Woodies: The Rise And Fall Of An Iconic D.c. Department Store (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Woodies: The Rise And Fall Of An Iconic D.C. Department Store

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:11
Welcome to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and today we're bringing you something that's become an annual event here at the show, our yearly look at customs and rituals that make up our lives. We call it Traditions. And it probably goes without saying that in this season of Hanukkah and Christmas and Kwanza, a lot of folks are thinking about their personal traditions. So we decided to kick things off today by hitting the streets to hear from Washingtonians about the rituals they hold dear.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1

00:00:35
I think one of my favorites would have to be making gingerbread and hanging it on the tree.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2

00:00:41
Getting together with family and hanging out by the Christmas tree, eating a big dinner.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3

00:00:46
We always have like some kind of fish, which is very Italian, apparently.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1

00:00:51
It's kind of weird, but we have this hotel that we always stay at and so we like get the same rooms and we bring down lights and decorate the fake potted plant. And so it's a little untraditional, but it works because we're still together and so it's nice.

SHEIR

00:01:05
Those were people speaking with "Metro Connection's" Lauren Landau in downtown Washington earlier this week. When it comes to distinctively D.C. traditions there's one many of you may remember, since it lasted more than 125 years around these parts. And while we'll officially bid it farewell in 1995, if you head to the heart of the downtown Washington…

SHEIR

00:01:23
All right we're walking east on F Street Northwest.

SHEIR

00:01:26
…to 11th and F.

SHEIR

00:01:27
Reaching 11th.

SHEIR

00:01:27
You'll still see signs of it.

SHEIR

00:01:29
And on the corner of the building where H & M is currently located…

SHEIR

00:01:32
And I mean literal signs.

SHEIR

00:01:34
…you can see the words Woodward & Lothrop.

SHEIR

00:01:37
When Woodward & Lothrop -- or "Woodies," as it later came to be known -- officially opened its doors in 1886, it was considered to be Washington's very first department store.

SHEIR

00:01:46
Obviously that's not here anymore. We're about to talk about when it was here.

SHEIR

00:01:51
And an excellent person to talk with about that very subject…

MR. MICHAEL LISICKY

00:01:54
I’m Michael.

SHEIR

00:01:54
I’m Rebecca.

LISICKY

00:01:55
Nice to meet you.

SHEIR

00:01:57
Nice to meet you.

SHEIR

00:01:57
…is this guy.

LISICKY

00:01:58
My name's Michael Lisicky. I'm a member of the Baltimore Symphony, but I also have this crazy passion of loving the history of department stores. And I've written six books on the department stores. The last one being, "Woodward & Lothrop: A Store Worthy of the Nation's Capital."

SHEIR

00:02:13
Now, you didn't make up that quote, "A store worthy of the nation's capital," did you?

LISICKY

00:02:17
No. Actually a lot of publishers, you write a book, they want a subtitle. And you go up to the documents and in the 1940s they started using that in some context. And it's like that is perfect. I can't come up with a better slogan than that.

SHEIR

00:02:30
All right. So I want to talk about the way you open the book. In the very preface of the book you are comparing the different department stores that Washington, D.C. once had to different divisions of General Motors cars. And you said that Woodward & Lothrop was "the Buick" of Washington. Can you talk about why you made that particular comparison?

LISICKY

00:02:48
"A Buick is a car you'd aspire to drive. And Woodward & Lothrop was a place where you aspire to shop at, whether you were buying something small or something big. I mean, it's not a Cadillac, wasn't meant to be. That's down the street at Garfinckel's. It wasn’t a Chevrolet where you packed the kids and needed a mode of solid transportation. That's that way towards F Street where Hecht Company was. And it's also indicative of the time. Each of these cars had personalities and individuality, just as these stores did.

SHEIR

00:03:15
Well, let's go back to the very beginning of Woodward & Lothrop, a.k.a. Woodies. Walter Woodward and Alvin Lothrop they referred to their first seven years of their time in D.C. as the impossible years. Why was that?

LISICKY

00:03:26
Well, it's a struggle getting a new concept going. One-price stores, that was unheard of. Haggling was the way to go. And that's what they didn't like up in Boston. And yeah, it's hard starting up a business and developing a new type of business, but they did it. It wasn't without hard work, but they did it.

SHEIR

00:03:44
All right. Moving up a few years, moving forward in time, how did the store do during the Great Depression?

