The Galéries Lafayette in Paris still is a gorgeous retail space
As with so many things having to do with taste in the 19th century, the French generally get the credit for inventing the department store: the Parisian pioneer Au bon marché adopted the formula in 1852, just at the beginning of the massive transformation of the city under Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann and Napoléon III. In his novel The Ladies’ Delight (Au bonheur des dames), Emile Zola tells the story of its beginning from the point of view of a plucky young woman from the provinces who is captivated by the bustle and exuberance of the new form of selling things.
She defends the high-volume, quick turnover approach to her uncle who is forced out of business by the department store. “You probably are more competent than me, “ she says at one point, betraying a modesty that Zola seemed to admire, “but I’ll say what I’m thinking …prices, rather than be set as they were before, by 50 businesses, are set today by four or five, and they’re lower, thanks to the power of the capital and the strength of their clientele. It’s so much better for the public, that’s all.“ Reading that is like hearing an apologist for Wal-Mart (although it should be noted that Zola says Au bon marché provided health care for its staff while Wal-Mart had to be pressured into doing that more than a century later) which perhaps shows again that there’s nothing new under the sun. At any rate, the Philadelphia merchant John Wanamaker adapted—or maybe reinvented—the form in the 1870s in his home town. His success inspired much imitation. By the late 19th century big cities in the US and Canada each had one or more department stores that were not just places for buying but places where everyone went.
The use of skylights in Montreal’s Rockland Centre appears to be a nod to the grand tradition of early 20th century department stores
The form these stores took varied but they were usually built with great attention to detail that signaled to the shopper, you are part of something much bigger and more sophisticated than you will find other places. The cachet of the French model was translated around the world. In particular the beautiful art deco Galéries Lafayette building, opened in 1912, inspired many imitations. The 10 story building—just flirting with Parisian height limitations—had two large central halls under steel and stained glass domes of which one remains today Balconies on the different levels circled this open space so that the interior of the store was illuminated from the top down and the eye leapt upwards as in a cathedral. The Marshal Field store in Chicago, whose central space was recently restored, can be seen as an homage to the Parisian landmark, as is La Maison de la Bonneterie in The Hague, Netherlands, which is as charming it was when it was built in 1913. But balconies and beautiful light of the aptly named City of Paris in San Francisco disappeared under the wreckers’ ball when the building was torn down in the 1970s when downtowns all over North America were declining as competition began with suburban shopping centres. This is not to say that architects didn’t occasionally make a little gesture in hommage to department store architecture when they designed shopping centres as seen in the skylights at Rockland Centre in the Montreal suburb of the Town of Mount Royal.
Mary Soderstrom writes about how automobile-dependent shopping centres has changed the shape of our cities in her new book,The Walkable City: From Haussmann’s Boulevards to Jane Jacobs; Streets and Beyond, published by Véhicule Press.
Tags: France, Paris, Shopping