Watt and Shand Department Store - Bon-Ton Store, Lancaster Pennsylvania

Date added: June 01, 2022 Categories: Pennsylvania Retail Department Store
View of Buildings # 1 and 2, north, northwest and west elevations, camera facing southeast, taken from seventh floor of the Griest Building (1998)

The Watt and Shand store was founded in 1878 by three Scots immigrants, Peter T. Watt, James Shand, and Gilbert Thompson. Peter T. Watt (1850-1921) was born in Stronsay, in the Orkney Islands off Scotland in 1850. After completing a four-year apprenticeship with a dry goods firm, he emigrated to Boston in 1870. While working there in a dry goods store. Watt met Gilbert Thompson (1846-1879) another Scottish immigrant employed in the dry goods business. In 1872, Watt and Thompson left Boston together to join the staff of the dry goods firm of Brown, Thomson, and McWhirter in Hartford, Connecticut. At Brown, Thomson, and McWhirter, Watt and Thompson met James Shand (1849-1920), also a native Scot. The three men began planning a partnership to open a dry goods store of their own.

In the summer of 1877, Watt, Shand, and Thompson scouted cities in New York and Pennsylvania for a site to locate their own store. Thompson and Shand made a two-day visit to Lancaster in the fall of that year and decided it was the place best suited to their needs. After consulting a real estate agent, Samuel Burns of the firm of Bausman and Burns, they determined that no appropriate store buildings were available in close proximity to Penn Square. They returned to Hartford with Burns' pledge to contact them when an adequate facility became available.

In December 1877, the owner of the New York Store at 20-22 E. King Street ran an advertisement in the Lancaster Daily Intelligencer announcing that his store would close the following February and that it was available for lease. Located one-half block from the square, the site was suitable to Watt, Shand, and Thompson. On February 23, they ran an advertisement in the Lancaster Daily Intelligencer announcing that: "Mssrs. Watt, Shand, and Thompson would respectfully inform the citizens of Lancaster and vicinity that they have leased the New York Store, 20 & 22 East King Street, where they will open on Saturday, March 9, an entire new and select stock of foreign and domestic dry goods, fancy goods and notions. Their long experience in the business and knowledge of the markets will enable them to offer reliable goods at low prices. Ladies would do well to defer purchasing spring goods until they examine their stock and compare prices."

Watt, Shand and Thompson's New York Store opened for business as planned on March 9, 1878 with nine employees in a thirty-by-sixty-foot space. The staff consisted of Watt, Shand and Thompson, each of whom manned the store's counters; a Mr. Wilson, who had come to Lancaster with the others from Hartford; three sales girls; and two cash boys, "one of whom, Howard B. Schenck, would still be behind the counter when the store celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1928."

Gilbert Thompson died unexpectedly in the fall of 1879, leaving Watt and Shand as the company's surviving partners. After purchasing Thompson's share of the business from his widow, the firm was changed its name in 1880 to Watt, Shand, and Company.

Business was successful enough to require larger quarters by 1880. Watt and Shand purchased High and Martin's China Hall, located one block west at 8-10 E. King Street, from Isaac Stirk and moved their store. 8-10 E. King was a three-story, three-bay wide late-Victorian commercial building with an elaborate facade. In 1885, Watt and Shand purchased the adjoining property to the west, 6 E. King St., and again expanded their operation. The new building was remodeled and the facade of 8-10 E. King Street was extended across its three-bay front. Only the first floor of the combined building was used as retail space, with the remaining levels leased to other tenants. An advertisement for the firm that year announced that Watt, Shand, and Company's New York Store offered "the largest assortment of dry goods in Central Pennsylvania." Later in 1885, the name of the firm was shortened to Watt and Shand.

Continuing the expansion of their facilities to meet their increasing business, a satellite store was opened in Columbia in 1892. In 1896, Watt and Shand acquired the Prangley Building, 2-4 E. King St., prominently located adjacent to the Lancaster store on the southeastern corner of Penn Square. Noted local architect C. Emlen Urban was engaged to design a new building for the site. The Beaux Arts style building Urban created was intended to make a bold architectural statement about the stability and prominence of the store. Its success in that regard was confirmed by the repetition of its design as the store grew still larger in coming decades. The 1897 Sanborn Insurance Map of the city shows "excavation for brick bld'g" underway.

After the new building was completed in 1898, work soon commenced to remodel Watt's and Shand's earlier buildings to match the new building. The 1885 facade was removed, an additional floor level was added, and Urban's design was extended east. Work was completed by mid-1900.

Improved transportation to the city from outlying areas of the county resulted in increased patronage of stores in downtown Lancaster. By 1900, trolley lines were extended as far as Columbia. Business continued to expand, and Watt and Shand followed suit in 1905, acquiring three adjoining parcels to the south at 23 Penn Square. Rohrer's Liquor Store, Shenck's Hotel, and Marshall and Rengier's hardware store were replaced with an addition to Watt and Shand's store. The new portion, while adding minimally to the building's street frontage, added considerable interior space, including a basement level that opened at grade to the rear of the building, and allowed for the creation of men's clothing and house furnishings departments. The new addition, which continued the practice of expanding the original Urban design was placed in service in 1907, the same year an overhead sprinkler system was installed.

