Historic Structures

Rich's Downtown Department Store, Atlanta Georgia

Date added: June 25, 2021 Categories: Georgia Commercial Department Store

The Rich's complex covered a two-block area of downtown Atlanta in Fulton County, Georgia. It was bounded by Alabama Street to the north, Broad Street to the east, Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive to the south, and the elevated Spring Street viaduct to the west. The site is bisected into two blocks by Forsyth Street, which runs north/south between Broad and Spring Streets.

The department stores on either side of Forsyth Street were connected by a four-story pedestrian bridge (the "Crystal Bridge"). Except for a one-story McDonald's restaurant on the southwest corner of the Alabama Street/Forsyth Street intersection and a public plaza on the southeast corner of the intersection, the department store facilities occupied the entirety of the two blocks on either side of Forsyth Street.

The concentration of money and people in cities throughout the industrialized sections of the United States in the mid-1800's brought about the birth of the modern department store. Many dry goods merchants began to expand and capitalize on the growth of these cities, fueling the retail trade cycle of consumption and demand and ushering in a new form of social interaction for women; shopping. Most likely, the opening of A.T. Stewart's "Marble Palace" on the corner of Chambers Street and Broadway in New York City in 1846 signaled the beginning of this new phenomenon, in five stories of imposing and edifying marble, the shopper could fill her consumption needs, hobnob with wealthy clientele, learn about new fashion trends, and be awestruck by the architecture, all under one roof. In addition, this "palace of merchandise" exhibited the new trend in retail trade, departmentalization of goods. As A.T. Stewart continued to expand, other merchants in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia followed the trend: R.H. Macy, Marshall Field, John Wanamaker, Jordan Marsh and Edward Filene, to name a few.

The intense competition of the top retailers of the late eighteenth century led to newspaper advertising, attention to customer service, and the one-price-for-all system. No longer did customers have to haggle over prices and wonder if they got a better or worse deal than their neighbors, a system that had become outmoded in large cities in the first half of the eighteenth century. Price tags were placed on every piece of merchandise and clearly marked. This also contributed to the feeling of equality that shoppers felt; they no longer had to feel ashamed by inquiring about a price from a haughty clerk in an exclusive specialty shop. Shoppers from every socio-economic class could now come to this new shopping emporium and be treated the same as everyone else by the attentive and courteous sales clerks.

The appearance of the department store heightened the illusion of shared luxury among the shoppers. In the form of a marble palace, a cast-iron showplace, a sprawling grand depot, or a masonry castle, the store emphasized dedication to the ideal of shopping as an endless delight. The fact that no offices or other tenants crowded the building's upper stories signaled its commitment to a sole purpose.

All these elements were refined and improved upon until, by the tum of the century, the typical department store could be recognized by its attractive displays, wide selections, convenient arrangement of merchandise, attention-drawing window displays, and the existence of such customer amenities as rest rooms, lounges, restaurants, reading rooms, children's nurseries, mail-order services, check-cashing windows, ticket agencies, post offices, and credit and complaint counters.

While all this was happening in the country's large cities, small merchant houses, haggling, and poor customer service still characterized retail stores in smaller cities and towns. This was the case in the post-war town of Atlanta, when young Morris Rich, a Jewish emigrant from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, opened up his first dry goods store in a one-story, 20 by 75 foot, wooden building in 1876.

Morris Rich was born to Joseph and Rose Reich in 1847 in the town of Kosice, which lay at that time in Austria-Hungary, and now lies in the eastern end of the Slovak Republic. In 1859, at the age of 14, Morris and his older brother William ventured to the United States, most likely to escape military conscription and the limited opportunities of their crowded European ghetto. They joined family friends in Cleveland, Ohio and got their start in retail by becoming door-to-door salesmen. Morris continued in this vein for eight years, gaining valuable experience in salesmanship and human interaction, as well as seeing various parts of the country. By 1867, Morris was ready to open his own dry goods store in war-torn Atlanta, where his brother William had a successful wholesale and dry goods business. Of all the towns he had seen, he recognized the potential for growth in this small town, where all the major railroads crossed; it was sure to be the transportation hub of the developing Southeast, yielding major opportunities for the growth of business. When the citizens of the state approved eleven years later to move the state capitol to Atlanta, the opportunities for industry were even more apparent.

