Bonwit Teller

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Bonwit Teller & Co.
TypeDepartment store
IndustryRetail
Founded1895, New York City, US
FateBankruptcy (2000)
HeadquartersNew York City, US
ProductsClothing, footwear, bedding, furniture, jewelry, beauty products, and housewares

Bonwit Teller & Co. was a luxury department store in New York City founded by Paul Bonwit in 1895 at Sixth Avenue and 18th Street, and later a chain of department stores. In 1897 Edmund D. Teller was admitted to the partnership and the store moved to 23rd Street, east of Sixth Avenue. Bonwit specialized in high-end women's apparel at a time when many of its competitors were diversifying their product lines, and Bonwit Teller became noted within the trade for the quality of its merchandise as well as the above-average salaries paid to both buyers and executives. The partnership was incorporated in 1907 and the store made another move, this time to the corner of Fifth Avenue and 38th Street.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, Bonwit Teller was one of a group of upscale department stores on Fifth Avenue that catered to the "carriage trade". Among its most notable peers were Lord & Taylor, and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Distinctive features[edit]

The Bonwit Teller's flagship uptown building at Fifth Avenue and 56th Street, originally known as Stewart & Company, was a women's clothing store in the "new luxury retailing district",[1] designed by Whitney Warren and Charles Wetmore,[2] and opened on October 16, 1929 with Eleanor Roosevelt in attendance. It was described by The New York Times as a 12-story emporium of "severe, almost unornamented limestone climbing to a ziggurat of setbacks"—as an "antithesis" of the nearby "conventional 1928 Bergdorf Goodman.[1]

The "stupendously luxurious" entrance sharply contrasted the severity of the building itself. The entrance was "like a spilled casket of gems: platinum, bronze, hammered aluminum, orange and yellow faience, and tinted glass backlighted at night".[1] The American Architect magazine described it in 1929 as "a sparkling jewel in keeping with the character of the store."[1]

Originally, the "interior of Stewart & Company was just as opulent as the entrance: murals, decorative painting, and a forest of woods: satinwood, butternut, walnut, cherry, rosewood, bubinga, maple, ebony, red mahogany and Persian oak." But after Bonwit Teller took over the store in April 1930, the architect Ely Jacques Kahn stripped the interior of its decorations.[1]

Two more floors were added to the main building in 1938 and a twelve-story addition was made to the 56th Street frontage in 1939.

Over time, the 15-foot tall limestone relief panels, depicting nearly nude women dancing, at the top of the Fifth Avenue facade, became a "Bonwit Teller signature".[1] Donald Trump, who purchased the building thanks to Genesco's CEO John L. Hanigan,[3] wanted to begin demolition in 1980. Trump "promised the limestone reliefs" to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When they were "jackhammered" "to bits" the act was condemned.[1] Through a spokesman named "John Baron"—who turned out to be Trump himself[4]—Trump said that his company had obtained three independent appraisals of the sculptures, which he claimed had found them to be "without artistic merit."[5] An official at the Metropolitan Museum of Art disputed the statement, stating: "Can you imagine the museum accepting them if they were not of artistic merit? Architectural sculpture of this quality is rare and would have made definite sense in our collection."[5] In addition to the relief panels, the huge Art Deco nickel grillwork over the entrance to the store, which had also been promised to the museum, disappeared. Again masquerading as his own spokesman "John Baron," Trump said, "We don't know what happened to it."[6]

History[edit]

Founding and early history (1880s–1946)[edit]

In the late 1880s, Paul Bonwit opened a small millinery shop at Sixth Avenue and 18th Street in Manhattan's Ladies' Mile shopping district. In 1895, which the company often referred to as the year it was founded, Bonwit opened another store on Sixth Avenue just four blocks uptown. When Bonwit's original business failed, Bonwit bought out his partner and opened a new store with Edmund D. Teller in 1898 on 23d Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.[7] The firm was incorporated in 1907 as Bonwit Teller & Company and in 1911 relocated yet again, this time to the corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-eighth Street.[8] The firm specialized in high-end women's apparel at a time when many of its competitors were diversifying their product lines, and Bonwit Teller became noted within the trade for the quality of its merchandise as well as the above-average salaries paid to both buyers and executives.

Bonwit Teller from an advertisement ca. 1920

They announced that this new location would provide consumers with:

an uncommon display of wearing apparel from foreign and domestic sources . . . which will appeal to those who desire the unusual and exclusive at moderate prices.

