Streets of Washington Presents – Garfinckel’s, Washington’s Fashion Arbiter

Streets of Washington, written by John DeFerrari, covers some of DC’s most interesting buildings and history. John is also the author of Lost Washington DC.

The retail enterprise founded by Julius Garfinckle (1874-1936) in 1905 was a relative latecomer to the city’s department store field. Woodies, Lansburgh’s, the Palais Royal, Kann’s, Goldenberg’s, and Hecht’s all were established by the 1890s, making for a saturated and highly competitive market by the turn of the new century. But Garfinckle’s store (he later changed his and the store’s name to Garfinckel) carved out a unique, high-end niche and held on to it for 85 years, cultivating generations of dedicated shoppers who depended on the store for the trendiest and classiest apparel. When Garfinckel’s finally declared bankruptcy and closed in 1990, it was a heart-wrenching experience for employees and customers alike.

The former Garfinckel’s building as it appears today (photo by the author).

Born in Syracuse, New York, Garfinckle went to Colorado as a young man, hoping to strike a fortune in silver mining. Instead he became a clerk in a dry goods store. He moved to Washington in 1899, where he found employment with Parker, Bridget & Company, a prominent fashion-oriented dry goods store at 9th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. As a buyer for that store’s women’s clothing department, Garfinckle traveled frequently to New York and learned all the ins and outs of the retail fashion industry.

In 1905 Garfinckle set out on his own with the founding of his namesake store, which occupied the bottom floor of a seven-floor building at 1226 F Street NW. With his Parker Bridget experience and contacts, Garfinckle was able to fill his new store with “a carefully selected stock of women’s suits, cloaks, furs, &c, together with imported novelties and specialties,” according to the Washington Post, which observed that the new store’s “popularity is already assured.” In keeping with the expectations of his high-end customers, Garfinckle made sure that each received exceptional personal attention.

Garfinckle’s original store (Source: DC Public Library, Star Collection, © Washington Post).

The Post’s early prediction of success soon came true. Garfinckle’s gradually filled all seven floors of its host building, an odd-looking structure that was originally half-built to allow for future expansion. Within a few years Garfinckle’s booming business led him to take over the two-story space on the corner previously occupied by Brentano’s bookstore and then to build out the missing floors above it.

But even that complete building wasn’t big enough, and by the 1920s, after Garfinckel changed the spelling of his name, he had his sights set on constructing a grand new building better fitting his prestigious business. He began assembling as much property as he could at the northwest corner of 14th and F Streets NW, and in 1928 announced plans for an imposing new 8-story building.

Like many a modern-day developer, Garfinckel immediately ran afoul of the city’s zoning regulations. He had planned for the full 130-foot elevation of his building to extend out to the property line, but new zoning rules adopted in 1927 required a setback for the floors above 110 feet. Protesting the requirement, Garfinckel’s attorneys pointed out that the newly-completed National Press Building, located cater-corner to the site, had no setback. However, that building had been completed in 1927, just before the new rule took effect. When finally constructed, the Garfinckel building dutifully included the required setback.

Continues after the jump.

The Garfinckel’s building in 1955 (Source: DC Public Library, Star Collection, © Washington Post).

The beautiful Garfinckel’s building, which Mrs. Herbert Hoover officially opened in October 1930, reflected the store’s carefully cultivated air of sophisticated elegance. Designed by the New York firm of Starrett and Van Vleck (no lowly Washington architect would do for this building), its stately limestone facade was in a restrained classical style, embracing the clean lines of art deco but avoiding any unseemly exuberance. Inside it sported the latest amenities, including a “scientifically” controlled system of cleverly hidden ducts and vents that would provide both warm air in the winter and cool air in the summer (amazing!) as well as cold storage for the furs of Washington’s most fashionable women, a system of conveyor belts for sending parcels down to delivery vans, and even an automatic sprinkler system for fire protection. It was a very advanced building indeed.

Julius Garfinckel, the lord of this impressive fiefdom, was by all accounts a very likable individual. Everyone said he had a great sense of humor, and he made a point of walking the entire store and visiting with each employee every day. He knew and asked about everybody’s family members. He was similarly charming and attentive with all his customers, even going out of his way at times to see to their individual needs. If he were in Paris on a buying trip, for example, he might select a special dress for the planned wedding of a customer’s daughter. Loyal customers came to revere Garfinckel and defer to him without question in matters of fashion and taste, making him a rock star in DC’s small world of haute couture.

