Old Abandoned Penneys Department Store in Saint Louis

Wellston J.C. Penney Building, St. Louis Missouri
Date added: December 27, 2023 Categories:
Front elevation looking southeast (2008)

The Wellston J.C. Penney Building is located at 5930 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive (formerly Easton Avenue) in St. Louis, Missouri. As the only surviving post-World War II, stand-alone Modern department store building in St. Louis City, this three-story brick, white stucco, and reinforced concrete structure remains unique among older, traditionally styled buildings in the once-vibrant Wellston commercial district. Significant as William P. McMahon & Sons's only-known International Style design in St. Louis City. One of four J.C. Penney stores in St. Louis at the time of its construction in 1948, the building reflects the company's recommitment to decentralized, neighborhood-based retailing in the City of St. Louis, a focus the company achieved decades before downtown department stores opened neighborhood branch locations.

The Wellston J.C. Penney store became the 1,396th location of a national chain of department stores founded in 1902 by Hamilton, Missouri native James Cash Penny (1875-1971). As a young man, Penney's first job was as a janitor and window washer at the J.M. Hale & Brother dry goods store in Hamilton, where he earned $2.27 a month. Advised by his father to seek opportunities in the west, Penney moved to Kemmerer, Wyoming, where he started his first business at age 26 with $500 in personal savings and a $1500 loan. As a one-third owner of the Kemmerer store (known as the "Golden Rule Store"), Penney earned a considerable return on his investment. In 1907, he opened additional stores in other western states, launching his national chain. Penney, in an interview with the Globe-Democrat, attributed his company's early successes to "Basically, only three things-one-price pricing, profit sharing and the selection of the right man and giving responsibility to them." In addition, Penney's national distribution system enabled his chain to quickly deliver quality goods at moderate prices to stores across the nation. By 1927, the company's Silver Anniversary year, J.C. Penney stores were in 45 states.

During the 1920s, Penney's expanded at a remarkable pace, opening nearly 1200 additional locations, including its first in St. Louis at 2604 North 14th Street. Opened in 1928, this modest 35 by 100 foot store marked the company's initial foray into St. Louis's urban market; it served the neighborhood north of downtown from renovated quarters in a two-story brick commercial building. In 1929, the company opened an additional St. Louis location at Morganford and Gravois, which catered to developing residential neighborhoods in southern areas of the City. Penney's expanded to the Wellston Loop commercial district (named for a streetcar line terminus) near the western City Limits in 1930 with its third St. Louis location at 5976 Easton Avenue. At this point, Penney's had three neighborhood locations that served neighborhoods north, south, and west of downtown.

Unlike St. Louis's three largest department stores, Stix Baer & Fuller, Scruggs-Vandervoort Barney and Famous Barr, J.C. Penney chose not to build a central store downtown. Instead, Penney's focused on a decentralized model of retailing along the lines of Woolworth's and other national chains by locating multiple stores in neighborhoods where its customers lived. By the 1940s, as downtown department stores began to open branch locations, Penney's made new investments in its stores to help the company better compete for the post-war consumer's dollar, repositioning itself as a more direct competitor with local department store chains.

Like Penney's original St. Louis location on North 14th Street, the Wellston store (known by the company as store 1396) initially served customers from a storefront leased from nearby resident Lawrence O. Goedde. Despite the Great Depression's ravages, the Wellston location posted sales of $263,759 in 1932, the year of the national retailer's thirtieth anniversary. Top selling items at the store included: children's shoes for $2.98, men's suits for $19.75, women's silk dresses for $14.75, and sheets for $1.19. Managed by Roy Johnson, a former assistant manager from Penney's in Marshalltown, Iowa, the Easton Avenue store dramatically increased sales of these and other items to a total of $1,170,437 in 1942. By 1946, continued success and limited opportunities for expansion of the store's prosaic quarters at 5976 Easton Avenue (near the city limits) led the manager, in conjunction with company officials, to begin planning for a modernized and expanded Wellston facility that would appeal to the area's burgeoning population of suburban, automobile-driving consumers.

