A place to recall and celebrate the wonderful stores of a Downtown Boston now alive only in our memories
Saturday, 10 March 2012
Citymart...A Boston Tale of Reuse & Redevelopment in the early 1960’s
Hello, My Fellow Retro Boston Lovers!
The tragic saga of the former Filene’s site, with developers coming and going, makes me reflect on other times when those formidable terms of “reuse and redevelopment” were tossed about in our beloved Boston.
Let’s take a trip back in time to the late 1950’s. R.H. White’s ceased operation of its Boston flagship store in the fateful summer of 1957. The large six floor building just beyond Jordan Marsh’s Annex on Washington Street sits vacant. The classic building built for the R.H. White Company in the 1870’s was a retailing landmark when new but the years have crept by and have left it tired and in need of careful updating. During its final years, White’s did do some basic updating of the structure but much more work is needed in order to compete with the lure of the suburban streamlined shopping malls that are now popping up all over. Filene’s did lease the street floor once as a Christmas sales area in December of 1957 but that has been the only sign of life in the building. Boston officials are becoming worried that this lack of a substantial retail anchor on the upper end of Washington Street will cause even further erosion of this central shopping area.
By 1960, Mayor Collins is in serious talks with City Stores, Inc...yes...the same ones who owned R.H. White’s and shut down the Boston store. The talks are positive. Boston wants White’s or something like it to re-open in this prime spot. City Stores contemplates re-opening White’s but White’s has gone suburban and so a totally new idea is hatched.
The idea takes about a year to formulate. City Stores wants to blend the charm of the “old” department store with the modern needs and whims of today’s 1960’s shoppers...shoppers who are being seduced to shop in these new, alluring suburban malls.
In January 1962, the idea becomes reality. Boston cuts a tax deal with City Stores and City Stores agrees to splash out over 1 million dollars to completely refurbish and update the old building at 518 Washington Street. The new store will be called, Citymart and will be a modern promotional department store blending old fashioned service with new high-tech style and copious amenities.
The theory would be that Citymart would rely very heavily on sales promotions advertised in the Boston press and this should alert and draw in the potential customers. All the Boston stores used the press...Citymart would attempt to finesse their shoppers to “see”, “desire”... “buy”.
The building already has high-speed escalators from the street floor to the sixth floor which White’s had installed as part of their attempt at some updating and modernization in order to celebrate their one hundredth anniversary almost a decade ago. Now City Stores goes even further into modernization.
New street floor showcase windows are installed that show off merchandise in stylish and innovative ways plus also give you a look inside the store itself...very open and inviting. Further work includes new paint all over, complete renovation of all the former departments within the store itself plus a whole new lobby entrance at the other end of the building.
The addition of babysitting facilities (The Indian Village) for shopping parents plus a music school as well as a beauty school were all part of the many new services on offer from Citymart. The icing on this retailing cake has to be the inclusion of a fully equipped supermarket which now takes up a large section of the street floor. The inviting slogan said it all....Citymart: The store with a heart! Also factor in great deals on local, convenient parking spaces...and you should have a run away, smash hit of a store...well...almost!
The grand opening in late August of 1962 drew great press coverage and wonderful crowds. The early months of business seemed to be all that City Stores and Mayor Collins had dreamed of...Boston had a modern store fit to compete with its suburban counterparts. You can find it all here...even your weekly groceries...come and get it!!
But alas, by the time 1964 rolled around...Citymart had decreased its promotional advertisements significantly and was struggling to stay afloat. All those wonderful attractions on offer were still not enough to draw shoppers away from those suburban malls and worse than that...the “Combat Zone” was becoming far too noticeable and very much right on Citymart’s shiny, refurbished doorstep.
The best press that Citymart achieved towards the end was when a playful rampaging monkey escaped from the pet department display area in the basement and went wild one night. This super charged monkey broke windows and had quite a time being chased by various police officers until he was finally captured a few hours after his exciting escape.
The BRA had already begun to factor in the looming failure of Citymart into its large scale plans for the urban rebuilding and renewal of the “Central Business District” that were quickly moving into high gear. It was no surprise when the BRA took the Citymart building by eminent domain in 1966 and gave Citymart a few months to vacate the space...Raymond’s Department Store, still doing healthy business down the street, needed to be re-housed while Franklin Street was realigned and 518 Washington Street was just perfect....well....not really.
Let’s face facts...White’s, Citymart...and soon re-housed Raymond’s all sat amidst the ever increasing decay of upper Washington Street and no matter what attractions were offered, the shoppers were not rushing to abandon cushy, safe and clean places like the mall in Chestnut Hill or the brand new Dedham Mall.
I present today a look back on the reuse and renewal of 518 Washington Street during the years 1960- 1966. Citymart was an experiment and looked great on paper. The classic building lent itself to creative reuse and careful renovation but in the end... “Location, Location, Location” ...let it down.
Boston born, Brookline raised Retro Boston Cultural Historian and very eager to get as many memories, photos and newspaper adverts of the once grand stores of the Downtown Boston we all knew and loved. Also I am very busy researching Boston area churches of the past that have since closed or merged into others. All who remember are welcome to contact me with their thoughts, memories and photos to add to any of my blogs.
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