B. Altman and Company
B. Altman and Company was an American department store and chain, founded in 1865 in New York City, New York, by Benjamin Altman. It had its flagship store at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street in Midtown Manhattan from 1906 until the company closed on its flagship store on Fifth Avenue at the end of 1989. Branch stores were all shuttered by the end of January, 1990.
One of the first American department stores to open out-of-town branches, Altman's eventually opened locations in Pennsylvania (St. Davids in 1965 and Willow Grove in 1983), New Jersey (Short Hills in 1958—replacing an earlier nearby East Orange store—and Ridgewood/Paramus in 1967); and New York state (Manhasset in 1947 and White Plains in 1930). A short-lived location in Cincinnati, Ohio, opened during the L.J. Hooker ownership period (1987–1989), and two mall locations in Buffalo and Syracuse, New York, were physically completed but never occupied by Altman's during that same time.
The store that would become B. Altman and Company began on Manhattan's Lower East Side as a family-owned store, which by 1865 had come to be solely owned by Benjamin Altman, one of the brothers in the family, and was located at Third Avenue and 10th Street. In 1877, the store, wanting to expand, relocated to 621 Sixth Avenue between 18th and 19th Streets. This neo-Grec building was put up in four stages, and was designed by David and John Jardine (the original building, 1876–77, and the 1880 extension), William Hume (1887) and Buchman & Fox (1909–1910).
By 1906, though, Altman's had moved to a new block-long building at 351–57 Fifth Avenue running from 34th to 35th Streets, which was expanded in stages through 1913 to 188–89 Madison Avenue. The original Fifth Avenue building and the extensions were all designed by Trowbridge & Livingston in Italian Renaissance style. Altman's was the first big department store to make the move from the "Ladies' Mile" shopping district, where the dry-goods emporia had been located, to Fifth Avenue. That neighborhood was still almost entirely residential at the time, and the design of the new building, on the site of department-store rival A. T. Stewart's grand residence and across the avenue from Mrs. Astor, was planned to fit in with the palatial mansions around it. Following Altman's example, the other big stores followed and made the move uptown as well.
In the 1930s, Altman's made one of the early entries in the suburbs, with branches opening in East Orange (later relocated to Short Hills), White Plains and Manhasset. The foresight of the organization in geographical selection can be seen in that the Short Hills location is now The Mall at Short Hills, the White Plains location is now The Westchester shopping mall, and the Manhasset location is adjacent to the Americana Manhasset, which opened nine years after the Altman's store.
After Altman's death
When Benjamin Altman died 1913 at the age of 53, he left no heirs, and besides his art collection going to New York City's Metropolitan Museum, his stock in the stores was placed in a foundation, the Altman Foundation. In 1985, due to changing IRS rulings, the foundation sold the stores to an investor group that included members of the Gucci family and two principals from financial firm Deloitte & Touche.
In 1987, Australian real estate development company L.J. Hooker and its chief executive officer, George Herscu, purchased the controlling interest in the B. Altman stores (as well as Bonwit Teller, Sakowitz and a majority of Parisian) to use these chains as anchors in poorly located, yet extravagant, new shopping centers across the country. With Hooker and Herscu knowing virtually nothing about how to operate these various retailing chains, and then placing them in locations with no regard to market recognition or demographics, their strategy failed miserably, and in August 1989 B. Altman filed for bankruptcy protection, with the last store closing in 1990.
Another less well-known but equally catastrophic venture included building two upstate New York stores that were part of a different expansion strategy that never materialized. The suburban Buffalo location at the huge Walden Galleria complex was, in fact, fully completed and fixtured but never occupied by Altman's. It would later be occupied in 1991 by local department store AM&A's and eventually a Bon-Ton, which vacated in 2006. This former never-opened Altman's location was demolished for a new cinema complex and mall expansion. The Carousel Center Mall location in Syracuse was under construction at the time and redesigned to house a succession of several discount anchors, one on each of the two floors.
The store had a reputation for gentility and conservatism. "Altman's program, as it starts its second century, is to retain its image as a carriage-trade store, safely conservative," It was regarded as similar to Marshall Field & Company in Chicago, Illinois. Highlighting its sober reputation, the stores included a satellite location of Colonial Williamsburg's Craft House that sold classic colonial reproductions. Two lost treasures from the store are the famous Christmas windows, which rivaled Lord & Taylor's, a few blocks up Fifth Avenue, as well as the Charleston Gardens restaurant, which housed a full-sized facade of a Tara-like Charleston home. The St. David's location also had a Charleston Garden restaurant, as did the other branch stores.
On March 12, 1985, Altman's Fifth Avenue building was designated a New York City landmark. When Altman's closed, the building stood vacant until 1996, when the exterior was restored by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer and the interior reconfigured by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates to be used by the City University of New York as its CUNY Graduate Center on the Fifth Avenue side, by the New York Public Library as the Science, Industry and Business Library on the Madison Avenue side, and by Oxford University Press.
In addition, Altman's Sixth Avenue building is part of the Ladies' Mile Historic District created in 1989.
- List of companies based in New York City
- List of defunct department stores of the United States
- List of department stores of the United States
- List of defunct retailers of the United States
- BARRON, JAMES (November 28, 2013). "B. Altman, a Store From Yesteryear, Still Makes Its Presence Felt in the City". The New York Times. Retrieved 21 August 2014.
And then, after a listless going-out-of-business sale that began on the day after Thanksgiving in 1989, it closed.
- BARMASH, ISADORE (November 18, 1989). "No Bidder To Rescue B. Altman". New York Times. Retrieved 21 August 2014.
The closing of the stores, expected by Jan. 29, ends an era of dignified retailing in lush surroundings.
- Mendelsohn, Joyce. Touring the Flatiron. New York: New York Landmarks Conservancy, 1998. ISBN 0-964-7061-2-1, pp. 89–90.
- White, Norval & Willensky, Elliot (2000). AIA Guide to New York City (4th ed.). New York: Three Rivers Press. ISBN 978-0-8129-3107-5., p. 227.
- New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission; Postal, Matthew A. (ed. and text); Dolkart, Andrew S. (text). (2009) Guide to New York City Landmarks (4th ed.) New York: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-470-28963-1. p. 97.
- MERIN, JENNIFER (November 26, 1989). "B. Altman Stores Offering Clearance Discounts : New York: After 124 years in business, the grand dame of Fifth Avenue, B. Altman & Co., is closing its doors, but only after a huge liquidation sale.". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 21 August 2014.
The official closing date has been set for Jan. 29, 1990, but the doors may be shut before that, if merchandise and fixtures are sold off earlier.
- Ravo, Nick (December 25, 1989). "At B. Altman, Christmas But No Santa". The New York Times. Retrieved February 17, 2009.
- "Fifth Avenue Store Is Rejuvenating Its Image". The New York Times. April 1, 1965. Retrieved February 17, 2009.
- "Designation Report" (PDF) of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
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