Laurence E. Mallinckrodt, President of Scruggs-Vandervoort Barney, described the changing retail environment after World War II:

...[D]epartment stores...felt the impact of expanded purchasing power...from the great middle market's increased war production income. The post-war period of high production, expanding population and new residential construction in suburban areas, accelerated the establishment of branch stores. The increased use of automobiles and traffic congestion encouraged the development of shopping centers....branches [served customers better] through... easier access of these units to shopper's homes and the availability of large free parking facilities. '

Although Mallinckrodt specifically discusses the rationale for adding suburban branch locations of downtown department stores, his observations speak to the conditions facing all department store retailers and commercial developers at the end of the 1940s. Penney's decision to build a new Wellston store with a dramatically reconfigured and Modern design remained consistent with these post-war retail development trends. The new Wellston facility helped to reposition the retailer as a direct competitor with the downtown stores' new branch locations, of which the nearest was a stunning 1948 Moderne Style Famous Barr designed by Samuel A. Marx of Chicago located three miles southwest in Clayton.

Goedde Real Estate, a firm led by retired pharmacist and area resident Lawrence O. Goedde, was Penney's landlord at 5976 Easton. Known for his "ability to analyze the real estate situation accurately," Goedde began developing property in 1930, coming to amass a considerable portfolio by the 1940s. Goedde, as a resident of nearby Vinita Park, had a vested interest in the continued success and viability of the Wellston commercial district, so he worked closely with Penney's executives to retain the store as an anchor tenant among his numerous commercial holdings in the area.

The conditions that made the original store at 5976 Easton overcrowded were the exact reasons the company chose to locate the store's new building on the same block. Situated at a nexus of transportation modes, City Block 3837 had ready access to streetcars on its north and west in addition to being located near suburban automobile thoroughfares. Proximity to the Hodiamont and Wellston streetcar lines, which terminated less than one block to the west, was an essential consideration in the decision for the store to remain in the Wellston Loop. Given that streetcars would not serve more far-flung suburban locales, Lawrence Goedde and Penney's executives agreed that the location's assets were such that relocating the store to another community would be inappropriate.

Goedde approached the J. C. Penney assignment with passion, acquiring property at 5930-36 Easton in two transactions on July 5th, 1946, and later transferring the parcel to his holding company LOG Investment in 1948. At this time, the site contained two-story commercial buildings constructed only a few decades earlier. On February 28th, 1948, demolition permits for the existing "brick stores and tenement" granted Aalco Wrecking permission to begin clearing the site for new construction. Shortly thereafter, both the Post-Dispatch and Globe-Democrat reported that construction of the new Wellston J.C. Penney store was underway. Two months later on May 19th, 1948, building permit 10674 articulated the scope of the new construction project: a "two story brick department store" would soon rise, providing Modern quarters for the neighborhood store. May 20th, 1948 brought news in the Daily Record that George Cousins Contracting would build the 100 by 200 foot structure to a design by local architect William P. McMahon, who at this time collaborated with his sons.

Fresh from wartime drafting work at Laister-Kauffmann Aircraft Corporation, seventy-three year-old William Preston McMahon (1875-1955) accepted the 1948 Wellston J.C. Penney commission, which would become a masterwork of his career.

Born in St. Louis on March 17th, 1875 to Irish immigrant and painting contractor John McMahon, William P. McMahon began studies at age 17 in drafting at Ranken Technical College. Later serving as a draftsman for local architect Ernest Preisler beginning in 1893, he opened a private architectural practice in the Wainwright Building in 1907. He received commissions for single-family homes and multiple dwelling tenements in revival styles throughout the 1910s, working primarily in the west central and northern portions of St. Louis City and nearby areas of St. Louis County including the Parkview subdivision of University City. A two-story brick store and tenement building at 5752-54 Easton Avenue from 1909 reflects the undistinguished nature of his early commercial designs. Despite being rejected by the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects for membership in 1917, McMahon continued to have a successful career, designing many noted cultural and religious facilities, including Annie Malone's Poro College for cosmetology products education in the Ville neighborhood of St. Louis. Another important institutional commission was Our Lady of Lourdes Church in University City, which McMahon designed in 1917 during a brief collaboration with architect Guy Study.

