Touch of elegance returns
Princeton native spurs Denholms face-lift
Once upon a time every city had its big downtown department store. In Worcester, it was Denholms.
When the six-story Denholm & McKay Co. closed for good in 1973 it marked the end of a more genteel era in retailing. The store’s elegant boutique-style layout gave the expansive space an intimate feeling. Attentive service meant no one had to hunt through long racks on their own or guess whether the shoe fit properly. Lavish decorations heralded each change of season, while store windows displayed the latest fashion finery.
The world has changed since then and so has the Denholms building at 474 Main St. The former home of a single large retailer, the inside has shifted to a warren of smaller businesses, offices and condos. Hints of the building’s heyday remained long after, however, in things like the elaborate Baroque detailing of the escalators and the modern façade that won awards when it was added in 1951. Now, the building’s windows also will recall the store’s glory days.
Christopher Sawyer of Jamaica Plain, independently and at his own expense, has undertaken the restoration of 10 display windows at the Denholms building. Many windows had become an unattractive hodgepodge of signs. Others were vacant, a hollow reflection of downtown’s decline.
The windows won’t display the latest fashions like they once did. Rather, some will showcase photos and artifacts detailing the history of the grand old department store, complete with the “Denholms” painted across the glass in a jaunty black script, a store signature that once adorned shopping bags, gift boxes and newspaper ads. Other window displays will echo the activities of the building’s current occupants, including the Worcester Community Action Council and J&N Fournier Antiques. Sawyer has completed four windows and plans to finish the remaining ones within a year.
Sawyer, who grew up in Princeton, is creative director at Ralph Lauren in Boston. His experience in retailing and window design partially explain his dedication to the project. His connection to the store goes deeper than that, however. His grandmother was the late Josephine Carbone, who started her career with Denholms in 1947 as a stock girl. Over the years she was promoted several times, ultimately reaching the executive position of divisional merchandise manager.
It was she who introduced her little grandson to Denholms, taking him to work occasionally on weekends. But it was when Sawyer was 13, more than a decade after the store had closed and the building had been sold to a new owner, that his passion for the venerable place came alive. One afternoon, while the new owner was gutting the building and subdividing the interior into smaller offices, “My grandmother and I were walking by on our way to get some lunch and I said ‘Grandma let’s go in,’ ” Sawyer said. “So she told the construction guys that she used to work there for 25 years, could we go in and walk around.”
The workmen ushered them in, and Sawyer immediately fell in love with the elegant interior, much of which could still be seen, although it was coated with dust from the ongoing construction efforts. “I’ve always been interested in retail but that was when retail was in its heyday,” he said. “There were big, grand couture rooms and there was the wedding gown department and where the millinery used to be and the escalators with all the Baroque detailing. Seeing all that is what triggered me to start my whole career.”
He was instantly enthralled with the store and the more graceful era it represented. He began collecting Denholms memorabilia shortly after that first visit and has amassed an extensive collection since. “I went back six months later and asked if I could do another tour on my own, and they said, ‘Take whatever you want,’ ” he said. “I got old signs and the directory and things like that. They were probably thinking ‘What is he doing?’ but I fell in love.” Those first forays eventually led to an award-graced career spanning more than 20 years in the luxury retail trade. He worked for Jordan Marsh Co. and Neiman Marcus before joining Ralph Lauren.
Last May, when he came back to the city to research Denholms at the Worcester Historical Museum, he headed downtown and took a stroll by the building. “I just got so sad,” he said. “I thought ‘This is not what this building was. This building used to be so grand.’ ” So, since he does windows for a living, he called the building management and offered his services. “I said ‘I do this. I’m a professional. I’d love to offer my services and do a retrospective and show people how grand that building was in downtown,’ and they were thrilled.”
“I wanted to give the building and the downtown area a facelift so that people could relive their moments at Denholms,” he said. “I also wanted to show the newer generations how this building and the city of Worcester looked back in previous times, when streets were crowded, stores were bustling with business and times were a bit simpler.”