Long before Ralphie told a bearded man in a red suit about his secret desire to own a Red Ryder BB Gun, American children have been sharing their Christmas lists with department store Santas.
The long-standing marriage of Santa and shopping got its start in 1841, when Philadelphia merchant J.W. Parkinson hired a man to dress up in a “Criscringle” outfit and climb down the chimney of his store. This novel marketing concept failed to catch on, however, as store patrons were likely terrified by the vision of a soot-covered man crawling out of the fireplace. It took 20 more years and the genius of New York retailer H.R. Macy to launch the era of the modern department store Santa when Macy hired a Santa Claus impersonator to greet children and listen to their Christmas wishes at his 14th Street store.
The idea of linking Santa Claus to toy sales eventually made its way from New York City to the New York Store, a popular retail establishment in Indianapolis. The New York Store opened in 1853 in a single room in the Bates House hotel, but later moved to a grand building at 25-33 East Washington Street with a four-story central light shaft that rivaled the Statehouse atrium in terms of elegance.
The five floors of the New York Store held 44 different departments, as well as a lunchroom that boasted a “general appearance of cleanliness.” The first floor was home to “the longest dress goods aisle in the United States,” and the Ladies Cloak Parlor was on the top floor, reachable by elevators that were “fitted with all the modern safety appliances and inspected every month by experts.”
The New York Store was subsequently renamed after Alphonso Pettis, who founded the Syndicate Trading Company, supplying retail firms with products from throughout the world. One of his customers was The New York Store. On one of his rare visits to this city he bought the store, changing the name to “The Pettis Dry Goods Company, The New York Store.” When Pettis died in 1920, he left $300,000 to the Indianapolis Foundation — the equivalent of a $3 million gift today.
The former manager of Pettis Dry Goods, George Gay, built a beautiful home around 1910 at 43rd and Meridian Street. Gay’s house, Evergreen Manor, has been restored and was this year’s Decorators’ Show House. Unfortunately, the 1890 building housing the New York Store did not fare as well. Later occupied by the W.T. Grant Department Store, the building was slated for demolition in November 1973 when a fire broke out on the 4th floor of the then-vacant building. The Grant fire was one of the largest and mostly costly blazes in Indianapolis history, destroying or damaging 84 businesses in 15 different buildings.
Another early retailer to link Santa with sales was Hiram P. Wasson, who acquired an ownership interest in the Bee Hive Department Store in 1874. Nine years later, Wasson became sole owner and moved the now-renamed store from its cramped space at 2 West Washington into a larger building down the street.
After Wasson died, the company was sold to Gustave Efroymson and Louis Wolf, who opened another store on Monument Circle on the site of the old Morton Hotel. This “annex” was heavily damaged by fire in the late 1960s and was later razed. It is now the site of Emmis Communications’ headquarters.
In 1937, Wasson’s returned to its birthplace when the company built a new store at 2 West Washington Street. Designed by Indianapolis architects Rubush & Hunter, Wasson’s Art Moderne flagship store started out at six stories but soon expanded as an additional three stories were added. A distinguishing feature was the lack of windows in the upper floors, because the advent of fluorescent lighting had eliminated the need for the natural light that was central to the design of the New York Store.
By the time Wasson’s was acquired by Goldblatt’s in 1967, it had grown into a seven-store chain catering largely to a middle-class clientele. Both the customer base and the quality of merchandise sharply declined, however, as Wasson’s were converted into discount department stores. Goldblatt’s closed the downtown store in 1979, and the suburban stores a few months later. The building once described as “Indianapolis first modernistic building” was renovated in the 1980s and is now home to the State Department of Health.
In the late 1870s, Austrian immigrant Herman Wilhelm Block embraced his new country by changing his name to William H. Block and opening a retail store in Kokomo. In 1896, Block moved to Indianapolis, where he opened a new store at 9 East Washington Street. The business grew rapidly, and in 1910, Block constructed an eight-story building designed by architects Vonnegut & Bohn at the corner of Illinois and Market Street. The building was nearly doubled in size in 1934, and redesigned in an Art Moderne style by Kurt Vonnegut, Sr.
During its 90-year run, Block’s brought joy to thousands of Indiana children during the Christmas season when their parents took them downtown to see the brightly decorated store windows and visit with Santa in Toyland. Although the Block’s building still stands, the Block’s name was discontinued in 1987 after the chain was sold to Federated Department Stores.
Charles B. Mayer was another immigrant whose retail business thrived in the growing city of Indianapolis. Mayer opened a store at 29 West Washington in 1840, importing fancy items such as doll buggies and music boxes from his native Germany. By the 1860s, the Charles B. Mayer Company had established a profitable wholesale trade and was well-known throughout the country for its high quality gifts. The Charles B. Mayer store closed in 1955, and the inventory was sold to L.S. Ayres.
The department store Santas are long gone from downtown, as are most of the department stores. But children are still sharing their Christmas lists with the man in the red suit despite the change of venue from Santa’s lap to Santa’s laptop.
Growing up in Kokomo in the 1960s, my siblings and I never had the opportunity to visit any of the department store Santas in downtown Indianapolis. I don’t recall sending any letters to the North Pole, and it would be at least another 20 years before Al Gore invented the internet. But somehow, Santa always knew what we wanted. Looking back at faded Polaroids through the haze of nostalgia, it seems to me that every Christmas of my childhood must have been the BEST Christmas EVER. Here’s wishing you the same. Merry Christmas!