With the onset of World War I, McMahon took a job at a local steel company as a draftsman, designing industrial facilities for wartime production. Upon the conclusion of the war, he returned to private practice only to suspend work for one year during the Great Depression. Following this suspension of work, he closed his downtown office and began to operate out of his home. By 1932, McMahon relocated to Clayton and opened a new office on Forsyth, which he operated with his son Bernard, who was a recent graduate of the Washington University School of Architecture. During this time, the firm received commissions for institutional projects, including renovations to the University City Hall and plans for the St. Mary Magdalene School in St. Louis. In the early 1940s, the McMahons designed renovations to the rectory and school at St. Joseph's Church in Clayton.

During World War II, a lack of private commissions led William P. McMahon to take a job with Laister-Kauffmann Aircraft Corporation, a manufacturer of innovative cargo gliders. Just as he had done during World War I, McMahon put his drafting and design expertise to work in a modern industrial setting. Between 1941 and 1945, the Laister-Kauffmann Corporation had contracts with the Army Air Corps to produce its innovative "Trojan Horse" cargo glider, which could land in a shorter space than powered cargo planes and more efficiently load and unload cargo through a back hatch below its fixed wings. Following his work drafting aerodynamic modem aircraft, William P. McMahon approached the Wellston J.C. Penney Building commission with vigor, aggressively conveying his mastery of Modern design. In collaboration with his son, Bernard, William P. McMahon would apply his newfound appreciation for Modernism in the design of Wellston's 1948 J.C. Penney Store.

The exact opening date of the new store building is unknown, but the city issued a building permit for a $12,000 concrete parking lot at the rear of the store on April 9th, 1949. On May 3rd, 1949, another permit for installation of the permanent J. C. Penney sign on the spandrel above the store's inset entrance suggests that the facility was finished slightly over a year after construction began. The Post-Dispatch reported:

Moving into the new building will constitute an expansion of operations for Penney, which already has a large store on Easton Avenue, a little farther west. The personnel of the company's present store will form the nucleus of an enlarged staff to be required in the new building.

Spaces in the new facility served functions specific to the new store, according to the Globe-Democrat: "The basement, first and second floors will be devoted to general merchandising. A restaurant will be located in the basement, and executive offices will be on the balcony."

Manager Roy Johnson oversaw the successful move from 5976 to 5930 Easton before transferring to California in 1950. Dale Patrick, a Penney's manager from Camden, New Jersey, became the Wellston manager in November of 1950 in time for the store's second holiday shopping season. Encouraged by J. C. Penney's $600,000" investment in the area, investors from other real estate firms began to purchase properties on Easton Avenue. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported on June 5th, 1949 that a 100-foot-wide parcel containing stores and offices just one block from the Wellston Penney's sold to a New York investment company for $233,000, speaking to the continued vitality and vibrancy of the commercial district anchored by the new department store.

Aided by its accessibility to customers who traveled by car, the Wellston J.C. Penney grew its customer base throughout the 1950s. By this time, Penney's had four St. Louis locations; the Wellston and Hampton Village stores were the newest and largest. To meet customer demand, Goedde Real Estate received an occupancy permit for a lower tier of parking immediately south of the original parking lot in April of 1953; (the company cleared this land at 5937-57 Wells Avenue of its "two story tenements" in March of 1952). Encouraged by increased sales, the Wellston store under manager Patrick expanded product offerings beyond its core clothing business to include garden, beauty, and electronics departments, which helped Penney's to attract even more business from downtown department stores.

