Alexandre Leplanche and Armand Moisant, Bon Marché, Paris, 1869. (Online)

To complete the Paris analogy, Cincinnati needed an equivalent to Paris’ Bon Marché.  In September 1869, a quiet ceremony on the rue de Sèvres in Paris’ Left Bank had marked the laying of the cornerstone for a new type of building; the first department store to appear in Paris is usually said to have been the Bon Marché, started in 1869.  The company’s owner, fifty-nine year-old Aristide Boucicault, had hired architect Alexandre Leplanche to design and engineer/contractor Armand Moisant (unfortunately, Moisant usually is not credited with this project because Gustave Eiffel is mistakenly given the credit for the building, when he actually was responsible for engineering only the last addition of the store) to fabricate and erect the first French department store, from the ground up.  Prior to this building, all drygoods stores in Paris had used existing buildings that had been assembled in a piecemeal fashion.  Boucicault had definite ideas about how to best showcase his merchandise for his customers, more than likely inspired by the 1867 World Exhibition palace.

Boileau and Moisant/Eiffel, Bon Marché. Birdseye view showing the skylighted courts and connecting arcades. (Online)

I describe the design of the new store as having filled the entire block surrounded by the rues de Sèvres, Velpeau, de Babylone, and du Buc, with a series of three-story atria that were linked with a continuous, multistoried version of the typical Parisian passage (arcade) in such a way that a customer felt she was in a glass-enclosed version of the grand staircase of the Paris Opera (which was also still under construction at this time).  

Boileau and Moisant/Eiffel, Bon Marché. The Grand Stair. (Online)

While Boucicault had laid the cornerstone for the first phase on September 9, 1869, with the intervention of the Prussian War and then the Commune, the first phase was not completed until 1873.  Meanwhile, the entire store was not completed until 1887 because it had to be built in phases (for which Louis-Charles Boileau was the architect) to allow the store to continue operations in the existing building during construction, in addition to making it economically affordable to build such a gigantic structure.


John Kellum and John B. Cornell, A.T. Stewart’s Cast Iron Department Store, New York, 1859. (Online)

So while the “first” French department store began construction in 1869, I have already explained that A.T. Stewart in New York had in 1862 moved into his new six-storied cast iron-fronted department store at Broadway and Fourth Avenue, between 9th and 10th Streets. Stewart’s new store was designed around a central atrium (as would be the later Parisian stores) that was open through all of the floors and contained double staircases.  The atrium was topped by a glass skylighted dome, and together with the cast iron skeleton structure, created a vast, open interior “open plan” that was filled with daylight and continuous organ music.  As Stewart had completed his building at least seven years before the Bon Marché began construction on its first building, that didn’t open until 1873 and whose atriums were only half the height of Stewart’s, I am still puzzled why historians give Paris the credit for inventing the department store?

John Kellum and John B. Cornell, Sectional Perspective at the Atrium, A.T. Stewart’s Cast Iron Department Store. (Homberger, Historical Atlas of New York)

Stewart had opened his first drygoods store in 1823.  Cincinnati’s “The Pioneer Merchant,” John Shillito had formed his first partnership with William McLaughlin seven years later in 1830.  Although McLaughlin had moved on to other endeavors the following year, Shillito grew his operations into the largest drygoods (retail and wholesale) west of the Alleghenies, including those stores in the small town of Chicago (note that Shillito began business three years before Chicago was founded).  In 1857, he commissioned McLaughlin’s son, architect James McLaughlin (1834-1923) to design a new store on W. Fourth Street, whose interior had no equal in the Chicago’s stores of John V. Farwell or Potter Palmer. (I must comment on the tall, slender columns in the image below. These had to have been cast iron, revealing the young McLaughlin’s interest in and ability with the new material, that he will use again in the Public Library and a later store for Shillito-see upcoming post.)

James McLaughlin, John Shillito and Co. Store, Cincinnati, 1857. (Online)

Following the end of the war and with Cincinnati’s continued economic rebound during the current depression with the recovery of its Southern markets, Shillito’s wholesale and retail business had continued to grow as the Midwest’s largest department store operation (Field & Leiter’s reputation notwithstanding: yes, Chicago had the opening West, but Cincinnati had the well-established South).  Field & Leiter had emerged after the war as a serious competitor, residing in Potter Palmer’s new “Marble Palace” that may have been larger than Shillito’s store, but this was destroyed by the 1871 fire. It took Field & Leiter two years to rebuild and open their new store in October 1873, in the larger five-story Singer Building (166′ on State and 150′ on Washington: 125,000 sq. ft.) that incorporated a 38′ x 68′ central atrium.

E. S. Jennison, post-fire Singer Building (Field & Leiter store), Chicago, NE corner of State and Washington, 1872. (Online)

Shillito, obviously inspired by his competitors (Stewart’s cast iron-fronted store in New York, Field & Leiter’s new store in Chicago, and John Wanamaker’s new Grand Depot in Philadelphia), had once again asked McLaughlin to design what would be the country’s largest department store when it opened in 1878.  With six floors and two basements, the building contained over 270,000 square feet (easily surpassing Field & Leiter’s post-fire Singer Building), thus making Shillito’s store the largest under one roof in the country when it opened on September 1, 1878.  (Only the A.T. Stewart’s operation in New York, Stewart himself had died in 1876, could boast of having more square footage, but this was contained within two buildings.)

James McLaughlin, John Shillito and Co. Store, Cincinnati, 1877. (Cincinnati, Queen City)

Shillito’s motto was “Truth Always-Facts Only” and his philosophy was to avoid extravagance because it only added to the price of his goods.  McLaughlin responded correspondingly with an affordable functional design of an exquisitely-detailed red brick box, that could have been as easily inspired by either Prussian architect Karl Schinkel’s Bauakademie designed in 1831, Philadelphia’s red brick boxes of the 1850s that he would have seen during a visit to the World’s Fair the preceding year, or the latest designs by George Post in New York. 

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Bauakademie, Berlin, 1831. (Online)
George B. Post, New York Hospital, New York, 1874. (American Architect, March 17, 1877)

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com

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