Filed Under Businesses

May Company

The new May Company department store opened on Public Square in 1915. Containing over 800,000 square feet of floor space, it was said to be the third largest store in the nation. Built by world-famous architect and city planner Daniel Burnham (who also designed Cleveland's Group Plan and Mall, as well as the White City at Chicago's 1893 World's Fair), it reflects the architectural values of the City Beautiful movement popularized by Burnham. Its gleaming white terra cotta facade, clean lines, and symmetrical detailing gives the building a dignified and elegant look. Unlike many of the classically-influenced City Beautiful type buildings, however, its durable steel and concrete frame allowed for the generous inclusion of wide "Chicago style" (tripartite) windows facing Public Square. But what really excited the public about the new May Company were the luxurious shopping areas that could be found behind its front doors.

Shoppers could expect to find everything they needed at May Company. Clothing, housewares, furniture: it was all there, spread across dozens of departments. In addition, the building contained the city's largest soda fountain, an auditorium for cooking and fashion demonstrations, a hair salon (including a "children's barber shop"), a "children's playground" staffed by a storytelling governess where mothers could drop off their children while shopping, and 23 passenger elevators. More than 2,500 employees worked at the store, including a trained nurse at the baby department who advised "mothers as to the proper dressing and care for infants," as well as "nine young women, conversant with ten languages" who made up the "foreign department," where foreign speaking patrons could find help.

The May Company, founded in Denver in 1888, first opened in Cleveland in 1899 after purchasing the E.R. Hull & Dutton Company's store on Ontario Street near Public Square. Burnham's 1915 building underwent expansion in 1931 that saw the addition of two floors, increasing the sales area to over 1 million square feet. In the 1950s, May Company began an expansion into the suburbs, following the population's movement away from the city. By 1979, it had nine branches throughout Northern Ohio. Shifting population and spending patterns eventually forced May Company and the other Cleveland department stores to curtail their downtown businesses, leading to their closures in the 1980s and 1990s. May Company's downtown store ultimately closed in January 1993, and its remaining stores were rebranded Kaufmann's, at the time a May-owned department store with Pittsburgh roots.

The bulk of the building lay vacant for many years after the store closed. Many of the interior architecture was lost when the building was gutted in anticipation of being turned into a parking garage to support the nearby casino in the former Higbee's department store building. The street level facing Euclid Avenue became home to the Cuyahoga Community College School of Hospitality Management and two restaurants. The remainder more recently underwent renovation to become apartments in 2020.

Images

May Company, 1924 The May Company Building a little under ten years after its construction. Two additional floors were added to the structure in 1931 but the basic design remained the same. In the foreground is the southeast corner of Public Square. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Largest Department Store in Ohio That was how The May Co. officials touted their new department store in downtown Cleveland. They also took pains—and some artistic licenseas can be seen in this advertisement which appeared in the Cleveland News on October 15, 1915—to make sure that shoppers knew its location across Euclid Avenue from a very familiar city monument. Source: Cleveland News
Old May Co., 1899 The original Cleveland May Company was located in the old E.R. Hull & Dutton Company dry goods store on Ontario Street near Public Square. Indicative of the company's success, the building was expanded several times before the new May Company Building opened in 1915. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Delivery Wagon, ca. 1900s Early May Company deliveries were made by a fleet of horse-drawn wagons. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Old May Co. Interior The sales floor of the old, pre-1915 May Company store is shown here. How does it differ from the look of the new store? Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
The May Co. Clock The May Company clock has been a signature feature of the building since it opened. The original May Co. building also had a clock tower. The current clock originally sat on top of the six-story department store, but to keep up with the anticipated increase in competition when Higbee's left its Playhouse Square area location to move across Ontario Street from the May Co. upon completion of the Cleveland Union Terminal, May Co. undertook a major expansion that added two new floors, including an atrium inside. Exterior terra-cotta telework matched the existing building below, and the clock was raised and reset atop the eighth floor. As this ad suggests, the department store, upon "opening" in 1931, styled itself the "Greater May Co." Indeed, it became Ohio's largest department store. Source: Plain Dealer, Nov. 8, 1931
The New Street Floor When the May Co. expanded in 1931, it ran a series of advertisements in local newspapers to acquaint shoppers with what they would find on each floor in the reorganized store. The so-called "Street Floor," as its name implied, was at street level and stretched the full length of the block from Euclid Avenue to Prospect Avenue. The expansion in the early part of the Great Depression showed the resolve of retailers to invest for the long term. Source: Plain Dealer, Nov. 9, 1931
Shoe Dept., 1931 The luxuriousness of the women's shoe department can be seen in this photograph from 1931. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Dollhouse Display, 1935 Silent movie star Colleen Moore toured the country showing this "fairy castle" she helped create to raise money for children's charities. In Cleveland, the piece was on display in the May Company. Its elaborately designed interior featured diamond-encrusted chandeliers, bear skin rugs, and murals painted by Walt Disney. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Millinery Department, 1931 The ladies millinery (hat) department at the May Company was extensive. Special features of the department included a private room where women in mourning could be fitted and a "French room" where hats for gala events were displayed. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
The Store at Christmas in the 1950s This undated photo gives an idea of how the May Company was decorated during the holiday shopping season. Source: Cleveland Public Library
May's on the Heights, 1957 The May Company in University Heights, located at the intersection of Warrensville and Cedar Roads opened in 1956 and signaled the company's shift towards suburban areas. Several more May Company branches opened in Cleveland's suburbs in the following two decades. This complex, designed by the renowned mall architect Victor Gruen, was demolished in the 1990s to make way for a new shopping center. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections

Location

200 Euclid Ave, Cleveland, OH 44114

Metadata

“May Company,” Cleveland Historical, accessed September 25, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/241.