Julius Garfinckel (Source: Library of Congress).

Garfinckel was distinctly eccentric as well, but that only added to his mystique as a fashion arbiter. Without exception, he never attended dinner parties or other social events. As the National Register nomination for the Garfinckel’s building explains, “He was reportedly a teetotaler and a vegetarian, who stood on tiptoes when talking to customers to compensate for his small stature, and rushed to wash his hands after shaking hands with visitors.” Never married, he lived first in an apartment at the Burlington Hotel at 1120 Vermont Avenue NW and later in a suite at the exclusive Hay-Adams Hotel on Lafayette Square. His sole known diversion was horseback riding, and he could be seen at times on the trails of Rock Creek Park. President Calvin Coolidge, another famously reserved individual, sometimes accompanied him.

Single-mindedly dedicated to his store, Garfinckel worked long hours and often on weekends and holidays. He took advantage of the eighth-floor setback that he was forced to include in his new building and had his desk placed outdoors under an awning on the balcony from early spring to late fall. Distracted reporters in the National Press Building opposite could watch in fascination as an endless parade of pretty women would come out on the balcony to model new clothes for Garfinckel’s personal approval. He was as uncompromising as he was eccentric, insisting that Garfinckel’s be the exclusive outlet for any and all of its merchandise. He instructed his managers to immediately discontinue any item found to be on sale at another D.C. store.

When Garfinckel died in 1936 after a bout with pneumonia, the loss was widely lamented. While noting that he was “of a retiring disposition” and “not particularly socially inclined,” The Post noted that his obvious business accomplishments “did not overshadow his outstanding work in many civic and charitable organizations and movements in Washington.” His philanthropic streak was borne out in his will, which left the bulk of his $6 million fortune to charity, including the YWCA, which was to establish a home and school, named after his mother, to support “worthy women under the necessity of earning their own livelihood.” The Harrison Center for Career Education continues to this day as a component of the local YWCA.

Garfinckel had been the sole owner of his store, and after his death changes inevitably occurred, included an eagerly anticipated public stock offering in 1939 that was to pay very well for its savvy investors. The store changed in subtler ways as well. Garfinckel had insisted that the mannequins in the display windows be headless and armless because he thought full human figures distracted from looking at the clothes; this policy was soon dropped under the new regime.

The Greenbrier Restaurant in 1948 (Source: Library of Congress).

Another notable change was the opening of the Greenbrier Garden tea room on the fifth floor in 1940. Beginning early in the century, most department stores featured tea rooms—casual restaurants where women could gather and socialize over sandwiches and cakes—as a fundamental amenity. The Woodies tea room, for example, was famous and much-loved. Garfinckel’s was unusual in not having such an eatery when it first opened, but in typical fashion, Garfinckel’s sought to be more elegant and sophisticated than any of the others when it finally decided to launch its own tea room. Designed by the New York firm of William and Harrell, specialists in department store tea room planning, the new 100-seat Greenbrier drew rave reviews. The modernistic “garden” layout included a grass-green floor and blond furniture upholstered in a flowery variety of pasteled chartreuse, rose, purple, and peacock. A fancy trellis held potted flowers, and a large potted palm sat in the middle of the room. The custom tables had shelves for pocketbooks and were fitted with trays at each setting so that it would be quick and easy for the waitresses to remove and replace the dishes. Customers paid 60 cents as they entered and were assigned to a numbered table where a trio of waitresses rapidly—but graciously!—served them. Even the waitresses were chosen to fit in with the design scheme: all were redheads, decked out in blue blouses and candy-striped peasant skirts.

Your 60 cents bought you a choice of five “salad entrees,” a beverage, and a cake or pastry from a cart that was wheeled past your table. During afternoon tea, the fee dropped to 50 cents and included your choice of sandwiches or “tea salads,” beverage and pastry. At the eatery’s press preview, a fashion show was held that included a chic Native-American-inspired outfit complete with feather headdress and handmade jewelry from a western reservation. Supposedly the feather headdress was “functional for keeping the wind from blowsy-ing your hair,” according to Katherine Smith of the Times-Herald. No word on how well it sold.

A match cover with a gilt finish (undated), as was placed at each table setting in the Greenbrier (author’s collection).