LISICKY

00:03:49
This was a time you needed entertainment. These stores were free entertainment, whether it was looking in the windows and getting you in there. And a lot of places developed their loyalty during the depression. Places like Garfinckel's didn't have to worry about it so much because their clientele was kind of secured, being in the upper crust. Hecht's and Lansburghs, that's a store people don't want to remember. I mean they kind of took care of the people that needed some of the help. But Washington didn’t suffer as much of the Depression as other cities did. That helped probably also was some of the things that helped Woodies. This is where you went for entertainment.

SHEIR

00:04:26
In August of 1945, Woodies began to expand out into the suburbs. What prompted that expansion and where'd they go first?

LISICKY

00:04:33
Well, you know, you had to follow your customer. You had to follow your customer and once the war ended people wanted a car, people wanted a house, people were moving away. Cities were getting older, even stores were getting harder to maintain. And Woodies was not the first person to leave. Garfinckle's actually opened a small branch up at Spring Valley, but Hecht's up at Silver Spring, was a big branch that really was a huge component here with suburban outreach. Woodies went to Chevy Chase. That Chevy Chase store played such a huge role in the store's development.

SHEIR

00:05:09
So eventually, Woodies began to downsize in a big way.

LISICKY

00:05:12
Yeah, you know, you're looking at ways to cut costs. And one of the easiest ways besides -- well, you've got the upkeep of the building -- so you start cutting back on employees. And as you had the competition -- oh, God, when Bloomingdale's came to town, I mean, Woodies kind of lost some of its direction. And then change of ownership and merchandise mishaps, let's say, that certainly didn’t help with the longevity.

SHEIR

00:05:33
Before we go on talking about that the eventual fate of Woodies, I want to stop in the 1960s. You have a chapter in your book called The Disturbance. And it's a quote from someone referring to the April 1968 riots. What was the atmosphere like at Woodies leading up to the riots?

LISICKY

00:05:46
What I find interesting with Washington, as I feel -- and I will say this -- that integration came a little late compared to many of the other cities. Go up to Baltimore up the road. And Woodies was not a very open store. They had separate entrances here. You had separate restrooms. You had separate drinking fountains. That unfortunately was the practice. All these stores basically did it. The one store that really catered was lower-end store called Morton's. Morton's left in 1993. That store was an open store. And it was Lansburghs that didn't want to refer to it as the riots, it was "the disturbance."

LISICKY

00:06:22
And, you know, business here dropped about 50 percent within a few years. I mean this was considered dangerous.

SHEIR

00:06:30
Now, you write in your book that the 1980s, that decade was arguably the most eventful decade in Woodies history. How so? I mean I know that by 1985 the store was no longer a locally owned D.C. institution, but how is it such an eventful time?

LISICKY

00:06:43
The 1980s were all about mergers, takeovers, and some of those takeovers were hostile takeovers. And Woodies was susceptible. The businesses were not bringing in the cash, but the real estate was worth something. And, you know, you had a corporate raider come in 1983, and that just kind of shook the board up. You had families leaving the department store business. I mean you didn't have that next generation fostering. And they needed to survive. So they bring other people to invest and keep the store going.

LISICKY

00:07:15
And by the time 1986, 100th anniversary of Woodward & Lothrop, and a big celebration here. Michael Graves was part of the redesigning of it. And Marion Berry is there giving the key to the store. And people having this gala here. And right over the hump, after that store it was just like, okay, where are we? Where are we as a business? How are we going to survive? The writing was on the wall. You had Nordstrom coming into town. That puts the fear of God in places like this. And Woodies just tried to keep above water as long as it could.

SHEIR

00:07:46
So it's been some years now since Woodward & Lothrop was in business, although it still says it on the outside of the building, what do hope people remember the store as? Because by the end, you know, times were not exactly as shiny and bright as they were at the beginning. How would you hope that Woodies would be remembered by Washington?

LISICKY

00:08:01
You know, if Woodies was not important, Woodward & Lothrop not important, we would not have a building that still says Woodward & Lothrop at the corner here, at 11th and F. You would not see it over the canopy, and you wouldn't have that WL flag above it. They're not going to do that if it doesn't mean something. It's still an iconic building. I mean, it's an institution. When I started writing these books, I really didn't think anybody still cared. And what's really touching and wonderful is that they do. And that means people still care about their identity. This is part of their lives. And the fact that this building is, again, alive is the best that we can hope for and I think it's a wonderful thing.

SHEIR

00:08:50
Michael Lisicky is the author of "Woodward & Lothrop: A Store Worthy Of The Nation's Capital," now out from the history press. To see photos of Woodies back in the day, including a short of the famous Williamsburg Christmas windows from 1966, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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