Morris borrowed $500 from his brother, moved into his small rough-hewn wooden structure at 27 Whitehall Street and opened for business May 28, 1867 as M. Rich & Company. This first store was quite small - Morris housed his entire stock plus office on one floor which contained two aisles and a side wing. His store represented a small portion of the retail dry goods trade in the small-town Atlanta of roughly 25,000 individuals. The leading merchants at the time he opened his store were Moore and Marsh, Silvey and Dougherty, and M.C. and J.P. Kiser.

In 1870, the business truly became a family business when Morris' first cousin Adolph Titlebaum came to work for him as a clerk. A year later, he was joined by his cousin Samuel Rich, and one of his brothers, Emanuel Rich, who had emigrated with another brother, Daniel, in 1862. Emanuel and Daniel had opened up a business together in Albany, Georgia, but soon decided that Atlanta was the better choice and joined their stock with Morris'.

In May of 1875, seven years after opening his store, Rich started what in time became a well-known practice of his store, advertising in the Atlanta Constitution. In this ad appears his first publicized motto: "Rich means business when he says so." From then on he advertised more and more in the paper and continuously expanded his floor space. In July of 1875, he made his first of many moves to 35 Whitehall Street and then in September of that year, to 43 Whitehall Street and again, one month later, to 65 Whitehall Street.

By February of 1877, Morris was ready to take in his younger brother Emanuel as a partner, the business now being called M. Rich & Brother. A year later, his other brother Daniel joined the company as a clerk. What perhaps defined Rich's store and set him apart from his competitors was that he brought to Atlanta the sophisticated retail philosophies pioneered by A.T. Stewart and John Wanamaker in the North and adapted them to the social customs of the South. Though this did not make him the leading merchant from the start, it enabled him to grow, catch up, and, finally, outdistance his competitors. He conducted business in his small store as if he were a huge department store in a large city, and in addition, took the literal interpretation of the creed ''The Customer Is Always Right."

Breaking new ground in Atlanta with attention to customer service, the one-price-for=all system and dedication to quality at low prices, Morris and Emanuel Rich's firm now emerged as one of the "big five." Their other competitors were Chamberlin, Boynton and Company, John Keely, John Ryan and D. H. Dougherty. Intense competition between these firms helped hone and improve the Richs' business skills. In 1880 they opened a dress-making department, which was quite successful from the start as evidenced by Rich's advertisement for 20 experienced seamstresses that same year. The next year, Morris was off to New York in search of a "modiste" for the dress-making department and was able to employ Madame Marie Gillette of Paris, France. Soon, Rich's had the largest dress-making department in the South with a staff of 50 seamstresses making the most fashionable gowns of that time.

Their success was demonstrated by the move of Rich's in 1882 to perhaps the first department store prototype in Atlanta - A "Bazaar of Fashion" at 54-56 Whitehall Street. This new two-story, 45 by 105 foot building exhibited one of the main philosophies of the northern department stores - making the store architecturally pleasing to show its commitment to the ritual of shopping. The interior was decorated in black and gold and gas chandeliers hung from the ceiling. This store was also the first in Atlanta to use plate glass show windows. The Rich brothers held their grand opening on September 15, 1882 and the Atlanta Constitution heralded it as an "Emporium of Fashion and Design." This location was also strategically placed among the other four big competitors in the dry goods trade: Chamberlin, Johnson and Company; John Keely; J.M. High; and D.H. Dougherty. The arrangement worked in Rich's favor - a shopper intending to visit two of the five had to pass by Rich's at some point, and this was not the case with the other four. Thus, Rich's benefited from the others' newspaper ads, and therefore made their show windows attractive to pull in street traffic.

In July of 1884, the firm was changed to M. Rich and Brothers when Morris' older brother Daniel was admitted as a partner. Soon after, Rich's opened a carpet department, which soon grew to be a major source of income for the store, winning bids to carpet hotels all over the state and even the state capitol. Success continued. They built two additions to this store within six years, the first addition in 1886 apparently made them the largest store in the city, and then in 1888 they added 5000 square feet to the rear.

