|The former Garfinckel's building as it appears today (photo by the author).|
In 1905 Garfinckle set out on his own with the founding of his namesake store, which occupied the bottom floor of a seven-floor building at 1226 F Street NW. With his Parker Bridget experience and contacts, Garfinckle was able to fill his new store with "a carefully selected stock of women's suits, cloaks, furs, &c, together with imported novelties and specialties," according to the Washington Post, which observed that the new store's "popularity is already assured." In keeping with the expectations of his high-end customers, Garfinckle made sure that each received exceptional personal attention.
|Garfinckle's original store (Source: DC Public Library, Star Collection, © Washington Post).|
But even that complete building wasn't big enough, and by the 1920s, after Garfinckel changed the spelling of his name, he had his sights set on constructing a grand new building better fitting his prestigious business. He began assembling as much property as he could at the northwest corner of 14th and F Streets NW, and in 1928 announced plans for an imposing new 8-story building.
Like many a modern-day developer, Garfinckel immediately ran afoul of the city's zoning regulations. He had planned for the full 130-foot elevation of his building to extend out to the property line, but new zoning rules adopted in 1927 required a setback for the floors above 110 feet. Protesting the requirement, Garfinckel's attorneys pointed out that the newly-completed National Press Building, located cater-corner to the site, had no setback. However, that building had been completed in 1927, just before the new rule took effect. When finally constructed, the Garfinckel building dutifully included the required setback.
|The Garfinckel's building in 1955 (Source: DC Public Library, Star Collection, © Washington Post).|
Julius Garfinckel, the lord of this impressive fiefdom, was by all accounts a very likable individual. Everyone said he had a great sense of humor, and he made a point of walking the entire store and visiting with each employee every day. He knew and asked about everybody's family members. He was similarly charming and attentive with all his customers, even going out of his way at times to see to their individual needs. If he were in Paris on a buying trip, for example, he might select a special dress for the planned wedding of a customer's daughter. Loyal customers came to revere Garfinckel and defer to him without question in matters of fashion and taste, making him a rock star in DC's small world of haute couture.
|Julius Garfinckel (Source: Library of Congress).|
Single-mindedly dedicated to his store, Garfinckel worked long hours and often on weekends and holidays. He took advantage of the eighth-floor setback that he was forced to include in his new building and had his desk placed outdoors under an awning on the balcony from early spring to late fall. Distracted reporters in the National Press Building opposite could watch in fascination as an endless parade of pretty women would come out on the balcony to model new clothes for Garfinckel's personal approval. He was as uncompromising as he was eccentric, insisting that Garfinckel's be the exclusive outlet for any and all of its merchandise. He instructed his managers to immediately discontinue any item found to be on sale at another D.C. store.
When Garfinckel died in 1936 after a bout with pneumonia, the loss was widely lamented. While noting that he was "of a retiring disposition" and "not particularly socially inclined," The Post noted that his obvious business accomplishments "did not overshadow his outstanding work in many civic and charitable organizations and movements in Washington." His philanthropic streak was borne out in his will, which left the bulk of his $6 million fortune to charity, including the YWCA, which was to establish a home and school, named after his mother, to support "worthy women under the necessity of earning their own livelihood." The Harrison Center for Career Education continues to this day as a component of the local YWCA.
Garfinckel had been the sole owner of his store, and after his death changes inevitably occurred, included an eagerly anticipated public stock offering in 1939 that was to pay very well for its savvy investors. The store changed in subtler ways as well. Garfinckel had insisted that the mannequins in the display windows be headless and armless because he thought full human figures distracted from looking at the clothes; this policy was soon dropped under the new regime.
|The Greenbrier Restaurant in 1948 (Source: Library of Congress).|
Your 60 cents bought you a choice of five "salad entrees," a beverage, and a cake or pastry from a cart that was wheeled past your table. During afternoon tea, the fee dropped to 50 cents and included your choice of sandwiches or "tea salads," beverage and pastry. At the eatery's press preview, a fashion show was held that included a chic Native-American-inspired outfit complete with feather headdress and handmade jewelry from a western reservation. Supposedly the feather headdress was "functional for keeping the wind from blowsy-ing your hair," according to Katherine Smith of the Times-Herald. No word on how well it sold.
|A match cover with a gilt finish (undated), as was placed at each table setting in the Greenbrier (author's collection).|
Ultimately, the only way to be truly exclusive is to exclude people, and Garfinkel's, like many other Washington institutions of its day, did just that. It was a whites-only enterprise until forced to give up the policy by the success of the civil rights movement. Speaking to the New York Times in 1988, Elsie M. Monroe, who came to Washington in 1951, remembered the store bitterly: "I am from Richmond, the Gateway to the South, and I never remember being turned away from a store there. But blacks could not shop at Garfinckel's...You had the money; the money was the color green, but your money would not spend in that store." Boycotted along with other downtown department stores in the late 1950s, Garfinckel's didn't hire its first African-American clerks until the early 1960s. Many blacks refused to shop at Garfinckel's even after it dropped its discriminatory practices.
|A Garfinckel's advertisement from the 1960s.|
The business grew steadily over the years. Garfinckel's opened its first branch store in Spring Valley in 1942 and steadily expanded into the suburbs beginning with a store at the new Sevens Corner Shopping Center in Virginia—the first suburban shopping mall in the D.C. area—in 1956. Garfinckel's would eventually have eight locations throughout the region. The company also started acquiring other businesses beginning in 1946 when it bought Brooks Brothers, the prestigious New York clothier, from the great great grandson of Henry Sands Brooks, who had opened his first store in 1818. The company later bought the DePinna fashion stores, also in New York City, and a Richmond, Virginia, department store chain, Miller & Rhoads, in 1967, which made the company as a whole larger even than Woodies in sales volume. Then in 1977 it acquired the Ann Taylor chain, a trendy fashion retailer that had been founded in 1954.
|Logo from the 1970s. Garfinckel's original logo was in pink and gray.|
And so it seemed they had. The company spiraled into financial peril as management changes put it in serious jeopardy. Even as it made money and talked of further expansion and acquisitions in the late 1970s, it began to "attract the sharks," as Post columnist Rudolph Pyatt later explained. In 1981 New York-based Allied Stores, Inc., acquired Garfinckel's in a hostile takeover. Allied, in turn, was acquired by a Canadian firm in 1986, which promptly spun off Garfinckel's to help pay for the acquisition. Garfinckel's by this point was languishing, an old-fashioned store with no one to breathe new life into it. As bidders circled, there was talk of selling the majestic building at 14th and F Streets NW, and preservationists grew concerned. Late in 1987 Raleigh's Stores, Inc., bought Garfinckel's and promptly fired six of its top executives. Preservationists, including the D.C. Preservation League, ensured that the flagship main building was quickly designated an historic landmark in 1988, but that didn't stop Raleigh's from selling the building and leasing back space to keep the store running. But Garfinckel's was fatally unprofitable by then, its assets plundered to finance the wheeling and dealing of corporate raiders. It finally filed for bankruptcy and closed in 1990.
|The Garfinckel's building in 1990. Photo by Betty Bird, from the National Register nomination.|
|The first floor sales area in 1990. Photo by Betty Bird, from the National Register nomination.|
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Special thanks to Faye Haskins and Mark Greek of the Washingtoniana Division of the D.C. Public Library and to Bruce Yarnall of the D.C. Historic Preservation Office for their valuable assistance. Other sources included the National Register of Historic Places nomination form for the Garfinckel's building (1995), William Hogan, "Washington's Merchant Prince" in Regardies (Sep-Oct 1981), and numerous newspaper articles.