famous-Barr!


Famous-Barr’s main floor in the late 1950s. Note how shoppers dressed in those days!

To be honest, the name on the plaque hasn’t read “Famous-Barr” for quite a while. Technically it’s Macy’s, the same way my beloved Marshall Field’s became Macy’s before closing its elegant revolving doors. But the landmark St. Louis department store will always be “Famous-Barr” to those who remember it fondly, just as Field’s remained Field’s to its fans. So I was sympathetic to the feelings expressed in a recent post on The Thinking Housewife, in which a reader named Alan writes with a tone of regret:

“The last remaining department store in downtown St. Louis has announced it will close this summer.”

He continues, “That came as no surprise to me. Only the willfully blind could imagine downtown is not dying. A man who opened a restaurant downtown in 1968 was calling it “done-town” by the time he retired in 2005. I knew he was right because I, too, had watched it decline, year after year.

“The department store is Macy’s but it was known for most of its life as Famous-Barr, a May Company store with ten floors of merchandise in a beautiful building called the Railway Exchange Building in the heart of downtown. One of my uncles worked there in the Katy Railroad office from the 1920s to the 1950s.

“How well I remember walking into the store through its brass revolving doors and riding the escalators to the upper floors. My father and I spent many hours browsing in the large book department on the sixth floor. Mannequins in a display window of the soon-to-close department store now wear backward baseball caps – a splendid example of trickle-up stupidity that Diana West could include in an updated edition of The Death of The Grown-Up. It symbolizes what happened between 1959 and now: A department store run by grown-ups was surrendered to people who take their cues from adolescents.”

You can read the full post here, and more about the store closing here.

What do you think caused the “death of the department store”? How about the “death of downtown”? What would it take to see a revival of both–and is that even something you’d like to see happen?

I know I would.


3 Responses to Farewell, Famous-Barr!

  • Piffle! I don’t believe it for a minute. Here in 1925 all the department stores are thriving, and so are the downtown areas. Why, at lunchtime a girl can barely find a seat at a lunch counter, not to mention on the streetcar! The downtowns are bright and bustling. What is all this talk of decay and destruction? Have the cities been shelled, like Europe during the Great War?

  • Marjorie, while the cities have not been literally shelled, the effect of urban decay is similar.

    It is curious to see once-thriving areas fall into disarray, and once-thriving businesses close their doors. The world has become so fast-paced that it’s difficult to keep up – as soon as you buy the new “must have” gadget, it’s already been eclipsed by something new. Businesses that fail to anticipate the needs and/or wants of an ever-changing clientele will become obsolete in the blink of an eye. Wayne Gretzky (a hockey player, in case you don’t recognize his name) once said that he skates to where the puck is going to be, not to where it’s been. In business, we need to keep our eyes on the trajectory – where things are going.

    When we look over our shoulder and see how things used to be – how people dressed to go shopping, for example, it shows an interesting dichotomy. People used to dress up to purchase things that we now see as old-fashioned. Today, we see pajama pants and flip-flops being worn to purchase iPads and other high-end electronics. Although the products we are purchasing are more sophisticated, we as a culture have devolved. I know – pajama pants. In public. Shameful.

  • Avatar
    Jennifer Rova says:

    I would love to see the revival of :downtown” as it used to be. It built a sense of community which makes people more polite and responsible for their town’s appearance and ultimate success. It brought people together and built a sense of community, belonging and pride. Unfortunately, I think we are headed for one brand name of everything—one gas station brand with many service building all over the area, one bank, one department store, one fast food chain, etc. Yeah for the small business people everywhere that fight that battle and win!

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