By 1891, Rich's was organized into the following departments: Carpets; Draperies; Art Goods and Bric-a-Brac; Furniture; Dry Goods; and Art and Fancy Goods. Atlanta was growing rapidly, and now its population had reached 65,533. However, by 1893 the country was experiencing another economic slowdown, and so competition became even more fierce. One of Rich's competitors, John Ryan, failed during this downturn. By practicing their same prudent business measures, Rich's rode out the storm. In 1894, the brothers were financially able to perform what seems to be their first act of charity as a firm, they donated $1,000 to the 1894 Fall Exposition at Piedmont Park.

Another of Rich's competitors, J.M. High, went out of business, but Chamberlin, Johnson, Dubose & Company continued to be Rich's chief competitor. A major loss hit the Rich's firm in 1897 with the death of Emanuel Rich.

In order to keep pace with the phenomenal growth of Atlanta and get ahead of the competition, Rich's decided to reorganize at the turn of the century. Morris, Daniel, William (Emanuel's son) and Bertha Rich (Emanuel's widow) and David H. Strauss applied for a charter of incorporation in December of 1900 and it was granted on January 12, 1901. They were now known as M. Rich and Brothers Company. Several days later, they held their first stockholder's meeting in which Morris was elected President and Daniel Vice-President.

Between 1901 and 1907, several changes occurred: Rich's started a mail-order business; held Charity Sale Days; and an annex to the main store was opened at 46-48 Whitehall Street in May of 1904 and connected by corridors.

This new store was another step towards the department store ideal. "Rich's great white store truly a paradise for shoppers; the feminine heart will flutter with real delight at its manifold treasures and conveniences for all." Besides being elegantly decorated, the four-story store offered some new amenities for its shoppers and employees, a ladies' restroom and parlor; an employee's restaurant and restrooms; soda fountain for customers; skylights; and "giant" elevators, apparently the first ones in an Atlanta store. This put Rich's ahead of their competitors for a short while.

Rich's continued to expand services to employees and customers: for example, they added a Shoe Department in 1908, established the popular Economy Basement Department in 1910, organized a profit-sharing plan for salespeople in 1914, and accepted Liberty bonds in lieu of cash in 1918. At the same time, a new generation in management was also having more and more say in the operations of the store: Lucian York, who had started as a bundle-wrapper and window-dresser, was the manager in 1911; David H. Strauss, who had joined the team as an accountant in 1893, was secretary of the Board in 1911; and Walter H. Rich, who had started as a clerk in 1901, was now treasurer.

Competition remained strong and when Chamberlin-Johnson-DuBose Co. opened their new store in 1918, with five stories and a restaurant, Rich's moved back to second place in regards to facilities. A little over a year later, not to be outdone, Rich's announced their plans for a new store at Alabama and Broad Streets, which would be completed in 1924.

At the completion of the new store at Alabama and Broad, Rich's had more window frontage than any other store south of Philadelphia. Dubbed "Rich's Palace of Commerce" by citizens, the six-story building of Indiana limestone and Normandy tile represented floor space nearly 100 times that of the original store. Holding their grand opening on March 24, 1924, Rich's offered more than a grand department store, new services were waiting. "Ask Mr. Foster" Travel Information Service, Rich's Home Service (offering the services of an interior decorator), new restrooms with easy chairs, a Tea Room, "Quest for Beauty" Service (offering free beauty advice), an employees' lunch room, and an exclusive dressmaking salon run by Madame Yvonne were instituted at the opening of the 1924 Store. Rich's was once again the premier department store in Atlanta, but, once again, only shortly.

The following year marked the beginning of increased competition when Davison-Paxon- Stokes became affiliated with R. H. Macy & Co. and Sears, Roebuck & Co. announced plans to build a store in Atlanta. Not long after occupying their new store, Rich's determined that they had miscalculated the rate of business growth northward. Davison's announced plans in 1925 to build a new department store on Peachtree Street, a full, nine-block jump north of the traditional shopping district. Their plans included four times the floor space of Rich's newly opened store.

