Abandoned Woolworth's store in Kentucky

F.W. Woolworth Store, Lexington Kentucky
Date added: October 26, 2022 Categories:
Looking south at the main facade with the display windows and recessed entrances (2002)

The F.W. Woolworth building is located in Lexington, Kentucky which is located in the center of Fayette county. Lexington is in the heart of the inner-Bluegrass region and serves as a commercial hub for the smaller towns that surround it. By the early twentieth century, Lexington's Main Street was well-established as the city's retail center and the entire region. Lexington's first Woolworth's opened in 1902 at 268 West Main Street. The Lexington store, #152, was located in an existing commercial structure. This was part of the corporate strategy in this early phase of expansion. In 1912 S.S. Kresge opened a store just two doors down from the Woolworth red front. These two stores co-existed with each other, bringing the dime store giants to Lexington. By the early 1940s, according to city directories, Lexington's central business district had eight department stores, two dime stores, and numerous specialty shops.

To stimulate consumer interest during the Depression years, Lexington stores began modernizing their Main Street facades. Montgomery Wards and Sears revamped their stores in 1933 and 1934, respectively. Soon other stores were remodeling their storefronts with Art Deco and Streamline Moderne characteristics. World War II interrupted construction and remodeling activity, but it soon resumed after the war. The SS Kresge tore down its old store and rebuilt a new modern store in 1947. Woolworth's followed in the modernization campaign by constructing a new location at 106 W. Main Street in 1948. The Wolf Wile department store updated its image in 1949 but departed from the Deco aesthetic and instead chose to use the burgeoning International Style.

Woolworth's employed Cincinnati architect Frederick W. Garber to design the new store. Mr. Garber was a well-known architect in Cincinnati, having designed several downtown Cincinnati buildings including: the Union Central Building, the Central Trust Building, the Dixie Terminal Building, and Cincinnati Gas and Electric. Whether he chose to design the Woolworth Building in an Art Deco, Streamline Moderne hybrid or if Woolworth's directed the design is not known. The inclination is to credit Woolworth's with the choice of the design since it was constructing other stores in this design motif. Compared to other Woolworth stores across the country, Lexington's new store shared many similarities with its fellow red fronts: terra cotta panels of a yellowish-white color were used to clad the facade; large display windows cover the majority of the storefront level with only metal mullions encasing the glazing; and the building rose to a two-to-three-story height.

This new store was opened on September 9th, 1948. The facility was twice the size of the original location. It also offered such modern amenities as air conditioning and fluorescent lighting. Woolworth's proudly announced the arrival of the new store with advertisements in the local newspaper.

"After a year of planning and building, Woolworth proudly opens its doors on a spick-and-span, bright-as-a-button new Woolworth's. We're now twice as big! Sparkling and modern, our new and larger departments display a more varied assortment of merchandise than ever!"

By expanding the size of the store, new departments including baked goods, infants' wear, phonograph records, and lamps were added to the sales floor. The first-floor sales area is a completely open space except for the grid-like arrangement of the structural columns. This kept the merchandise area flexible, so that displays could be rearranged when necessary. Additionally, the lunch counter was extended almost the entire length of the west wall of the first floor, which doubled the size of the one in the original location. Store offices took the second floor, and aligned themselves to the windows overlooking Main Street. A cloakroom was on the second level so that customers could unburden themselves of their coats. The rest of the second floor was given over to employee lockers, lounges, and inventory storage. The narrow third story contained the kitchen facilities that served the first-floor lunch counter via a dumb waiter.

By the time that Woolworth's made its second debut on Lexington's Main Street, the business had become an integral part of the community. Lexington's downtown, like most Main Street shopping districts across the country, was the well-established center of community social life. Display windows were an integral part of the window-shopping ritual. Woolworth's display windows were typically filled to the brim with merchandise available inside the store. The ever-changing displays animated the pedestrian experience with a veritable cornucopia of consumer goods. Dime store windows provided a marked departure from the austere storefronts of the upscale department stores like the Wolf Wiles department store. Woolworth's also provided a community focal point at the lunch counter. People chose Woolworth's as a local dining spot because it provided reasonably priced meals for customers.

