Sunday, December 3, 2017

Chicago's Loren Miller & Company Department Store. (1900-1931)

Before there was a Uptown community on the north side of Chicago, there was Sheridan Square.

Centered around the intersection of Lawrence and Evanston Avenue (renamed Broadway in 1913), the area remained pretty much building-free well into the early part of the 20th century, even as people started building large suburban-style homes in nearby Edgewater, Buena Park, and Ravenswood. But when Loren Miller moved his dry goods business from Wilson Avenue a few blocks north to Broadway and Lawrence in 1915, Sheridan Square began transforming into the heart of the Uptown business and entertainment district.

Miller knew the dry goods market well. He'd worked for Marshall Field & Company and other large downtown department stores before opening up his Wilson Avenue establishment in 1896. As more and more people moved out of the more congested and built-up parts of the city to the south, little pockets of upscale residential communities began cropping up north of today's Irving Park Road, and Miller catered to this clientele.

The Loren Miller & Co. was founded around 1900. Much of the store's early success relied upon Miller's willingness to replace traditional retailing practices with more innovative ones, such as widespread use of newspaper advertising, bargain pricing, superior customer service, and liberal credit policies.

By 1914, Loren Miller & Co. had outgrown its original location, and Miller was looking for a place to move to - just not too far away. It just so happened that Mr. Albert Cook owned a vacant piece of property that he wanted to improve with an income-generating building. The vacant lot was between two existing buildings perched on a triangular parcel of land created by the intersecting streets of Broadway, Racine, and Leland Avenues, not far from Miller's Wilson Avenue store.

A beautiful new fireproof steel structure is nearing completion at 4722-28 Broadway in the Wilson Avenue District (today's Uptown community), one of Chicago's smartest residence districts. This new store is between Lawrence and Leland avenues. It has attracted considerable attention in Chicago because its personnel is composed of men who have been identified with the retail trade of the Chicago Loop district for many years.

Loren Miller signed a 20-year lease at $21,000 ($581,000 today) per year for the brand new $150,000 5-story, bright white terra-cotta coated department store. William Klewer designed the loft building between the Plymouth Hotel and the Sheridan Trust and Savings Bank. The annual rent was $21,500, or 430,000 for the term. Mr. Miller had a capital stock of $350,000 ($9,460,000 today).

The five floors and basement give a selling space of approximately 54,000 square feet. 
  • The First Floor was devoted to piecing goods, notions, ribbons, jewelry, and men's furnishings. 
  • The Second Floor had men's clothing, shoes, and the company's general offices. 
  • The Third Floor carried women's apparel, millinery, corsets, etc. 
  • The Fourth Floor was the children's clothing, newborn to teen. with the infants' shop, children's barbershop, playroom, and children's, boys and misses' apparel. 
  • The Fifth Floor was full of house furnishings, carpets, upholstery goods, and furniture.
By the time the doors were ready to open in November of 1915, Miller had renegotiated his lease and extended the term by another 5 years. Loren Miller & Co. opened with a stock of about $125,000 ($3 million in 2017) in medium and high-class merchandise.
"I invited all our neighbors—competitors included—to unite in a common enterprise. I turned our circular into an Up-Town weekly of retail trade, sinking its identification with our store completely and engaging to retain the only one-quarter page." Loren Miller
In 1921, Loren Miller & Co. circulated 56,000 weekly "The Up-Town Advertiser" circulars, which they started delivering in 1916. Miller contemplates adding three stories to the building as the expansion of the business has been so great that it requires more room.
In 1926, the store was enlarged yet again when the Sheridan Trust and Savings Bank building to the north of the store was acquired. The neo-classical structure was an important addition to the store, not so much for the extra floor space that is offered, but rather for the high visibility it gave the business. 

For one, it more than doubled the store's show window space and thus enhanced its capacity to entice passers-by with the latest fashions or unbeatable bargains. At the same time, the acquisition of the bank building gave Loren Miller and Company ownership of one of the Uptown district's most distinctive and easily recognizable building sites, a triangular strip of land that narrowed to a point not far from the increasingly congested intersection of Broadway and Lawrence Avenue.

It wasn't long after the move that Miller & Co.'s full-page ads in the Chicago Tribune began to carry the banner "The Uptown Store" to distinguish it from the major downtown retail emporiums.

Though always concerned about promoting his own retail operations, of equal concern to Loren Miller was the overall success and popularity of the entire Uptown area as a retail and entertainment destination. During his years as head of the store, Miller was a leading booster of the district and worked hard to inflate its reputation throughout Chicago and the North Shore. Miller, for one, has often been credited with having coined the name "Uptown" to jazz up the neighborhood's image. Miller also began adding "Uptown" to their address.

Previously, the area had been known only by the less romantic "Wilson Avenue District." During the 1920s, in the hopes of making the intersection of Lawrence and Broadway into another Times Square, Miller pushed the name "Uptown Square." 

In 1927, Miller got the Chicago City Council to officially declare the intersection of Lawrence and Broadway "Uptown Square," and the Miller & Co. display ads now carried a prominent banner proudly announcing "The Uptown Square Department Store."
The Uptown Theatre opened in 1925.
Times were good for Loren Miller & Co. In 1926, the store expanded and moved into the space previously occupied by the bank, and Miller had also taken over the Plymouth Hotel - now the Uptown Hotel - for future expansion.

Then, on August 2, 1931, a full-page ad in the Tribune declared that Goldblatt Bros. would hold a liquidation sale at the Loren Miller & Co. department store as they transitioned to Goldblatt's merchandise in their newly acquired Uptown location. Miller was out, and Goldblatt's was in.
Goldblatt's, a favorite of neighborhood shoppers, survived economic turmoils and remained in their Broadway location for the next 67 years. After finally throwing in the towel and closing up the shop in 1998.
The building sat empty until 2002 when the Goldblatt's sign was finally removed, and the trio buildings underwent demolition, restoration, rehabilitation, and adaptive reuse, converting the former department store complex into a three-sided, retail and residential grouping.
2017 Photograph

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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