Macy’s vs Siegel-Cooper: The Battle for Retail Dominance (Guess who won.)

Shoppers are fickle animals. Fashions come in and out of style, stores fall in and out of favor, and entire shopping districts wax and wane at the whim of the masses. For much of the first two centuries of its existence, New York had seen its retail heart concentrated below Canal Street, in the tangled, teeming web of streets which comprised “old” New York. Stores selling “dry goods” operated on a relatively small scale, often shouldering up against one another, vying to attract customers away from their neighbors and away from their coins.

Broadway ca 1860
(copyright expired)

But in 1862, Alexander Turney Stewart changed the game forever when he built his “iron palace” at Broadway and 10th Street: employing nearly 2,000 people and stocking virtually any item a person could possibly want to buy in Civil-War-era New York, Stewart remade the way we shop and the way stores sell.

A.T. Stewart’s “iron palace” in 1862 next to Grace Church on Broadway

Stewart may not have intended to, but he started an uptown-flowing tide of retail revolution. One businessman then another began picking up shop and constructing sprawling emproiums on the blocks around and above 14th Street. So vast were the selections and so luxurious were the stores’ appointments that, for the first time, reputable housewives could venture out on their own, while their husbands worked, to do some recreational shopping. The influx of this new breed of daytime shopper became so great that the neighborhood around 6th Avenue from roughly 12th Street to 24th Street became known as “Ladies’ Mile.”

Part of the Ladies’ Mile, 23rd Street just off 6th Avenue

The Siegel-Cooper Company had started in Chicago in 1887. Inspired by the grandeur of the 1893 World’s Fair there, owner Henry Siegel envisioned the largest and most opulent store the world had ever seen. He’d build it in New York, at 18th Street and 6th Avenue, in the heart of the Ladies’ Mile. And it was a sight to behold: opened in September 1896, it was the largest store in the world. Items sprawled out over 18 acres of selling space, with each gallery dripping with dark woods, marble, and velvet.

Siegel Cooper in 1903 (NYPL)

Inside Siegel Cooper, “meet me at the fountain” became a popular turn-of-phrase for the strutting shoppers of the Ladies’ Mile.

Siegel-Cooper was stepping on toes, however: several blocks to the south, an already-established New York institution was a crowned king of the Ladies’ Mile. Rowland H. Macy’s dry goods store had started out as a relatively non-descript outlet on 14th Street east of 6th Avenue. But Macy was a shrewd businessman and, before long, his store had sprawled across nearly a dozen storefronts and fronted 6th Avenue the entire block between 13th and 14th Streets.

Macy’s at 14th Street and 6th Avenue in 1883

NY Times, March 1, 1895

As the 20th century came closer to dawning, Macy’s had been sold to Isidor Straus (of Titanic fame), who decided to take a calculated risk by leapfrogging his competition and building a new store uptown on a scale and scope beyond anyone’s contemporary imagining. He began secretly buying property on Broadway between 34th and 35th Streets in preparation for his big move. Siegel got wind of his plan, however, and deftly outbid Macy on the last parcel at the corner of 34th and Broadway.

Herald Square in 1900, before Macy’s started construction. The elevated 6th Avenue train is in the foreground (now the BDFM subway).

He attempted to hold the little plot hostage, wanting to prevent Macy’s from usurping his claim to the title of World’s Largest. The Siegel-Cooper store on 6th Avenue was, after all, known as “The Big Store.” Macy’s was threatening to steal his thunder a mere 6 years after his store had opened.

A sketch of the new Macy’s Department Store ca 1900

Not ones to be bullied, Isidor Straus and his brother Nathan built their jaw-dropping new flagship store up and around the little corner lot owned by Spiegel: 9 stories tall and larger than any store ever seen.(It would hold the title of world’s largest until 2009.) It opened in 1901 and swiftly moved the focus of retail shopping north and away from the aging Ladies’ Mile and Siegel-Cooper’s “Big Store.”

Macy’s envelopes Siegel’s spiteful little building in 1905
(Library of Congress)

Defeated and embarrassed, Siegel demolished his little corner building and built a subdued 5-story retail building on the site, completely dwarfed by Macy’s shadow. In 1902, he attempted to merge the “Big Store” with B. Altman across the street to form a mega-store, but the ploy was ultimately unsuccessful. Siegel was bought out by J.P. Morgan in 1914, declared bankruptcy in 1915, and closed its New York store in 1917. (It was converted into a miltary hospital during World War I.) Its Chicago store followed suit in 1930, becoming the flagship store for Sears Roebuck.

One of the skylit courts of the former Siegel-Cooper store refashioned as a recreation room for wounded WWI soldiers, ca 1918.

Macy’s bought Siegel’s spiteful little building in 1911 for $1,000,000, an enormous sum at the time. In short order, they covered it with advertising and today it suffers the ignominious shame of being dressed up as a giant Macy’s shopping bag.

Macy’s in 2010. Siegel’s building is now a bag.

And as for “The Big Store,” it is now chopped up and home to a TJ Maxx, Marshall’s and Bed Bath and Beyond. Henry Siegel must rolling in his grave.

Siegel-Cooper, missing its tower, as it appears today.

About keithyorkcity

Name: Keith Age: 20-something Location: New York Passion: History You'll find a million blogs like mine, but mine is better.
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2 Responses to Macy’s vs Siegel-Cooper: The Battle for Retail Dominance (Guess who won.)

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