In an August 10th, 1956 opinion piece in the Globe-Democrat, Laurence E. Mallinckrodt, president of downtown's Scruggs-Vandervoort-Barney department store, acknowledged the challenges presented by "so-called discount houses and certain national chains," arguing:

Department stores, which because of heavy capital investments in downtown properties, were cautious in acting on the trend toward recentralization [sic], yet moved aggressively to improve their position in the face of chain and supermarket competition and more than maintain their proportion of the consumer's dollar.

Mallinckrodt explains that downtown department stores were hesitant to embrace decentralized, suburban retailing. While downtown stores finally opened their first branch locations in the same year as the completion of J.C. Penney's 1948 Wellston facility, Penney's history of retailing in St. Louis neighborhoods gave it a competitive advantage in the early post-war era. The Globe-Democrat confirmed this trend toward suburban shopping: "From 1954 to 1958, retail sales in the central business district declined 3.3 percent, while sales in the...metropolitan area advanced 13.6 percent. Sales in the area outside the central business district rose 15.9 percent." The Wellston J.C. Penney capitalized on its location in a dense, urban commercial district adjacent to suburbs, taping the strengths of both markets.

At the end of 1955, Louis Benn, a Penney's manager from Charleston, West Virginia, succeeded store manager Dale Patrick. Benn, upon his arrival, noted that the Wellston store was "crowded" and in need of an expansion. In 1967, a warehouse addition (now demolished) on the parcel west of the store helped alleviate the overcrowding. With coincident improvements to the interior, the Wellston J. C. Penney became a "New Image" store, along with new locations at Northwest Plaza and South County Shopping Center, which came to feature the company's highest-quality merchandise. Goedde Real Estate remained the owner and manager of the property, serving as an attentive steward for William P. McMahon's exceptional building. By 1976, however, trends that enabled the Wellston store to be successful through the 1950s and 60s propelled shoppers even further westward; changing neighborhood demographics hastened the company's departure. September 11th, 1976 brought the store's closure and the end of the building's occupancy. Goedde Real Estate retained the property until 1998, at which time the company forfeited the deed. In 2000, the deed transferred to Realty Renaissance Resources, a company that hopes to spark renewed interest in preserving this once lively area of the city.

Building Description

The Wellston J.C. Penney Building, built in 1948 and located at 5930 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive (formerly Easton Avenue) in St. Louis, Missouri, reads as a three-level International Style department store with full basement and roof level. Faced entirely in white stucco, the 200 by 100-foot reinforced concrete and brick structure employs many features that typify Modern design, including cylindrical columns, narrow bands of horizontal ribbon windows, and a floating cornice. Designed by the firm of William P. McMahon & Sons, the building is the product of a masterful collaboration between William P. McMahon and his son, Bernard, who each brought unique strengths to the project. Extensive glazing on the first level fills the inset entryway, which has a terrazzo floor and granite-faced columns. On the rear, a second entrance faces a two-tiered parking lot located across an alley. The east and west elevations lack windows and are completely unadorned.

The Wellston J.C. Penney Building has a rectangular footprint that runs 100' along Dr. Martin Luther King Drive and 200' toward an alley at the south end of the site. The primary facade stands even with the sidewalk, maintaining the building line of nearby commercial structures. At the rear of the approximately 100' by 234' site, a staircase projects from back entry doors to a 15' wide alley that forms the southern boundary of the site. Grass fills the ground between the building and the alley on either side of the rear staircase. Across the alley, a two-tiered concrete parking lot at 5937-57 Wells Avenue has a footprint of 234' by 240'. City Block 3837 slopes upward from south to north and from west to east.