In 1930, with the retail trade in New York City moving uptown, the store moved again, this time to a new address on Fifth Avenue. Bonwit took up residence in the former Stewart & Co. building at Fifty-sixth Street, which would remain the company's flagship store for nearly fifty years. The building had been designed by the architectural firm Warren and Wetmore in 1929 and redesigned the next year by Ely Jacques Kahn for Bonwit.

The company, in need of capital, partnered with noted financier Floyd Odlum. Odlum, who had cashed in his stock holdings just prior to the stock market crash of 1929, was investing in firms in financial distress and in 1934 Odlum's Atlas Corporation acquired Bonwit Teller. Odlum's wife, Hortense, who had already been serving as a consultant, was named president of Bonwit Teller in 1938, making her the first female president of a major department store in the United States. The Odlums also retained a connection to the firm's founding family, naming Paul Bonwit's son Walter Bonwit as vice president and general manager.[8]

For a brief time in 1939–1940, the store owned radio station WHAT in Philadelphia.[9]

Changing ownership (1946–1979)[edit]

Floyd and Hortense Odlum would sell their investment in Bonwit Teller to Walter Hoving's Hoving Corporation. With Bonwit Teller, Hoving would establish a strong retail presence on Fifth Avenue that would also include Tiffany & Co.

According to Fintan O'Toole, writing in The New York Review of Books, in the mid-20th century, the artists Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol all worked at Bonwit Teller as window dressers (creating window displays).

The company would undergo another ownership change just ten years later with the acquisition of Bonwit by Genesco in 1956. At the time, Genesco was a large conglomerate operating 64 apparel and retail companies. While Genesco's portfolio included other upscale brands, including Henri Bendel, the company was largely known as a shoe retailer. Bonwit Teller, which had developed a cutting edge reputation promoting a young Christian Dior and other prominent American designers, gained momentum in its fashion and sales during the mid-1960s following the acquisition by Genesco.[7][10]

Branch location years[edit]

Bonwit Teller had started to expand as early as 1935 when it opened a "season branch" in Palm Beach, then in 1941 it opened a full-time branch in White Plains. Another notable opening was the Boston store in 1947 in the Back Bay neighborhood. By the 1960s, there were stores operating in New York, Manhasset, White Plains, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, as well as small resort shops in Miami and Palm Beach. During the 1960s, the company built a store in Short Hills and moved it's White Plains store next to a large Lord & Taylor in Scarsdale. In the mid 1980s branches were located in Oak Brook, Illinois; Troy, Michigan; Palm Desert, California; Beverly Hills, Bal Harbour, Kansas City, Buffalo, and Columbia, South Carolina.

From the mid-1970s to late-1980s, Bonwit competed head on with peer Saks Fifth Avenue, retaining a role on the development of fashion and design, most notably helping to launch the career of Calvin Klein.

Growth and later history (1979–2000)[edit]

In 1979, Allied Stores Corporation acquired the company. Its storied flagship Fifth Avenue store was planned to be rebuilt there opposite the new Trump Tower.[7][11][12] Bonwit opened at Fifth Avenue and 56th Street in April 1981. The new flagship would be the centerstone to Trump Tower's indoor mall.[13]

Bonwit Teller in Boston's Back Bay. It now houses a Restoration Hardware store.

In 1987, Allied Stores Corporation sold Bonwit Teller for $101 million to Hooker Corporation, an Australian business.[7] Hooker would expand the company's store base from 5 to 16 during the period. In 1990, Bonwit was put on the auction block after the owner filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Under the bankruptcy strategy, Hooker kept 5 remaining locations.[14]

Northeastern shopping mall magnet The Pyramid Company purchased Bonwit Teller from Hooker.[15] They opened a store at the then soon-to-open Carousel Center complex in Syracuse, New York.[16] During the mid-1990s, a Manhattan branch was shopped around. The venerable institution filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March 2000 after heightened debt.[17]

Since 2000[edit]

In 2005, River West Brands, a Chicago-based brand revitalization company, announced it had formed Avenue Brands LLC to bring back Bonwit Teller.[18]

In June 2008, it was announced that Bonwit Teller would be opening with eventually as many as twenty locations, beginning with New York and Los Angeles. Perhaps due to the subsequent recession, this venture never materialized.