Woolworth's thrived in 1950s Lexington. Its slow demise began with the town's suburban development. The post-World War II boom was creating new automobile-oriented suburbs. Along with these new housing developments, the commercial strip center emerged as a retail outpost. The convenience of driving the car to the nearby strip far outweighed the appeal of motoring downtown to fight traffic and struggle to find a parking spot close to the store. Woolworth's sought to meet the new consumer need by locating stores in strip malls. Lexington boasted three Woolworth's by 1960, one downtown and one in the Southland Shopping district, and one in the newly christened Eastland Shopping center. The downtown location suffered, as did other Main Street retailers. The attraction of the malls drained customers out of the downtown shopping district, starting with the opening of Turfland Mall in 1965. Nationally, malls were becoming successful because they provided a variety of stores, including large department stores in one convenient location with plenty of parking. Retailers moved from downtown locations to the malls in order to stay in business. The S.S. Kresge store was closed and torn down in 1967. By the 1970s, the character of downtown had completely changed from a retail focus that was brimming with department stores, variety stores, and specialty shops, to a nine-to-five business orientation. The result was a radical change in the scale and function of downtown that was neither oriented to the pedestrian or the shopper. Still, Woolworth's clung to retail life in downtown Lexington buoyed by low lease payments. Woolworth's, despite declining sales, managed to hang on and serve downtown residents especially those without cars. Eventually, downtown Lexington's decline as a shopping district led to the demise of Lexington's downtown Woolworth store when it closed on January 13th, 1990. The loss of the store meant that downtown Lexington was without a dime store for the first time in 88 years.

Building Description

The F.W. Woolworth building is a three-story commercial structure located one building west of the intersection of Limestone and Main Street in the Lexington central business district. From the time of its construction in 1947-1948 until it closed in 1990, this building served as the F.W. Woolworth Five-and-Dime Variety Store. This structure is a hybrid design of Art Deco and Streamline Moderne style. The exterior of the building remains largely intact. There has been some damage to the main facade's glazed terra cotta tiles as well as the loss of the awning and some of the plate glass in the storefront windows. The interior of the building has suffered extensive water damage, leading to a considerable loss of the plaster ceilings and walls. The spatial arrangements of the interior, however, remain in their original configuration. Only a minor remodeling to the lunch counter in 1971 was undertaken, leaving the rest of the building virtually unchanged. The building has approximately 48,000 square feet which includes a basement. The footprint of the building is a rectangular open plan with a wing off of the east wall which serves as a secondary entrance on Limestone Street. The dimensions of the main portion of the building are approximately 75 feet by 207 feet with the dimensions of the wing measuring nearly square at 33.6 feet by 33 feet. The entire structure was constructed in a single-building campaign. The primary structure is built on a concrete foundation with masonry-bearing walls on the exterior and interior steel columns and concrete floors. The building has a full basement, first- and second-floor with the third floor only occupying one-third of the total floor area. Access to the flat, built-up asphalt roof is gained from the third floor; and that roof is surrounded by a parapet wall.

The primary facade is oriented to Main Street facing north. The first and second stories are clearly articulated on this facade. The third story is set back behind the parapet wall and only visible as a rectangular form in yellow brick. The first floor is characterized by the four projecting closed storefront display windows and three double-door recessed entrances which alternate between the display windows. Each of the entrances has inlaid terrazzo tiles that include a tile "W," depicting the corporate logo. Only the central entrance retains the original wooden doors and wood door frame with curved chrome handles. The other doors have been replaced with aluminum framed doors. The wood-framed transom windows above the entrance doors, however, remain intact for all three entrances. The storefront area is defined by low, black granite bulkheads punctuated with decorative metal grilles. The plate glass windows are held in place with extruded aluminum frames, allowing for the maximum use of the window area. The closed storefront window areas have terrazzo tiles that provide a platform for the merchandise. The back of the display area is defined with stepped-back plaster walls and a horizontal band that unifies all four of the independent storefront windows. A large red horizontal masthead extends across the entire facade to visually separate the first and second stories. The masthead is curved at both ends and echoes the horizontal speed band favored in Streamline Moderne design.

