Mary Hughes likes to remember the mammoth store at the corner of 7th Street and Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis in its more glamorous days.

She was once in charge of the opulent Oval Room, home to the most exclusive labels you could find for hundreds of miles around. On the top floor was the storied Oak Grill, where generations of families dined to mark special occasions.

This was back when the sign on the building said Dayton’s, before the name changes and the slow decline that will end when Macy’s closes the doors this month.

“There is nothing we weren’t innovative at,” Hughes remembered. “We had the best advertising. We had the best events — the auditorium events, the flower shows. We had the Oak Grill and all the other shops. We had Twiggy appear at Dayton’s before anywhere else.”

Macy’s announced in January that it is selling the store to a New York firm that plans to redevelop the site into a mix of office space on the upper floors and retail on the ground and skyway levels. Now downtown Minneapolis’ last remaining department store has been reduced to just two floors in an everything-must-go sale that is expected to end in about a week.

The store, one of 100 Macy’s is closing nationwide, is a victim of the changing retail landscape. Shoppers have moved online, to off-price chains and to suburban malls, where Macy’s still runs six department stores across the Twin Cities.

Jennifer Hanson, who grew up in Burnsville and now lives in St. Louis Park, remembers visiting the downtown store when she was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s. With five floors plus restaurants and special event spaces, the building felt like a playground that went on forever.

“Even now, I still feel as if I should dress up a little to go into that building. I can’t just wear jeans or sweats,” she said. “I’m surprised by how sad the closing is to me. I want to go back again and snap more photos.”

Electric atmosphere

Back in the day, the Oval Room was the center of fashion. And Hughes was its queen.

For years, the seasoned merchandiser with a taste for the finer things helped pick out the products displayed in the luxury department. She and her buying team would take trips to Europe twice a year to meet with swanky fashion houses.

“My bosses said to me, ‘Mary, make us proud,’ ” she said. “Well, how hard is that? We just went out and we got Prada and Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent. You name it — we had it.”

Hughes spent about three decades at Dayton’s, starting as a “trainee” right out of school in the late 1960s and then working her way up. At one point, she was in charge of budget dresses. Then she went more highbrow as fashion director and head of the Oval Room. She ended her career as general merchandise manager of Dayton’s better and best products across its chain, before taking early retirement about 15 years ago.

The Oval Room, she said, brokered exclusives with the biggest designer names. Chicago was the closest city to offer similar labels. So when people came to shop, it was quite the event.

“All of our customers dressed up to the nines to go shopping,” she said. “On Saturdays, the place was mobbed. People would bring their husbands. It was truly a happening place — very fun times.”

Its fashion shows would draw the biggest names with designers such as Anne Klein, Geoffrey Beene and Ralph Lauren making appearances.

The company knew that not everyone could afford the high-end items. That wasn’t the point, she said. Dayton’s made most of its money from its more moderately priced items.

“But it made everyone feel like they were shopping in a great place,” she said, “even if you were buying lower stuff.”

Retail entrepreneurs

Like many Minnesotans of a certain age, Gov. Mark Dayton was a frequent visitor to Dayton’s when he was a boy. He went there for chocolate sundaes and for annual pilgrimages to check out the mesmerizing Christmas window displays that wrapped around 8th Street and Nicollet Mall.

“I’d bundle up with everyone else back in the days when we had real winters in Minnesota and, often in subzero weather, you’d go window to window,” he recalled.

Dayton’s great-grandfather, George Draper Dayton, founded the business. His father, Bruce Dayton, and his uncles continued it. Ultimately they created Target and refocused the company’s attention on the more promising discount business.

“It was a very meaningful part of my life growing up,” Dayton said of the downtown store. “Of course, I was aware of the connection between my name and the name on the store’s masthead.”

Every Christmas Eve after the store closed, his father and uncles would greet employees, often by name, with a handshake and a box of candy from Dayton’s kitchen. Employees, in turn, were encouraged to call them by their first names. They were known as Mr. Bruce, Mr. Kenneth, Mr. Wallace, Mr. Douglas and Mr. Donald.

Dayton himself worked there briefly in college. It was the summer of 1967 and the company had recently bought its first computer. It took up a whole room, which was kept at a cool 62 degrees. He helped keep track of inventory by monitoring the stock keeping units, or SKUs, for each product.

“Style, size and color,” Dayton said. “I’ll remember that to my grave.”

A shopping emporium

For employees, it could be a magical place.