In March 2020 it was announced that NBT Holdings a subsidiary of Sugar23 had acquired the rights to the brand and were planning a relaunch (Retail department stores, online retail department store services, retail store services and a mail order catalog service)[19]

In January 2022 the trademark was registered again by Sugar23 (it had originally been registered by Sugar23 in 2018) another trademark for the picture linked below was filed which will most likely be part of the new Bonwit Teller Logo as it has been filed in 2018 and 2022 around the same time as the Bonwit Teller name.[1]

Appearances in film and TV[edit]

  • In the film “Desk Set” (1957), Bunny Watson, played by Katharine Hepburn, stopped by “Bonwits” on her way to her job in the Reference Department at the fictional Federal Broadcasting Company. She purchased a green dress.
  • In the 1958 film Home Before Dark, Charlotte Bronn, played by Jean Simmons, shops at Bonwit's store in Boston during a Christmas shopping spree. She sees a sparkling gold dress in the store's exterior window display, goes inside, tries it on, and purchases it, despite protests from Bonwit Teller saleswomen who tell her the size is much too large.
  • In the opening scene of the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany's, when Audrey Hepburn is driving up Fifth Avenue, the Bonwit Teller store next to Tiffany's is clearly visible with a flag in front of it.
  • In the 1978 film Oliver's Story, starring Ryan O'Neal and Candice Bergen, Candice plays the role of Marcie Bonwit. Later in the movie, it transpires that Marcie Bonwit is an heiress to the Bonwit Teller fortune.
  • In the 1979 film Rocky II, Rocky Balboa shops at Bonwit's store in Philadelphia as part of a spending spree sequence. Rocky purchases an expensive jacket (with a tiger design on the back), a fur coat for his wife Adrian and expensive wristwatches, including one for his brother-in-law Paulie.
  • In the opening sequence of the 1995 film Die Hard with a Vengeance, Bonwit's Fifth Avenue store was resurrected and is bombed by villain Simon Gruber. Bonwit had been out of business for five years by that time.
  • In 2009, Bonwit Teller was written into a scene in Mad Men, a television series that explores the world of advertising. Peter Campbell, advertising account executive, returns a Bonwit Teller dress to its Fifth Avenue store, where he discovers that Joan Holloway, a former co-worker, is now employed there as a sales clerk.
  • In the 2013 Hallmark Channel movie Window Wonderland, a window dresser (Chyler Leigh) explains how Salvador Dalí dressed windows at Bonwit's in his surrealist style.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g Gray, Christopher (October 3, 2014). "The Store That Slipped Through the Cracks: Fifth Avenue Bonwit Teller: Opulence Lost". The New York Times. Streetscapes. Retrieved May 19, 2017.
  2. ^ "Stewart & Company Building, 402-404 Fifth Avenue" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2017-02-25. Retrieved 2017-05-19.
  3. ^ Trump, Donald (1987). Trump: The Art of the Deal. New York: Random House. pp. 147–150. ISBN 978-0446353250.
  4. ^ Borchers, Callum (May 13, 2016). "The amazing story of Donald Trump's old spokesman, John Barron – who was actually Donald Trump himself". The Washington Post. Retrieved August 7, 2017.
  5. ^ a b McFadden, Robert D. (June 6, 1980). "Developer Scraps Bonwit Sculptures" (PDF). The New York Times. p. B1. Retrieved August 7, 2017.
  6. ^ McFadden, Robert D. (June 8, 1980). "Designer Astonished by Loss of Bonwit Grillwork" (PDF). The New York Times. p. 47. Retrieved August 7, 2017.
  7. ^ a b c d Australians buy Bonwit Teller. New York Times, May 1, 1987
  8. ^ a b "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2007-04-19. Retrieved 2007-03-20.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  9. ^ "J.D. Stern Enters Radio; Jars Philly" (PDF). Billboard. July 17, 1940. p. 6. Retrieved 31 December 2016.
  10. ^ Bonwit's Lady Boss. Time, Jan. 22, 1965
  11. ^ Kaminski, Joseph (January 15, 2016). "The Political Fate of Bonwit Teller". Joseph Kaminski. Retrieved 2016-02-19.
  12. ^ The Midtown Book - Trump Tower
  13. ^ Bonwit Teller: Lively Interior On 57th Street. New York Times, April 23, 1981
  14. ^ Bonwit's Owner Files for Bankruptcy. New York Times, August 10, 1989
  15. ^ 5 Bonwit Teller Stores Are Sold, Likely Insuring Retailer's Survival. The New York Times, March 11, 1990
  16. ^ "Carousel Center 20th Anniversary (1990-2010)" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 11 August 2011. Retrieved 19 November 2011.
  17. ^ "Bonwit Teller to make last sale", Chicago Sun-Times, p. 41, 2011-03-07, retrieved 2011-11-19
  18. ^ Bringing back Bonwit. Crain's Chicago Business, June 5, 2006
  19. ^ "License Global Relaunch". License Global. March 13, 2020.

External links[edit]