A place to recall and celebrate the wonderful stores of a Downtown Boston now alive only in our memories

Monday 30 March 2009

The RH White Company...another giant of old Washington Street!

Hello, Fellow Retro Boston Department Store Lovers!
Today I present a tribute to one of the many lost giants of Boston’s retail heyday, the beloved…RH White Company!
So many friends of this blog have fondly recalled this great store that stood for nearly 80 years at the edge of the once vibrant and oh, so colorful shopping area of Washington Street. RH White’s had a block long home and gave all its rivals a good run for their money for many years. I, sadly, never got a chance to shop there but my mother and grandmother always referred to RH White’s Basement as a great place to shop. Like many stores, it went through various takeovers. Filene’s bought it in 1928 and then in 1944 City Stores took over. City Stores, may have mismanaged it a bit and that led to a decline. 1956 was a bad year for the giant and City Stores felt that with the aging building, a declining set of neighbours all round and losses that kept mounting…it was time to throw in the towel on the main store in the early summer of 1957. Boston reacted and the mayor attempted to ease the situation but City Stores saw gold in the suburbs and wanted new stores elsewhere. The tired but stunning building sat vacant at first(Filene's used the street floor for a Christmas warehouse event in the Xmas season of 1957) but City Stores tried to use the location for Citymart. This venture used the some of the floors and lasted for part of the early 60’s and then it fizzled out, too. The area was changing and that part of Washington Street was looking a bit worn out and not very appealing to the average shopper. As I have said before, my grandmother and mother by the late 60’s would not walk past the edge of Jordan Marsh’s Annex ever! Using the rear doors of the Annex was rare.

A little note to add here...Raymond's did relocate to this location from 1966 until it closed in the early 1970's...one last try at using the great, old building!!

So I present RH White’s during the best of those profitable years and highlight some various views through great old photos, articles and ads from Boston papers and some great memorabilia I came across. The best is the menu from Elbow Room. The tearoom as it was in 1951. What a cool find! I would love to hear if any of my readers recall this tearoom at White’s and what the balcony area was like.
Please note in the photos the two incarnations of the neon sign near Bedford Street.
The oldest had the clock at the base and the newer had very large letters that could be seen way up Washington Street, well past Bromfield Street. Neon signs were big and very popular along this stretch of shopping paradise.

A few other items I located include:

Time Magazine 1928:

Bargain Basement. For many a year many a Boston housewife has set out from her suburban home shopping-round for "Filene's Basement." One of the earliest of the "bargain basements" now common in U. S. department stores, Filene's Basement added much to the fame of the Filene Store. Now to its basement Filene's has added a branch. Last week announcement was made that the William Filene's Sons Co. had purchased the business of the R. H. White Co., another long-established and prominent Boston department store. The R. H. White Co. will, however, be continued as a separate concern. Capitalization of Filene's plus White's totals $8,600,000.

Another Time Magazine article from 1975:

A 15-year urban renewal splurge has left Boston's government and financial districts strong and healthy, but the city's neglected downtown retail center has stagnated as established stores have followed the middle classes to the suburbs. Last week Boston joined with Jordan Marsh, the city's biggest department store, and Sefrius Corp., a French syndicate, in a bold attempt to change the situation. Their plan: to build a $220 million project called Lafayette Place that is designed to make downtown shopping attractive once more.

An important part of the developers' strategy is to make it easy for shoppers to get to—and around—the twelve-acre project. There will be a 1,500-car parking garage for suburbanites and, for city dwellers, a direct underground link to the existing subway system. Once at Lafayette Place, shoppers will be able to move from store to store at three levels: in a subterranean concourse, on ground level and, by way of flying bridges, on the second floor. Instead of simply recreating the usual suburban shopping center—a fortress for retailing with all attention focused inward—there will be continuity with the surrounding area. Some of the new stores will front on established city streets, others on Lafayette Place's own maze of pedestrian malls and glassed-in galerias, which were designed by the architects (I.M. Pei & Partners with Cossutta & Ponte) to have the same twists and unexpected shop-filled alleyways as old Boston's typical streets. Says Jacques Tézé, president of Sefrius: "People will feel that they are in a lively city—not trapped in a moneymaking machine."