Rich's was also facing a crisis in leadership during this time of strengthening competition. Morris Rich, 77 years old in 1924, was alone at the top - both his brother Daniel and general manager Lucian York had died. Vice-President Walter Rich needed a dynamic leader to take over the reins of the store as general manager; he found this person in engineer Frank Neely, a graduate of Georgia Tech and an avid follower of the principles of Henry L. Gantt and Frederick Taylor. Rich's owes much of its success to this man who shortly had the business running under scientific principles. He brought in lighting experts, who flooded the store with light, and instituted a method of inventory and stock control. In addition, he designed and installed an air-conditioning system in the new store in 1926, the first such store to be fully air-conditioned in the country. He also created one of the most well-known policies of Rich's when he eliminated the adjustment bureau, "The customer makes her own adjustment," became an oft-repeated and well-known policy. Neely also continued the tradition of running institutional ads but improved on it by, always running an institutional ad on page two of the Monday morning Atlanta Constitution, Atlantans came to expect their ad there, and it won many prizes.

Morris Rich retired as president and was promoted to chairman of the Board of Directors in January of 1926, and the president's seat went to Walter H. Rich. Morris Rich died in Atlantic City on June 29, 1928.

In April 1929, the company was reorganized in order to finance expansion plans. M. Rich & Brothers Co. became a real estate firm and the department store business was put under a new firm called Rich's, Inc. This new company would be M. Rich & Bros. Co.' s main tenant.

When the stock market crashed several months later, the country was gripped in the Great Depression that lasted through the 1930s. Rich's continued its prudent management policies and survived, while its arch-rival, Chamberlin-Johnson-Dubose Company, failed in 1931. Rich's hired 100 of Chamberlin's best workers and benefited from their retail experience.

Rich's maintained an aura of prosperity throughout the Depression. When Walter Rich heard that the Atlanta City Council did not have enough money to pay its teachers, he informed the council that they could give the teachers scrip which could then be redeemed for cash at Rich's, with no obligation to buy anything in the store. The council did so, and issued $645,000 worth of scrip, which Rich's held until the city could repay them.

By 1935, Rich's was ready to invest $350,000 in expansion of the store. Hiring Philip Trammell Shutze to design their story-and-a-half rooftop addition, Rich's also added two more elevators. In 1937, they redesigned the third floor into a fashion floor with thirteen specialty shops and added an employee recreation area on the roof at a cost of almost $100,000.

Headlines in the Atlanta papers announced a new $1,000,000 expansion program in December of 1939. Completed in September of 1940, the expansion included new shipping rooms; a new tunnel under Forsyth Street; a large, five-story addition to the original building designed by the firm of Hentz, Adler & Schutze; a new warehouse across the street; and escalators connecting the first three floors. The escalators were installed by the Otis Elevator Company and were among Atlanta's first. The addition added 15,000 feet to each floor, making it the largest retail store in the South, according to the Atlanta Constitution.

Several new programs were established at Rich's at this time. One of the most valued institutions in Atlanta was instituted in 1937, the Rich's Charge-Plate. Five years later, Rich's had 80,000 charge accounts, a sure sign that they were doing something right. Also in 1937, Rich's instituted the Rich's Mutual Aid Association for employees, and in 1938 an employees' credit union was created.

To establish an organized way of distributing profits to charities and other worthy causes, Rich's instituted the Rich Foundation in 1943. Their first major contribution came in 1945, in honor of Morris, Emanuel and Daniel Rich, $250,000 was given to Emory University to erect a building to house the Emory School of Business Administration. Rich's also continued to assist the community and establish the company as an outstanding corporate citizen in other ways. For example, when over 100 people were killed in the Winecoff Hotel fire in 1946, store managers and other employees went to help the survivors. Free clothes were given to victims, as well as free burial clothes for the dead. When troops returned from Europe on Labor Day weekend at Fort McPherson and found that the safe containing their pay was timelocked until Tuesday, Rich's advanced the money to the soldiers.