The Greenbrier quickly became an exclusive Washington institution that continued for fifty years (until Garfinckel’s closed), an extraordinary run for a Washington restaurant. As a luncheon haven for well-to-do socialites, it had a distinctly conservative bent. In fact, when its concessionaire filed for a permit to serve alcohol in 1969, the move was protested by the Washington chapter of the Women’s’ Christian Temperance Union. Arguing that the Greenbrier was “just about the only place you can go for lunch in the downtown area and not be met with a rowdy crowd,” the WCTU’s local president argued that there was no need to taint the venerable old tea room with alcohol. She also threatened that her 600 D.C. members would boycott Garfinckel’s if alcohol were served at the Greenbrier, which she implied would be a substantial blow. Nevertheless, the Greenbrier got its permit—the first for a D.C. department store—and the Evening Star soon observed that remarkably “no unlady-like tipplers have had to be mopped up from the corner of 14th and F Streets.” In fact, one in every four customers was ordering a drink, and in that heyday of cocktails they were Whiskey Sours, Manhattans, Martinis, Old Fashioneds, Pink Ladies, Sidecars, and Daiquiris, in that order of popularity. “Women are embarrassed to go where there are a lot of men,” one patron remarked to the Star’s reporter, “but we like to be able to have a cocktail occasionally when we’re downtown shopping.”

Ultimately, the only way to be truly exclusive is to exclude people, and Garfinkel’s, like many other Washington institutions of its day, did just that. It was a whites-only enterprise until forced to give up the policy by the success of the civil rights movement. Speaking to the New York Times in 1988, Elsie M. Monroe, who came to Washington in 1951, remembered the store bitterly: “I am from Richmond, the Gateway to the South, and I never remember being turned away from a store there. But blacks could not shop at Garfinckel’s…You had the money; the money was the color green, but your money would not spend in that store.” Boycotted along with other downtown department stores in the late 1950s, Garfinckel’s didn’t hire its first African-American clerks until the early 1960s. Many blacks refused to shop at Garfinckel’s even after it dropped its discriminatory practices.

Garfinckel’s had its best days in the 1940s and 1950s. An article in the New York Times in 1961 called it the arbiter of tastes in the capital and rattled off all the famous people that had been outfitted there, beginning with Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt and including all the first ladies through the elegant Jackie Kennedy. Visiting queens and other dignitaries shopped there as well. A bevy of models was once sent to Blair House so that King Saud of Saud Arabia could see a special collection of fur coats on live models. Mrs. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Mollie Parnis dress came from Garfinckel’s, as did Mrs. Robert Kennedy’s Christian Dior and Norman Norell dresses. Even Mme. Hervé Alphand, wife of the French Ambassador, had her hair done at the Garfinckel salon.

The business grew steadily over the years. Garfinckel’s opened its first branch store in Spring Valley in 1942 and steadily expanded into the suburbs beginning with a store at the new Sevens Corner Shopping Center in Virginia—the first suburban shopping mall in the D.C. area—in 1956. Garfinckel’s would eventually have eight locations throughout the region. The company also started acquiring other businesses beginning in 1946 when it bought Brooks Brothers, the prestigious New York clothier, from the great great grandson of Henry Sands Brooks, who had opened his first store in 1818. The company later bought the DePinna fashion stores, also in New York City, and a Richmond, Virginia, department store chain, Miller & Rhoads, in 1967, which made the company as a whole larger even than Woodies in sales volume. Then in 1977 it acquired the Ann Taylor chain, a trendy fashion retailer that had been founded in 1954.

Logo from the 1970s. Garfinckel’s original logo was in pink and gray.

But things began to change in the 1970s as Garfinckel’s executives attempted to “modernize” the venerable store that had lived for so long off of its distinguished heritage and impeccable credentials. Fellow downtown department stores were suffering, and some, including Lansburgh’s and Kann’s, had gone out of business, prompting nervousness about the need to appeal to a broader clientele. Indicative of change were the new “verité” display windows adopted in 1976. Post reporter Nina Hyde observed a Garfinckel’s window laid out with female mannequins dressed in work clothes, a cigarette dangling from the lips of one, a ladder and tools scattered about, and paint splashed on the window. A Garfinckel’s patron in a navy linen suit and pumps passed by. “They’ve lost their minds,” she remarked.