The lettering for the masthead is no longer in place as is the case with the awning which was originally situated below the masthead. The second story is faced in a skin of glazed white terra cotta tiles that are square. There are nine metal casement windows that accordion outward when open across the second level. These windows are slightly recessed from the main plane of the facade. Each window is separated with decorative glazed terra cotta tiles that create vertical striations. Underneath the granite window sills are more decorative tiles of the same vertical design. A metal transom window is above each of the casement windows. The second story is capped with a stepped parapet wall which is clad in the same glazed tiles.

The east facade faces Limestone Street and served as a secondary entrance and storefront. The facade is two stories in height and is constructed of yellow brick. There is a recessed entrance that retains the original double wooden doors and transom windows. The entry is sheathed in terrazzo tile that has the characteristic red "W." embedded in the design. There is one display window that is a closed storefront and mirrors the appearance of the ones on the main facade. The balance of the first story is characterized by a decorative brick panel. The black granite bulkhead extends across the base of the first story and is punctuated by three of the decorative metal grilles. The awning and masthead for this facade are no longer intact. A glazed white terra cotta belt course visually separates the first and second floors. The second story uses common bond along with decorative masonry work to emphasize the Art Deco aesthetic of the upper facade. This area of the facade utilizes step backs of the masonry to create a low relief for ornamentation. There are three metal casement windows with metal frames and transom windows above them. The masonry is capped at the roof line with the white glazed terra cotta tiles that serve as a coping course.

The rear facade faces south onto Vine Street (formerly Water Street) and serves as the delivery area and employee entrance. The reddish-brown masonry wall is constructed in common bond and has window openings for the first and second floors. Each of the window bays is emphasized with vertical masonry bands which imply a connection to the north and east facades. A glazed tile terra cotta belt course reaches across the width of the facade located just below the clerestory windows of the first floor. The windows are steel-framed on both the first and second stories. The employee entrance door and the freight elevator are located on the southwestern corner of this elevation. A stair tower and elevator shaft extend to the third story. The roofline is topped with a glazed white terra cotta coping course.

The west facade serves as a party wall. Another building had once been adjacent to this elevation but has since been demolished. The ghost of this structure remains on the northwest corner of the Woolworth building. The concrete foundation is visible on the southwestern end of the facade. There are no windows or doors along this facade and there is no ornamentation. The reddish-brown brick wall is constructed in common bond and is capped with plain terra cotta coping. The one feature articulated along this elevation is the vertical shaft for the interior dumbwaiter that extends from the first to the third floor.

The interior of the building is characterized by the cavernous first-floor sales area. Only a single row of structural columns visually interrupt the flow of the open plan. The base of the columns are sheathed in wood wainscoting. Along the walls, many of the wooden display cases are still intact. Above the display cases, the plaster walls rise to the 14' dropped ceiling. The plaster has some vertical and horizontal articulations giving the walls a finished appearance. Some areas of the plaster walls have been lost due to water damage as has most of the plaster ceiling. The fluorescent lights are still hanging from the ceiling in some areas. The lunch counter has been removed but some of the shelving along the west wall remains.

Staircases to the upper floors are hidden from view and are of simple steel construction. One staircase is located in the northwestern corner of the building behind one of the closed storefront display cases. This staircase connects to the row of offices directly above the storefront area. The other staircase is situated in the southwestern corner of the building and connects to the employee entrance on the rear facade. The second floor is largely open space with structural columns. This area was used for inventory storage, employee lockers, and a cloakroom for customers. An employee lounge was also located on this level possibly in the Limestone Street wing. The floor area is devoid of any finish materials only having a concrete floor and glazed brick walls. The mechanical systems are exposed and originally ran under the plaster ceiling. Most of the ceiling has been demolished. The offices that run across the north wall are in varying states of deterioration. The plaster finish and detailing remains on some walls and ceilings.

The third floor is a narrow space that runs from the north elevation to the south elevation along the western third of the building. This space was used as the kitchen facilities for the lunch counter. A dumbwaiter was used to convey food from the third to the first floor. Mechanical systems were also housed in two of the rooms on the third floor. The walls are glazed brick and a row of glass block windows on the east wall illuminate the spaces. Access to the flat roof is also gained from the third floor.

The basement is filled with standing water, so is not accessible.