After World War II ended, the patterns of urban living began to change noticeably. After more than a decade of economic stagnation, Americans were eager and able to buy their own homes, and retailers wanting to market to new suburbanites were compelled to respond to the trend away from downtown. The answer for most retailers was to close up shop downtown and move out to the suburbs; Wanamaker's closed its store on Broadway in New York City in the mid-1950s and most department stores throughout the country followed suit in the early 1960s. Conversely, Rich's strategy was to expand the downtown store and make it irresistible to shoppers. From the end of World War II until the closing of the downtown store in 1991, Rich's tried to fight the suburban trend, and they succeeded for a while.

The first solution was the Store for Homes, built in 1946. Recognizing that returning G.I.'s would be buying new homes that would need to be furnished and decorated, they planned a separate store devoted strictly to the home, a store within a store. The new light-grey brick and granite six-story building, costing around $5,500,000, was designed by the Atlanta firm Toombs & Creighton. The concept was to create a separate store environment dedicated solely to a single theme in merchandise, still connected to the main store. This was accomplished by building a four-story, glass enclosed bridge above Forsyth Street, also built in 1946. Dubbed "the Crystal Bridge," it was the first such bridge in Atlanta. The City of Atlanta owned the air rights over the street; to build the bridge Rich's had to obtain approval of the Atlanta City Council. This set a precedent in Atlanta architecture, and other architects used the concept in their designs, most notably John Portman.

New York interior designer Eleanor Le Maire directed the design for the interior of the Store for Homes. The first floor and plaza were opened to the public in late 1947, followed by the second floor in the first week of March 1948. The grand opening, however, was March 29, 1948, when all the floors were ready to be opened.

The Store for Homes idea worked; traffic was increasing, including automobile traffic. In August, 1949, a 1,000-car capacity, four-story garage over the Forsyth Street viaduct was opened at a cost of $600,000. Also in this period, a nursery for children was added on the second floor and a message desk was added on the second floor of the Crystal Bridge for customers to leave notes for expected friends. Rich's also was a leader in employee benefits. They were the first department store in the south to institute the 40-hour work week. They also paid time-and-a-half for overtime, provided meals to employees at cost, provided a profit-sharing Christmas bonus, free medical care, and group insurance.

Further additions to the store were made in 1951. The success of the Store for Homes, the store-within-a-store concept, led to plans to build a store to appeal to a market segment traditionally ignored by department stores, the six-story Store for Men. Completed in 1951, the store was designed with a masculine appeal, where a man could shop, test guns, and eat at the Cockerel Grill. Other new facilities were added that year as well: a new 350-seat employee cafeteria for whites; a new snack bar; a pharmacy; and a new cafeteria with lockers and restrooms for Rich's black employees.

Breaking with tradition, during this period Rich's was looking to expand to other Southeastern cities. After studying sites all over the South, in 1954 Rich's acquired S.H. George Co. in Knoxville, Tennessee and opened a new $8 million store in 1955.

In 1957, Rich's bought for $2 million the rest of the property on the block in which their main store was located. A three-story Service Building was designed by the firm of Stevens & Wilkinson and added to Rich's in the Fall of 1958. The top floor was built flush with the Spring Street viaduct and gave parking space to 400-500 cars. Other improvements included new escalators and an enlarged soda bar and new cafeteria for "African American patrons."

Besides all these physical improvements to the downtown store designed to keep shoppers coming downtown, other more intangible "improvements" were made. The late 1940's - early 1950's saw the beginning of two of Rich's most well-known traditions, the annual lighting of the Great Tree and ride on the Pink Pig monorail, in 1948 and 1953 respectively. For generations of Atlantans, these two traditions symbolized the advent of the Christmas season. Another tradition was the Rich's Curb Market Harvest Sale, held for the first time in 1956. At this annual sale, farmers from all over the state could set up booths and sell their produce. Fashionata, held from 1945 to 1947, was revived by fashion director Sol Kent in 1957 and quickly became yet another tradition. Mr. Kent wrote, produced and narrated the musical fashion show which benefited a chosen charity, usually an arts facility. These traditions also helped to tie the spirit of Rich's, and the survival of the downtown store, to the heart of Atlanta.