And so it seemed they had. The company spiraled into financial peril as management changes put it in serious jeopardy. Even as it made money and talked of further expansion and acquisitions in the late 1970s, it began to “attract the sharks,” as Post columnist Rudolph Pyatt later explained. In 1981 New York-based Allied Stores, Inc., acquired Garfinckel’s in a hostile takeover. Allied, in turn, was acquired by a Canadian firm in 1986, which promptly spun off Garfinckel’s to help pay for the acquisition. Garfinckel’s by this point was languishing, an old-fashioned store with no one to breathe new life into it. As bidders circled, there was talk of selling the majestic building at 14th and F Streets NW, and preservationists grew concerned. Late in 1987 Raleigh’s Stores, Inc., bought Garfinckel’s and promptly fired six of its top executives. Preservationists, including the D.C. Preservation League, ensured that the flagship main building was quickly designated an historic landmark in 1988, but that didn’t stop Raleigh’s from selling the building and leasing back space to keep the store running. But Garfinckel’s was fatally unprofitable by then, its assets plundered to finance the wheeling and dealing of corporate raiders. It finally filed for bankruptcy and closed in 1990.

The Garfinckel’s building in 1990. Photo by Betty Bird, from the National Register nomination.

Having embraced the pinnacle of Washington’s social life for so long, Garfinckel’s loss seemed to mark the passing of an old order. Everyone remembered above all the high level of service, the quality goods. My father used to rave about how expertly the Garfinckel’s staff would fit shoes or suits. Women remembered buying wedding dresses there, being seated and waited upon with elegant fashions brought to them to inspect. All gone. As the Post’s Kara Fisher wrote in June 1990, the store’s going-out-of-business sale was the ultimate insult, a chaotic madhouse of angry customers, blaring orange discount signs, frazzled clerks—everything that Garfinckel’s had scrupulously avoided over its long and distinguished career.

The first floor sales area in 1990. Photo by Betty Bird, from the National Register nomination.

There followed several years of wrangling over the fate of the store’s landmark building, which was zoned exclusively for use as a department store. Many wanted another department store there, and for a time it looked like Lord & Taylor might move in, but it never came to pass. In 1993, the D.C. government abandoned efforts to try to get another department store in the space, and recommended that a mixed office/retail use be allowed. Downtown congregations fought the decision in court, arguing that a department store would create more jobs, but lost the case. Redevelopment of the building finally began in 1997, and it reopened as Hamilton Square in 1999. Borders Books moved into the ground and basement retail floors in 2000 and was subsequently replaced by a massive restaurant called The Hamilton in December 2011.

* * * * *

Special thanks to Faye Haskins and Mark Greek of the Washingtoniana Division of the D.C. Public Library and to Bruce Yarnall of the D.C. Historic Preservation Office for their valuable assistance. Other sources included the National Register of Historic Places nomination form for the Garfinckel’s building (1995), William Hogan, “Washington’s Merchant Prince” in Regardies (Sep-Oct 1981), and numerous newspaper articles.

9 Comment

  • Love this, thanks.

  • One of my lingering regrets is that Garfinckel’s disappeared before I had enough money to shop there. As college kid in the 70s and 80s I thought it the height of elegance even as I wondered who in the world could afford an eighty-dollar shirt.

    • saf

      I was a college kid in the 80s. I used to love walking through there. Also Woodies.

      And when I bought, I shopped the sales at Hecht’s and the clearance center at Woodies. It was what I could afford. Oh, also the Lerner’s that ran from 11th St through to F St. And the GC Murphy that ran through from F to G.

  • My family’s Christmas stockings are still stored in an old Garfinkle’s box.
    The story of Garfinkle’s closing reminds me of when the I Magnin in San Francisco closed. It is sad that the US has lost its old regional department stores.

  • My very first job – as a sophomore in high school! – was to work in the Fine Dresses department at GARFINCKEL’S in Tysons Corner. I still vividly recall helping women pick out their gowns for President Ronald Reagan’s Inauguration! God, what a wonderful store the downtown location was! Still miss it! Thanks for this article!

  • A lot of high end, old school stores met a similar fate and faded during the 70s and 80s. They didn’t really have a niche with the kind of less dressy clothing that was popular from the late 60s into the early 80s and became known as stores for old ladies. Some were mismanaged on top of that or had their problems made worse by buyouts. Marshall Field’s survived because it only had some out of town competition in its niche, but it failed in its management of stores like Frederick & Nelson in Seattle and Halle’s in Cleveland.

    The low-end stores like Kann’s couldn’t compete with discounters or mass merchandisers like Penney’s and were among the first to go. Chains that were a notch up from there had to move upscale to survive like Hecht’s or died like Lansburgh’s. Hecht’s also benefited from having cast off segregation at an earlier time than the other stores.

  • Fascinating article. Thanks!

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