Here is such a great article written by Albert B. Southwick which appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette. The press that the book has been receiving has been wonderful and I cannot thank the Telegram and Gazette enough for all that they have done. I also want to thank Cruisin Bruce from The Pike 100 FM for interviewing Pat Wolf and myself. The podcast is available online at www.worcesterpike.com In a week I will be posting more dates for future book signings and lectures.
When Denholms was king
The rise and decline of Worcester’s heavy manufacturing base has been duly chronicled over the past century and a half.
Less attention has been paid to the parallel rise and decline of downtown retailing, which in its heyday here employed thousands and dominated the central city for decades.
Fifty or sixty years ago, downtown Worcester was a lively place. More and more automobiles rolled along the streets and jammed the available parking spaces. The street cars and then the buses brought loads of people ready to shop at the retail stores within walking distance of City Hall.
The J. C. MacInness store was directly across from City Hall. C.T. Sherer was located on Front Street, Barnard’s a block or two north on Main Street. Filene’s with its bargain basement sat on Main Street next to the Park Building. Bargain shoppers headed for Woolworth’s or Newberry’s on Front Street or Kresge’s on Main Street across from City Hall. There were also a clutch of more specialized stores — Richard Healy’s, Ware Pratt, etc.
But the grand dame of downtown stores was Denholms, originally Denholm and McKay, now the subject of a memoir and history: “DENHOLMS — The Story of Worcester’s Premium Department Store,” by Christopher Sawyer and Patricia A. Wolf.
Pat Wolf’s father was Harry Wolf, the man who guided Denholms for years until his death in 1966. He was a fine tennis player, great rival of Bob Bowditch, another icon of Worcester tennis.
Denholm and McKay was founded by a couple of canny Scots, William Alexander Denholm and William C. McKay. They set up a dry goods shop in Worcester in 1870, at the corner of Main and Mechanic streets. Within a few years, their business was bursting at the seams and they were looking for more space. Enter Jonas G. Clark.
Mr. Clark had gone into shipping at the time of the California gold rush and it made him wealthy. He later moved to New York and went into the furniture business. When he moved back to Worcester, he built a big granite house on Elm Street and watched as the thriving city grew. He paid special attention to the store on Mechanic Street and its diligent owners.
He owned a large piece of land diagonally across from City Hall where he built a large, five-floor, state-of-the-art building with every modern improvement, including electric lights powered by its own generating plant. It probably was the first Worcester building wired for electricity, years before there was any central power plant. It had capacious elevators and wide stairways linking its five floors. By contrast, the old City Hall diagonally across Main Street looked worn and dilapidated.
Mr. Denholm and Mr. McKay wasted no time in setting up their new “Boston Store.” They aimed to be as progressive as any store in Boston with a full range of offerings. Mr. McKay died in 1884 and Mr. Denholm in 1891. They left an establishment with a tradition and a momentum that carried it triumphantly through the next 70 years and made it a byword throughout New England.
This booklet explains why it thrived, decade after decade. Time and again Denholms was able to find, one after another, unusually able leaders. For 50 years after 1920, Frank Krim, Harry Wolf and Russ Corsini led the store to new heights of service and quality merchandise. At its peak, it employed more than 500.
It was a full-service store in all respects. Women’s wear, men’s clothing, kitchen utensils, toys, hosiery, costume jewelry, cosmetic creams, electrical appliances, furniture, draperies, rugs and many other lines were offered over the years. And the store managed to stay on the cutting edge of fashion, particularly in regard to women’s styles and fashions. The store had sophisticated window displays and promotional literature. A sixth floor was built and repeated interior expansions added 100,000 square feet to the original 150,000. The adjoining empty Richard Healy store was added and a large addition was built in back on the High Street side. The new façade and Worcester’s first escalators were installed in the ‘60s.
Pat Wolf describes Denholms as “a combination Disneyland, a shopping adventure and a community center.” It was all that and more. Its imaginative window displays were a constant education and entertainment for passersby. Holidays were especially important. Many recall the spectacular Denholms Christmas tree, 80 feet high, emblazoned by thousands of lights over the Main Street entrance.
The final days of the great store were sad. Business started to decline in the 1960s when outlying and suburban shopping malls transformed the retailing business. When plans for the new Worcester Center galleria were being drawn up, the developers wanted Denholms to be an anchor store. After much deliberation, Russ Corsini decided against it. Denholms later opened a branch in the Auburn Mall, but the magic of the mother store could not be easily transferred.
Could Denholms have been saved? Probably not. Inner cities all over the land were suffering the same fate as downtown Worcester. The galleria here drained the retail life out of Main Street. Even if Mr. Corsini had moved the store to the galleria, it probably would not have made much different in the long run. It would have been impossible to duplicate the grand old store — all six stories of it — in the new structure.
Denholms closed its doors on January 14, 1974. All that was left was the memory, thankfully preserved in this heartfelt memoir-history.
Albert B. Southwick’s column appears regularly in the Telegram & Gazette.