Linda McGraw of Plymouth worked in the downtown store in the 1960s and ’70s as a floater, a salesperson who went where she was needed. She remembers departments long forgotten, like the stamps and coins shop on the fifth floor and the electronics/record department in the basement.

“We had a rush on Elvis LPs when he died,” he said.

One customer wanted to return an album that was warped like a potato chip. McGraw asked why it was so warped, and the guy said he had put it in the oven.

“Management said to give him his money back,” she said.

McGraw said she almost forgot that the lower level used to house the Bargain Basement. The collection of clearance merchandise from all the departments was considered the genesis of Target Corp.

As a curious employee, McGraw got to see what was behind the scenes in storage and display rooms. “The display people never threw anything away. Seeing the animatronics from the Christmas shows, decorations, props and back-to-school stuff, it was like Grandma’s attic,” she said.

McGraw said she always felt valued as a Dayton’s employee, from the complimentary sandwiches and cookies in the break room to the Easter egg hunt for employees’ kids.

“I still have my name tag, employee badge and old Dayton’s credit cards,” she said.

Introduction to retailing

Behind the scenes, other employees kept track of the money and handled customer issues.

Jim Maki got his start in retail with a part-time summer job in 1981 in the dark, ninth-floor offices of Dayton’s credit authorizing department. He had just finished his freshman year at the University of Minnesota. His job was to handle calls that came in from Dayton’s and Target stores across the country when shoppers went over their credit limit.

He answered hundreds of calls a day. In the hectic days leading up to Christmas, his call log sometimes surpassed 400.

To get to his desk, he walked through the whole store, opting to take the escalators up nine floors instead of the elevators, which often stopped at every floor. On his way up, he would marvel at seeing the store constantly in motion.

He was hooked. He decided not to pursue medicine and instead took on different roles at Dayton’s, learning the ins and outs of the retail business from accounts payable and then became an associate buyer of fragrances, moving to the company’s sixth floor — and much nicer — offices. He remembers the long, rewarding days gearing up for new fragrance launches such as Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds and Calvin Klein’s Escape.

After a decade at Dayton’s, he moved on to other jobs around the U.S. in the beauty industry. He now works in New York as president of Sisley Paris, whose products are sold at the beauty counter at stores such as Neiman Marcus.

Today, he wonders how many other people ended up changing their career path because they got similar part-time jobs at Dayton’s. “A lot of people got their accidental careers in retail there,” he said.

The theater of the eighth floor

For Stew Widdess, getting a job at Dayton-Hudson Corp. was a homecoming of sorts after working many years for Macy’s in New York and California.

“I kind of grew up at Dayton’s,” said Widdess, a former marketing chief for the department store chain. His father also worked in marketing there and was instrumental in coming up with the name “Target” and its bull’s-eye logo.

One New Year’s Eve in the late 1980s, not long after he moved back to the Twin Cities, Widdess found himself at Ruby’s Cabaret on First Avenue. That was where he encountered innovative choreographer Myron Johnson and his Ballet of the Dolls.

Soon after, he hired Johnson and his dancers to work on Dayton’s fashion shows in an effort to make them more theatrical and larger than life.

As head of marketing, Widdess oversaw not only the fashion shows but also the holiday displays in the eighth floor auditorium. A half-million people walked through those shows every Christmas, he said. The long lines to get into them often snaked down several floors.

“The store manager always got angry at me,” Widdess recalled. “He said, ‘I want those people shopping!’ I said, ‘Don’t worry, they’ll shop!’ ”

Widdess also worked with downtown leaders to counteract what they foresaw as a looming threat to downtown shopping — the opening of the Mall of America in 1992. One of their ideas was to start Holidazzle to help bring more people downtown. The parade with lit-up costumes and illuminated floats used many of the same designers who worked on Dayton’s auditorium shows, Widdess said.

“We fought as hard as we could to hang onto as much volume as we could,” he said. “But we lost business. The mall is quite a beast. They’ve done a really good job with it.”

Inevitable changes

Gradually, the downtown landmark’s allure faded.

One of the Widdess’ regrets — echoed by many Minnesotans — is that the owners changed the name of Dayton’s over the years to Marshall Fields and then to Macy’s.

“I think the handwriting was on the wall when they made the change to eliminate ‘Dayton’s,’ ” he said. “They took away the loyalty that people felt.”

Dayton said his family, like many Minnesotans, began shopping elsewhere. He hasn’t been to the downtown store now for at least five years and doesn’t plan to see it before it closes.

“I’m told it’s really a shadow of its former self,” he said. “So I’d rather not see it. I’ll remember it in my mind’s eye when it was filled with people and activity.”