The way we shop has changed… dramatically. Here, join us as our pop culture arbiter Lori Duran takes us on a spin to look at the heyday of Dallas department stores.
Those of us who recall America’s great downtown department stores remember that shopping used to be a bigger experience than it is now. In my mother’s era, customers dressed up to shop downtown like it was a special event itself. When I was a teenager she took us to Dayton’s and Donaldson’s in Minneapolis and sparked my interest in these grand establishments, and especially those beyond my environ.
Downtown department stores were known for quality merchandise, beautiful display cases, tea rooms and special holiday traditions. Texas once had locally owned department stores in every town, so large they had their own street lights. As one of the largest cities in Texas, Dallas had major department stores such as Neiman Marcus, Titche-Goettinger and Sanger-Harris, as well as other shopping destinations including Highland Park Village and Snider Plaza that offered downtown Dallas distinctive shopping competition. Meanwhile, by the 1960s, the Dallas suburbs were growing and eventually shopping malls like Northpark Center and the Galleria became the primary shopping destination for many suburbanites.
Neiman Marcus was founded in 1907 by Herbert Marcus, Sr., a former buyer with Dallas’ Sanger Brothers, and his sister Carrie Marcus Neiman along with her husband, A.L. Neiman who were both former employees of A. Harris & Co. Lavishly furnished, Neiman Marcus was immediately successful with oil-rich Texans. Stanley Marcus took over the reins in the 1950s, and for decades the nine-story palazzo of a building in downtown Dallas has been the epicenter of luxurious and fine quality merchandise. Neiman Marcus may perhaps be the store that could have best fulfilled Oscar Wilde’s declaration, “I have the simplest tastes. I am easily satisfied with the best.”
Under Stanley Marcus the company employed elaborate marketing efforts, including the luxurious gifts in their Christmas catalog and the Fortnight extravaganzas that celebrated the fashion and culture from a different country each year and were some of the most anticipated events in Dallas. The Zodiac Room tea room was another star attraction drawing celebrities to the store. Helen Corbitt, the celebrated food expert, was recruited from the Driskill Hotel in Austin to manage the food service at Neirman Marcus. While patrons dined, store models, such as Raquel Welch, walked around wearing the latest fashions. Neiman Marcus expanded and added locations starting in the 1950s when they opened a store on Preston Road. However, in 1965 they closed that store and opened one at NorthPark Center.
In 1957, Neiman Marcus opened its first store outside the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex in downtown Houston. Currently in 2018, Neiman Marcus has store locations all over the United States, and its flagship store is still in downtown Dallas with the Zodiac Room. The restaurant’s doyenne leader Helen Corbitt’s recipe cards are encased for display just outside the revered restaurant. Stanley Marcus is gone, but the store continues to awe local shoppers and visitors alike. If you visit the Zodiac Room, you can enjoy the Popovers with Strawberry Butter that Corbitt made famous or you can make them yourself using the recipe found in Dainty Dining: Vintage Recipes, Memories and Memorabilia from America’s Department Store Tea Rooms by Angel Webster McRae.
Another wonderful Dallas store was Sanger-Harris which operated in downtown Dallas from 1961 to 1987. It was formed when Sanger Brothers and A. Harris & Co merged into one store brand by Federated Department Stores. In 1965, Sanger-Harris opened its new flagship store in downtown Dallas. The legend is that they built a new downtown building and turned down the opportunity to move into the brand new Northpark Center. Sanger-Harris stores were known for their iconic columns and mural mosaics above the front entrance, which first appeared at their flagship store. The downtown store was also the first Dallas store building to use an air door that allowed visitors to walk in from the summer heat directly into a cool environment with no impediment.
The Carnation Room was on the top floor and was known for its delightful food served within provincial decor. In 1988, Sanger-Harris was absorbed and changed to Foley’s, and a century of tradition ended. The mural on the downtown store was removed after Sanger-Harris, later Foley’s, vacated the space in 1990, and the building was converted into Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) headquarters. In 2018, the building remains a Downtown Dallas landmark and the iconic white columns are still visible. You can see “Sanger-Harris” chiseled into a marble block remaining on the side of the building. Beyond that, few other building features remain to remind someone that this was once a magnificent store.
In addition to Neiman Marcus and Sanger-Harris there was the Titche-Goettinger department store. Founded in 1902, by 1929 Titche-Goettinger was located at Main and St. Paul and where it was greatly expanded in 1955. The seven-story flagship spanned the entire width of the block. A basement and sub-basement held the mechanical equipment, as well as a state-of-the-art refrigerated fur vault that could hold up to 3,000 fur coats. The building’s price tag of $2.5 million was very costly during the Great Depression and no expense was spared to make it a showpiece of modern retail design. It was the largest building constructed in Dallas during 1928 and opened with much excitement in November of 1929. The store targeted upper middle-class and middle-class customers. In 1947, it was where many Dallas residents saw their first television set on display to purchase.
The 1955 addition made it the largest department store under one roof in the southwest. The Titche-Goettinger Tea Room was designed to resemble an outdoor veranda with facades of houses and the building columns disguised as trees. A runway for fashion shows wound through the area and afternoon lunches always had a continuous parade of models walking the runway and between the tables. In 1978, all Titche’s stores were changed to Joske’s, which was the name of their sister store in the Allied Group of San Antonio. Then, Dillard’s purchased the Joske’s assets in 1987, and the downtown flagship store was closed. The downtown Titche-Goettinger store is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is a contributing structure in Dallas’ Harwood Historic District and Main Street District. In 2018, the former Titche-Goettinger flagship now houses loft-style apartments and the higher education site known as the University Center at Dallas.
SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
Besides the downtown destinations, Dallas also enjoyed numerous other upscale shopping choices. Highland Park Village opened in 1931 as a Mediterranean Spanish-style shopping plaza located just north of downtown Dallas in the affluent neighborhood of Highland Park for its many consumers. It has evolved into a luxury shopping destination known for harboring stores such as Chanel, Christian Louboutin, Diane Von Furstenberg, Christian Dior, Tom Ford, and others.
In July 1965, NorthPark Center officially opened with anchors that included Neiman Marcus and Titche-Goettinger. Built in the early 1960s, it was the largest climate-controlled retail center in the world, incorporating the developer’s fine art collection. Charming Snider Plaza is a popular three-block shopping center, located in the Park Cities area of Dallas that has been in operation since 1927. It’s known for its large fountain in the middle of petite stylish boutiques. The Galleria is an upscale shopping mall, built with an ice skating rink and a glass vaulted ceiling, with mixed-use development that is located in north Dallas. The Galleria brought in heavy competition such as Marshal Fields and Saks Fifth Avenue to the Dallas high end retail market. These, and other residential shopping areas, have lured customers away from the downtown for years.
Today, the downtown department stores with their refined tea rooms are mostly gone, except for Neiman Marcus. Shoppers today don’t go downtown dressed up and wearing gloves. Now, decades after the fading of the department store era, shopping malls may become extinct as well. Beyond department stores, we may be left with mostly online shopping and specialty boutiques, yet pleasant memories linger and continue to live on well after the elegant glass doors have closed.