Downtown Macy’s is closing. Perhaps it will be housing, perhaps a hotel. If there’s one thing that’s represents a boom market downtown these days, it’s places to sleep.
Some eulogies will call it the end of an era, which it is. There’s been big-league retail on that corner since the start of the 20th century. Some tributes will lament the closing of the last big department store, but it’s a wonder it lasted as long as it did. You can blame demographics, changes in transportation preferences, the rise of online retail or any number of factors, but there’s one basic reason Macy’s closed:
Not enough people shopped there.
The city could have run light rail right through the store, and it would have closed. Parking could have been free, and it would have closed. For cities of our size, downtown department stores are dead elephants. It’s a damned shame. But that’s what we wanted. And that’s what we got.
But how did we get here?
Macy’s, at 7th Street and Nicollet Mall, seems in the center of things today, but the store was on the edge of the dry-goods district when George Draper Dayton opened the doors in 1902.
It was the home of Goodfellow at first, the fourth-largest department store in Minneapolis. Within a year, however, Goodfellow sold out to Dayton.
People probably lamented the change at the time. “Nothing stays the same, all the old familiar names are going away. What’s with this ‘Dayton’s’ place, anyway?”
Despite (or because of) the new name, the store prospered, and as the money came in, the floors went up. The original six-story building was joined by a 12-story tower, plus additions that filled out most of the block by 1947. The various styles of the additions made the store look like jumbled, piecemeal structure, with a pre-World War I facade on the lower two floors, ornate genteel-retail style on the 7th Street corner, blunt and brawny modernism on the 8th Street side.
At least it was never covered up with a metal screen like J.C. Penney, or had its elegance blasted away for a consistent facade. The Donaldson’s block was an accumulation of styles from the 1890s to the 1920s, entombed behind a wall of white stone in 1947.
The suburban Dales were still a decade away, so Donaldson’s wasn’t worried about losing customers to the car culture. Yet. They were still battling Dayton’s. Each store had to show it was just as modern and up-to-date as the competition. You don’t buy a TV in a building that looks like it came from the Jazz Age, do you?
In the 1950s, Penneys (on the old Syndicate Block on Nicollet between 5th and 6th streets) was covered behind a pinkish metal wall, which hid its 19th-century facade.
Powers was the last of the big four department stores, and the smallest. It began as a gorgeous Beaux-Arts store, a building that wouldn’t be out of place in Paris. It evolved into a featureless, four-story structure on the corner of 4th and Nicollet.
With all the old war horses of retail rehabbed, downtown retail was the pride of the Mill City. When you look at photos of the era, it seems to be a city twice the size it is today. The streets are packed with sleek black cars threading around pokey streetcars. The sidewalks are full, the billboards are bright, the shop windows are jammed with merchandise, and there’s not a FOR RENT sign to be seen.
Of course, downtown was where you shopped. You might also catch a movie, if it was raining and you didn’t have to be anywhere. You might stop for a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. You might have waited until the word FOSHAY appeared in the winter dusk to tell you it was time to take the trolley home.
So what happened? Well, choice happened. When it became easier to live elsewhere, that’s what people did. When it became easier to shop elsewhere, they took their dollars elsewhere.
One by one, the big downtown stores closed. Some were the victims of changing tastes. Some, including variety stores such as Kresge and Grant, both longtime Nicollet staples, got tired and shabby, and faded away.
City planners, having laid waste to the Gateway, fixed their eyes on the block next to Dayton’s. They gave us City Center with its narrow indoor mall. That would bring downtown retail back.
It failed. But Dayton’s remained.
Donaldson’s was sold and the old building was knocked down for Gaviidae Common, which was certain to bring retail back. Gaviidae never soared.
Penneys left in the ’80s. Phase 2 of Gaviidae Common arose on its grave, a bright and lively space with a food court designed to make you think of the State Fair. That’ll bring retail back.
It slumped. Dayton’s remained.
Powers? That went in the ’90s. For a while, you could park where it had stood and walk down the street to Dayton’s.
Or Macy’s, as it became in 2006.
Minnesotans were relieved that one store had remained, because there’s something about a downtown department store that speaks to everyone.
To the old folks, it’s a reminder of the bustling downtown they knew. To boomers, it’s going downtown with Mom for school clothes, or to see the Christmas windows. For subsequent generations, it’s a statement of faith in the health of downtown, a sign you’re not one of those sad cities where tumbleweeds outnumber shoppers 10 to one.
But it’s one thing to walk past the building and think “I’m glad it’s still around,” and apparently it’s another to walk inside.
Over the years, Macy’s had closed off floors. You knew it wasn’t stuffed with goods from 7th Street to 8th Street, from the first floor to the 10th. You suspected that its continued survival was almost an act of charity.
Now it’s closing, and there won’t be any other stores like it again. Ever.
And downtown will never be the shopping destination for the entire Twin Cities again. But that doesn’t meant downtown can’t provide for the people who live and work there. Imagine if George Draper Dayton paid a visit to the corner in 2017. He’d ask:
“What do people need? Furs, dresses, spats, perfume?”
Actually, no. They need vegetables, socks, coffee, bread.
“Well, then,” Mr. Dayton would probably say, “if that’s what they want, make sure they can have it — and make sure they enjoy getting it.”
That’s really all it takes, but as the death of the downtown department store reminds us: It’s harder than it sounds.