Lafayette Place's buildings will be in scale with surrounding architecture and will rise above the retail floors to provide space for offices and a hotel. These should help attract people and keep the center bustling. Last week, even as the ambitious scheme was announced, it began moving toward reality. Wrecking crews started to demolish the first old building on the site of Lafayette Place.

(My personal footnote to this upbeat article: In 1977 they reached RH White’s grand 1876-77 building and it was lost forever and by 1978 the great Annex of Jordan Marsh would be gone as well.)

Some Quick RH White Company Facts:

Founded in 1853, had its first place of business on Winter Street, moved to its own Peabody and Stearns purpose built and highly admired building between 518 to 536 Washington Street in 1876. Most dates say 1877 but it was built in 1876 and was previewed to an admiring public just after Xmas on December 27th of 1876. This block long building would house the main branch of The RH White Company for the rest of its Boston existence. In 1944 City Stores took ownership and closed the Boston main store in 1957 and the other branches were closed by 1980 as part of the bankrupt state of City Stores.

Enjoy!! Charles:-)

Ps…Still waiting for someone to take my challenge from my previous post!
Come on!! Don’t be shy!!


rozzie02131 said...

I remember shopping at the R.H.White store in Worcester, which always seemed like a suburban branch of a bigger department store. I knew the "main store" was at one time in Boston, but by the time I shopped at White's in Lincoln Plaza in Worcester, the Boston store was long gone. I think R.H.White's remained in Worcester into the 1980's, outlasting Worcester's own downtown department stores such as Denholm's and Barnard's. Thanks for the information about the original R.H.White's.

Charles Boston said...

Thank You, Rozzie02131!
I am so glad folks enjoy knowing more about the BIG stores that once filled Downtown Boston and brought the crowds in from the suburbs to the very busy streets.
Keep visiting and sharing!!!


Suldog said...

Wow. Thanks for this treasure trove of material concerning downtown Boston. I'm very much enjoying browsing through it.

Charles Boston said...

Hello Suldog, Welcome to the blog!
Please keep visiting!! Thanks!!


Matatoro said...

I worked at RH White for a few weeks when I was 15. It was over the Christmas season in 1952. I was a Delivery Collector, which meant I pushed a big laundry cart around the store picking up purchases that were to be sent to the people who had bought them. It was fun.

Charles Boston said...

Hello Dick, Thanks for the memories!!
Any more information about RH White's would be soooo loved by our readers. Feel free to say more:-)


Unknown said...

I own two menus from the luncheonette and soda fountain at R.H White's! They are both in very good shape and were recently given to me. Have no idea what they might be worth, but they are very cool keepsakes from a bygone era!

Lizscraps said...

I have 2x3 photos taken of my great grand parents at RHWhites, says if want copies should contact them as negatives were stored on 3rd floor of Main store in Boston. I wonder where all of those things ended up? guess will need to scan as is long gone no chance of getting new prints in any case :)

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Michelle said...

I found a receipt for a chest my grandfather bought for my grandmother in 1948. I was wondering how to find out more information about the furniture sold there during this time. The chest is still in my living room. Is there someone I can reach out to?

Michelle said...

I have a hope chest given to my grandmother from my grandfather in my living room I didn't know much about until I found the receipt for the chest in one of the drawers. It was purchased in 1948 at R.H. White and I was wondering how I can found out more about furniture made/sold at R.H. White during this time. Any Advice?

Richard said...

white's was always third bananna for me. It was where your aunt bought her housecoats. Brought up on Filene's basement and Jordan scrip during the war, the Whites significance for me arrived when they were in their death throes. I was taking a job with a Boston publisher and needed to look like my betters, so I bought two suits for pennies on the dollar and looked almost right when I walked up those stairs and turned the doorknob at 34 Beacon.