By Sandy Meindersma Correspondent
Posted Aug. 14, 2015 at 6:06 AM
HOLDEN - Denholm & McKay Department Store in Worcester and Auburn closed more than 40 years ago, but its patrons still remember the store with great affection.
“It was the place to be,” Jeannette Holmes said. “On Wednesday nights they would stay open late and you would work until 5, get dinner and then go. It was a happening place.”
Mrs. Holmes was at the Holden Senior Center last week for a presentation by Christopher Sawyer on the store. Mr. Sawyer, whose grandmother worked at the store for 27 years until it closed in 1973, published a book on the store, "Denholm's: The Story of Worcester's Premier Department Store," with co-author Patricia Wolf, whose father Henry Wolf led the store in the 1950s and 1960s.
Mr. Sawyer said that he was only 5 when Denholm’s closed, but he was always intrigued by the store and its history, especially after discovering his grandmother’s memorabilia from the store, which he continues to add to.
“I fell in love with it,” he said. “It’s a very important piece of Worcester’s history, and it was, for more than 100 years.”
Mr. Sawyer, who is the creative director for Ralph Lauren and formerly was with Neiman Marcus, said that when the new building was built on Main Street across from City Hall, it was the first building to have air conditioning, the first to have electricity, and that the Denholm and McKay power plant also provided electricity to south Main Street.
“It was called the Denholm and McKay Power Plant,” Mr. Sawyer said. “It was the first building in the city to have escalators, called ‘escal-aires’ and they are the only ones in the world made like that.
“They are thinner, and all the mechanism is underneath. I have reached out to Otis Escalator to see if there is any way to preserve them, since they cost $40,000 a year to operate,” he said.
The Main Street building survived the great fire of 1921, thanks to the firewalls and sprinkler system that was installed when the building was constructed.
“The Knowles Building next store had to be demolished, but Denholm’s was only shut door for one day,” Mr. Sawyer said.
Originally designed by architect Jonas Clark, the Denholm building was given an Art Moderne style facelift in the early 1950s. The new facade features a lighter stone on the upper floors, with a darker base, which Mr. Sawyer said was black Belgian marble.
“It’s no longer quarried, so if a piece is damaged, it’s gone,” he said.
Mr. Sawyer said that the display windows were a key piece of the store’s advertising and often were more effective than print advertising in bringing customers into the store and educating them about the trends.
Christmas was always a special time at Denholms, and beginning in 1954, the store featured an 80 foot tall tree of light on the front of the store, made from 2,500 bulbs and a 12-foot star.
“I’d love to get that projected back onto the building for First Night,” Mr. Sawyer said. “When the store closed, Thom McAn took it over and put it up for a number of years.”
The store, which merged in 1969 with Gladdings Department Store in Providence, closed on Thanksgiving Eve 1973.
Mr. Sawyer has also created a blog on Denholm's, featuring historical photos, which may be seen at http://denholms.blogspot.com/.