Historic Structures

Dunham's Department Store, Trenton New Jersey

Date added: May 11, 2018 Categories: New Jersey Commercial Department Store Retail

Dunham's Department Store began as the Scudder and Dunham Dry Goods Store at 13 North Broad Street in 1883. The firm's success and growth made it Trenton's largest retailer by the 1930's, and it dominated this block of town in the mid-20th century.

The core of Dunham's was three adjacent Italianate style commercial buildings at 11, 13, and 15 North Broad Street, built as a commercial block in 1867, known at the time as Lafayette Row. The storefronts were redesigned and the buildings of the row joined internally in 1905. Throughout the 20th century, Dunham's expanded their selling area and offices by purchasing adjacent buildings and creating internal access to them, although the core of the store remained at the original location on Broad Street. Dunham's aggressively pursued a program of modernization, remodelling and updating their buildings every decade. This could not reverse the movement to the suburbs of many of their customers in the 1950s and '60s, so Dunham's opened satellite stores in malls surrounding Trenton. The flagship store on Broad Street was closed in 1983.

After the Civil War, the old market house which had stood on Greene Street (now Broad Street) was demolished, and a rush of new building activity took place on both sides of the street. The Federal City Hall was completely remodelled to the Second Empire style. Across the street, a number of old buildings were demolished and replaced with the Lafayette Row in 1867. Lafayette Row initially contained four buildings, united behind a uniform brick facade with Italianate details. The first occupants of the Row were Thomas C. Hill's Fancy Cake Bakery at 11 North Broad; Alexander Manning's Furniture and Upholstery Store at 15 North Broad; and in the middle, the dry goods store of Henderson Scudder.

Scudder was an ambitious young man from Lawrenceville, New Jersey, who opened his own small grocery and dry goods store on State Street in Trenton in 1854. He prospered, and in 1867, was able to purchase a new four story brick building in Lafayette Row. He carried "ready made cloaks, sealskin saques, shawls [and] kid gloves, fine handkerchiefs, parasols, hosiery, collars, cuffs, underwear, and in fact, everything known to the trade".

In 1882, John Scudder and his partner Serlng P. Dunham bought the business. The Scudder and Dunham store at 13 North Broad continued the success of the previous firm. After John Scudder left the partnership in 1892, Serlng was joined by his son Edward. Renamed Serlng P. Dunham & Co., the firm weathered the Depression of 1893, and then embarked on a program of service-oriented merchandizing and physical expansion which soon made it the largest and best-known department store in the city.

By 1905, Dunham's had purchased and leased the adjacent stores of the old Lafayette Row, and expanded their retail space into it. At about the same time, the store bought another building in the block fronting on East State Street. Interconnected, Dunham's became an "L" shaped structure with exposure on two of downtown Trenton's busiest streets.

Dunham & Co. did not purchase the original store building from Henderson Scudder's estate until 1926. At that time, a modern storefront was put on the two adjoining Broad Street buildings. The renovations were designed by local architect William Klemann, who also designed the nearby Wallach Building a few years later.

The prosperity of the Roaring Twenties gave way to the Depression, and Dunham's faced bankruptcy. The store's assets were sold in 1934 to Charles Levy, a recent Wharton Business School graduate who had already made a name for himself with the Allied Department Store chain. Levy brought new business skills to Dunham's, but retained the old (and well recognized) name and kept Edward Dunham on as chairman of the board until his death in 1944. Levy and his friend Jules Aresty ran the store until 1974, and brought Dunham's to the peak of its success.

Embarking on an expansion program in 1937, their plans were halted by World War II, but not before Dunham's installed the largest air conditioning system in Trenton. Construction resumed in 1946, with renovation of the upper floors of the North Broad Street buildings. Dunham's gained a presence on East Hanover Street In 1951 when it took over the first floor shops in the former Trenton House Hotel. Several of the oldest buildings in the block bounded by Hanover, Warren, Broad, and State Streets were gradually purchased by the department store for use as storage space and service areas. The culmination of Dunham's expansion was the purchase of the adjacent Wallach Building for $1.5 million in 1954.

The first floor was absorbed into Dunham's selling floor; two upper floors were needed for the store's clerical staff. The Broad Street facade was still the store's main entrance, and in 1954, local architect Louis Kaplan was commissioned to remodel 1t yet again. At this time, the Italianate cornice and window moldings were removed in order to modernize the nearly century old structure.

In 1955, Dunham's celebrated their centennial, linking the modern department store to Henderson Scudder's dry goods store opened in 1854. During these festivities, Dunham's claimed to be New Jersey's oldest department store, but stressed the changes and modernization which were constantly taking place.

The decline of downtown Trenton in the 1960s and '70s was mirrored in the decreasing maintenance to the Dunham's buildings, and closure of various departments in the store. Dunham's opened stores in suburban malls and shopping centers outside of Trenton, thus aiding the abandonment of retailing in downtown. Sold to another retailer in 1983, the suburban stores were given an infusion of cash and new management; the original Dunham's was vacated and the property sold.