William P. McMahon & Sons's design for the Wellston J.C. Penney typifies the International Style of Modernism through its rejection of ornamentation, incorporation of horizontal ribbon windows with cantilevered surrounds and dependence on regularity to organize the primary facade rather than axial symmetry. On the street level, a plate glass display window (now boarded) with a granite base and two cylindrical granite-faced columns divide the primary facade into four bays. A narrow section of stucco wall with an incised grid and granite base frames the easternmost corner of the display window, while a smooth stucco wall with a granite base punctuated by a boarded-over opening frames the western corner of the first floor. The inset primary entrance with two sets of double doors (now missing), a black terrazzo floor and angled display windows atop granite bases fill three bays west of the large display window.

The second and third levels of the primary facade are identical. On each level, a horizontal ribbon of metal sash windows with projecting surrounds punctuates the wall above the inset entrance. Metal sash windows of two widths comprise the glazed band; two mullions frame a hinged panel above a horizontal bar in each window. Stucco on the facade's westernmost bay is smooth, while an incised rectangular grid divides the three easternmost bays into panels. Cantilevered window surrounds on the horizontal band of ribbon windows begin flat against the smooth stucco wall on the west and gradually project outward from west to east, echoing the site that slopes upward from west to east.

Inoperable lights in the horizontal window bands frame the primary facade's two columns, which continue upward from the ground level on the interior of the building as they continue to divide the primary facade into four bays. Above the roofline, these columns support a reinforced concrete canopy that serves as a partial cornice that floats above the western half of the building; cutouts with rounded edges frame views of the sky over the two westernmost bays. The canopy attaches to a stair tower that projects above the roofline on the west. A square window with cantilevered surrounds punctuates the paneled wall to the east of the horizontal window band. Other features on the primary facade include a metal flagpole that projects above the roofline and attaches with brackets to the primary facade over these square windows, a non-original rolling metal grille over the ground-floor windows and entrance and a ghost sign for "J.C. Penney Co." on the spandrel between the ground level and second-floor window band.

The east and west facades lack glazing and have smooth stucco walls. On the west facade, a gap in the stucco facing (from a demolished adjacent building) reveals the structure's brick party wall. Stair towers and elevator shafts extend above the roofline on both elevations.

On the rear facade, a centered external chimney projects from the smooth stucco wall. A cantilevered, flat-roofed canopy attaches to the wall east of the chimney, covering two sets of double glass doors that serve as the rear customer entrance. Fifteen concrete stairs with curving sidewalls and black metal railings descend from the back entrance, facing the parking lot across a 15' wide alley. Three black metal posts on the east wall of the staircase support this projecting hood, which cantilevers eastward over a large air vent in the building's south wall; three rectangular cutouts (partially covered) in the canopy frame views of the sky, as on the primary elevation's roof level canopy and floating cornice. The building's east wall extends above the roofline, serving as a parapet visible from this elevation.

Like on the other elevations, smooth stucco covers the rear facade. Industrial metal sash windows, aligned horizontally and vertically, punctuate the wall asymmetrically on either side of the central chimney and entry. Two horizontal bars divide each window into thirds, while two mullions frame a centered hopper window. The downward slope of the lot exposes the basement level on this elevation, while a rolling metal garage door provides access to this level for deliveries from the alley.

The Wellston J.C. Penney Building's unique interior volumes remain largely unchanged from their original appearance despite the removal of some original asphalt tile flooring in 1967. A second-floor balcony that originally served as the manager's office overlooks the large first floor, while stairs and elevators provide access to the third level and basement. Overall, the interior retains integrity from William P. McMahon & Sons's 1948 design.

Wellston J.C. Penney Building, St. Louis Missouri Front elevation looking southeast (2008)
Front elevation looking southeast (2008)

Wellston J.C. Penney Building, St. Louis Missouri Rear elevation looking northeast (2008)
Rear elevation looking northeast (2008)

Wellston J.C. Penney Building, St. Louis Missouri Rear elevation looking northwest (2008)
Rear elevation looking northwest (2008)

Wellston J.C. Penney Building, St. Louis Missouri Parking lot looking slightly northwest (2008)
Parking lot looking slightly northwest (2008)