Friday, January 7, 2011

B. Altman & Company

In her reply to my last post, "Austan" noted memories of B. Altman, the escalator, and wood everywhere. All of which are also part of my memories of the place. Altman's was really was a memento of another time, when grace and civility mattered, when things were built to be beautiful as well as functional.

All of the store entrances had canopies like this one.
 If you'd ever seen it, you would never forget the view of the main floor and atrium from the escalators. Sad to say, I couldn't even find a picture of the main floor, except for this from the closeout sale.

The first floor interior was a warm polished wood. I can't imagine anyone painting it white as in the picture above. But then again... Altman's was sold in 1985 to a group of real estate investors. It was part of a leveraged buyout that failed. By 1989, Altman's was forced into bankruptcy and closed by a judge's order. The sell off of the store's remaining inventory and fixtures followed, and the doors were closed for good Dec 31st, 1989.

It was such a shame. The store had employed over 500 people. There was a seven bed hospital with a doctor and two nurses for the staff - and shoppers who would be treated on an emergency basis. There were classes for the employees teaching the three R's. There was even a large fancy dining room on one of the floors. It was called the "Charleston Garden".
One side of a postcard for the dining room.
The actual dining room.
The escalators weren't installed until late 1939-early 1940's. They had originally been used at the 1939 World's Fair. I can't swear to this, but in my memory the escalators were wooden. There are now only a handful wooden escalators left - 2 or 3 at Macy's, one in a Boston subway station, and one or two in Europe and Argentina.

One of the wooden escalators at Macy's Herald Square.
One of the staircases at B. Altman's.
I remember once going to Altman's to buy either a pair of pants or a shirt - I no longer remember which. What I do remember is that as soon as I took something off a rack, a short elderly gentleman appeared at my side. He asked if I wanted to have the item tailored to fit. It would only take a few minutes. In what seemed like seconds, his hands performed a routine of measurement that only a lifetime of practice could provide. Oh, for the days of tailored clothes.

An Altman's window display from the 1940's.
another Altman's 1940's window display

Altman's was the kind of store that would make available a hand made "Tiffany" automobile.

When Altman's 5th Avenue store opened in 1906 (there had been two previous stores) the environs were the home of the wealthy. In deference to the neighborhood, Altman's didn't put up a sign identifying the store for 25 years.

That's the kind of place it was.


Austan said...

Yes, and with all its seeming poshness, it was a middle-class store. You didn't have to be a millionaire to shop there. I bought all my clothes there after moving to Manhattan, on a cook's budget! Well made clothing, too. It wasn't a bargain, but it was a treat. You could honestly call anything bought there "goods" because they didn't sell "bads". Lame, I know, but sincere.

Every Christmas I hang the little dandy piggie on my tree and think of Altman's.

Austan said...

Forgot to add- I'm sure the Altman's escalators were wood; I remember them distinctly. I believe the wooden escalator in A&S' downtown Brooklyn store is still there too.