Downtown Department Stores
Cleveland’s Fifth Avenue
Clevelanders of a certain age remember Euclid Avenue as a home for Cleveland’s department stores, but these stores were not always on Euclid Avenue. In the 1830s, most dry goods merchants conducted business east of the Flats on River Road in their warehouses, which functioned as storage spaces, showrooms, and offices. In the 1840s, the warehouse district expanded pushing retailers out to Superior along Ontario, Water (W. 9th), Seneca (W. 3rd), and Bank (W. 6th). Along Superior and its side streets, merchants constructed a commercial block specifically for retailers. Retailers were looking for inexpensive quarters to rent either in new office building’s ground floors or basements.
By the 1860s and 1870s, industrial enterprises displaced businesses that operated warehouses, pushing the wholesale district into areas that were currently retailer occupied. Rising rents and a lack of room to expand induced many retailers to seek new locations, leading to the emergence of new retail outlets on Euclid Avenue by the late 1870s. When the streetcar lines were built around Public Square in the 1880s, Euclid Avenue stores became even more popular. Massive, multi-level stores (consisting of various "departments") began to appear on lower Euclid Avenue around the turn of the twentieth century.
At the peak of Cleveland department stores’ popularity, Euclid Avenue was ranked among the largest retail districts in the United States and were compared to New York's stylish Fifth Avenue. Many popular downtown department stores lined Euclid Avenue and the south side of Public Square in the early to mid-1900s: Higbee’s, May Company, William Taylor Son & Company (later Taylor’s Department Store), Sterling-Lindner-Davis, and Halle’s. Heralded for their fanciful window displays and holiday traditions like Halle's "Mr. Jingeling" and Sterling-Lindner-Davis's magnificent 50-foot-high Christmas tree, the stores drew thousands of shoppers downtown. The development of Playhouse Square in the 1920s added to the crowds and excitement along that stretch of Euclid Avenue. A trip on the streetcar down to Cleveland’s department stores was for many Clevelanders an occasion that called for dressing up.
After World War II, however, the growth of suburbs and shopping malls started to draw business away from downtown and Euclid Avenue. Clevelanders who moved to the suburbs could now patronize stores near their homes without the need to travel downtown and customer loyalty to stores became a thing of the past. By the 1960s, the downtown department stores started closing, first Taylor’s in 1961 and then Sterling-Lindner-Davis in 1968. Downtown department stores tried to hold on by opening their own suburban branches, but by the turn of the twenty-first century most of these local companies had been bought out by national chains, with their flagship downtown locations converted to other uses. The last of the giants, Higbee's, was purchased in 1992 by Arkansas-based Dillard's and closed its Tower City store in 2002.
Although many downtown department stores are gone, they are certainly not forgotten. One notable department store, Higbee's, gained national recognition when it appeared in a scene of the classic holiday film "A Christmas Story." Many building also still bear architectural fixtures that act as a nod to their department store pasts. If you look closely, you can still glimpse reminders of Cleveland's grand department stores in the soaring terra-cotta facade of the Halle Building, the clock on top of the May Company, or the bronze deco Higbee's plaques that adorn its old home on Public Square. Better yet, ask almost any Clevelander past a certain age about shopping on Euclid Avenue, and listen closely while they fondly recall childhood trips downtown.