As Rich's Downtown was a successful enterprise resembling a shopping mall of stores within stores, business was solid enough to begin contemplating expansion to the suburbs. The first two suburban branches, Lenox and Belvedere, were opened in 1959. This was the first wave of many branches Rich's would open in the next fifteen years. By 1975, Rich's had nine other locations, including two in Alabama.

Even with suburban expansion, Rich's remained devoted to the health of the flagship store downtown. Rich's downtown would continue to be "the big tent - where the big traffic is," said Richard Rich in 1962, now the Chairman of the Board of Directors. With this in mind, Rich's hired the firm Stevens & Wilkinson to design a six-level self-parking garage that could park 6,500 cars. After opening this garage in 1961, Mr. "Dick" Rich noted an increase in store traffic. Also added in 1961 was Rich's Tire Center located off of the parking garage. According to a revised agreement signed by Harold Brockey, Stevens & Wilkinson agreed to design a five story addition to this garage in 1962, but plans apparently changed to make it six stories. The 1958 Service Building was expanded first in 1964 and again in 1966, when Rich's announced plans for a six-floor addition that would add 130,000 square feet of floor space.

Richard Rich also demonstrated his commitment to downtown and the city by serving as chairman of the board of MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) from 1965 to 1969. A promoter of rapid transit, Rich resigned from his position when the referendum for MARTA failed. The project later succeeded and the site of Rich's was adjacent to the proposed Five Points Station, where both the North-South and East-West lines would cross. Rich's had always been in the center of downtown Atlanta's transportation hubs; people changed trollies, trains, and later buses, near the Rich's store, and patrons would visit Rich's between trolley, bus or train rides. However, the subway brought all this activity underground, people switched trains beneath the ground without ever seeing daylight or Rich's. Undoubtedly, the store suffered. It also suffered due to the construction of the station in the mid-1970s, which effectively cut off pedestrian traffic. Rich's attempted in an ad called "There's a lot going on at Rich's Downtown .. dig?" to inform the public of what was happening and encouraging customers not to give up the downtown store. Depicting a map showing which streets were closed, the ad stated:
The other entrances and exits from the Garage will remain open, as will all our pedestrian entrances ... ready to lead you to the excitement, the special events, and the values that have made Rich's Downtown a stand-by, and a most pleasant habit. Don't break it!

Richard H. Rich died on May 1, 1975, and Rich's merged with Federated Department Stores, Inc. of Cincinnati in late 1976. Now the store was no longer a locally owned, family-run business. The well-known author and columnist Celestine Sibley felt that the store lost its hometown affection after the merger. "From time to time there has been an effort over there to regain some of the class the old store was born with," wrote Ms. Sibley. The employee magazine, Rich Bits, which was usually devoted to celebrating the success of Rich's, was now preoccupied with articles on shoplifting and inventory shortages. Now the employees were simply cogs in a national-chain machine, whose sole duty was to watch the bottom line, gone was the emphasis on customer service.

Federated maintained that it was dedicated to the downtown store and invested significantly to demonstrate their commitment. In 1980, the exterior of the store went through an extensive renovation that was calculated to show the customers who returned after the MARTA construction that Rich's was still there and ready to do business. In 1982, the popular Magnolia Room restaurant was renovated and the decor was created by Image Design. To many Atlantans, however, all these cosmetic improvements failed to recapture the old spirit of the restaurant, processed turkey now sat on top of the Old #8 sandwich. Nonetheless, a complete interior renovation was begun in 1985 and completed in 1987. Departments were consolidated into the Store for Fashion (1924 store and Store for Men) and the fifth floor of the Store for Homes, and a portion of the Store for Homes was converted into leased office space. The Pavlik Design Team out of Ft. Lauderdale, Fl. had charge of redesigning the interiors.

Trouble for the store was compounded when Campeau Corp. bought Federated in 1988 and a year later Federated filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy. All the renovations made in the 1980s, at a cost of $9 million, and the reopening of Atlanta Underground in 1989, were not enough to revive the old downtown store, it had been losing money each year since 1986 and the downtown building was scheduled to close its doors July 13, 1991.