In 1908, a stable complex at 18-22 S. Christian Street burned. Watt and Shand purchased the site and built a "large, double, three-story warehouse". The building served as stock storage and housed the shipping and receiving operations for the store. With the store's physical expansion came a larger staff. In 1885, Charles M. Shertzer joined the firm as a partner, as did William Sullivan in 1901. Four of Peter Watt's nephews, Edward, Peter, David, and John, were brought from Scotland between 1898 and 1902. James Shand's son William joined the firm after graduating from college in 1909, as did his brother James Shand Jr. in 1919, and Watt's son Charles G. Watt in 1910.

"Thirty Years of Progress," described the Watt and Shand department store in 1913 as having "twenty departments, each a complete store in itself..." Between 175 and 200 employees worked in the complex which encompassed more than 75,000 square feet of actual retail space plus additional warehouse and support facilities.

Watt and Shand was incorporated in 1915, with Peter T. Watt as President, James Shand as Vice-President, William Shand as Treasurer, and Charles G. Watt as Treasurer. In 1916, Watt and Shand purchased 13 - 17 S. Queen Street. Apparently acquired for future expansion, as the site provided fifty-eight feet of S. Queen Street frontage and was contiguous to the rear of the Watt and Shand store, the site was not developed immediately as part of the overall department store complex. Photographs taken in the late 1940s indicate that a two-story commercial building was constructed on the site replacing two dwellings shown on earlier Sanborn maps. The building appears to have been rented to other businesses until Watt and Shand replaced it with an expansion of their store in 1951.

On March 18, 1918, James Shank, P. T. and Laura Watt, James Shand, and P. T. Watt, "partners trading as Watt and Shand," transferred the Watt and Shand real estate holdings as they existed at that time to the Watt and Shand corporation. William Sullivan, Charles Shertzer, and Peter Watt joined the board of directors in 1919. In 1920, James Shand, Jr. was added to the board to replace his recently deceased father. After the death of Peter T. Watt in 1921, Charles G. Watt succeeded him as President.

In 1920, Watt and Shand Corp. purchased the former Rohrer Building, 24-26 Penn Square, from George R. and Adelaide C. Rohrer. This acquisition gave them almost complete frontage along the south side of the square from mid-block on E. King Street to mid-block on S. Queen Street. The only exception was a small corner lot occupied by the Leaman Building. A new addition to the store, matching Urban's Beaux Arts design opened on the Rohrer site in 1924. Also in that year, the first of four fur storage vaults was installed within the complex. One freight and two passenger elevators were added in 1925.

The final corner lot on which the Leaman Building was located, 27 Penn Square, was acquired from Drossos A. Skyllas on April 15, 1925, and a new addition was constructed to give the building a continuous facade from 8-10 E. King Street to 11 S. Queen Street. At some time in the mid to late 1920s, Watt and Shand remodeled the interior of the complex: "The interior of the store is the work of C. A. Wheeler of Chicago, who is one of the foremost architects in the country, specializing on department store interiors." Total floor area by this time reached approximately 150,000 square feet, of which approximately 100,000 square feet was used as sales space. Employment reached three hundred.

While store expansion halted and there were several lean years, Watt and Shand withstood the harsh economic conditions of the Depression. Watt and Shand was forced to sell its Columbia store in February 1932 to raise cash. Sales picked up by 1936 and expansion resumed. The adjacent building at 12 E. King Street was purchased and entrances were cut through to the main store on all of its three floors. Initially, a shoe store occupied the main floor and, in 1960, Watt and Shand acquired Appel and Weber, a local jewelry store, and moved it to this location. Additional property was acquired at 24-26 S. Christian Street from John M. and Cora M. Ammon in July 1937. A building at 24-26 S. Christian Street was remodeled for use as a delivery room on its first floor and a stock room on its second floor.

In 1938, Watt and Shand celebrated their sixtieth anniversary. To commemorate the occasion, a bronze plaque depicting the first Watt and Shand Store was unveiled during the store's celebration.

Continued business growth warranted another major expansion of the store in 1940. A new four-story addition was constructed at the rear of the main store building: "The south wall of the main building was straightened, so that all four floors and the basement of the store were of equal area, adding some 25,000 square feet of space. The second-floor fixtures were rearranged and more space was allotted to the various selling departments. New floor coverings and lighting effects were installed, and a lounge for women customers. On the third floor, model rooms for furniture display were constructed and on the fourth floor completely new floor-covering display was installed. A recreation room for women employees, employment office, and first-aid room were also provided."

During World War Two, there was little expansion of the store's operations. After the war, Watt and Shand began to expand again. In 1947, the store's restaurant was enlarged and remodeled under the name Rendezvous. A major appliance, radio, and television department was added in 1948 and the basement was remodeled. Later, it was announced that a four-story addition would be completed at 13-17 S. Queen Street. Work began on 1 April 1950 and completed in 1951, adding 25,000 square more feet of space, bringing the total floor area of the Watt and Shand complex to 287,000 square feet.

Watt and Shand acquired the former A. S. Groff Building, 19-21 S. Queen Street, on February 24, 1960 from Alpheaus S. and Ella L. Groff. By 1963, the number of store departments reach 60. The July 1967 issue of the "Watt and Shand Store Topics" announced that work had started on the construction of a passageway to the third floor of "the old A. S. Groff Building." The upper floors of the house were converted for use as a recreation area for employees of the store. A final addition was made to the complex in 1972.

In February 1992, the Watt and Shand firm was acquired by the York, Pennsylvania-based Bon-Ton Stores, Inc. The store was soon renamed The Bon-Ton and, except for a neon sign atop the building, the Watt and Shand name disappeared from Lancaster's Penn Square after one hundred and fourteen years of continuous operation. The transaction added Watt and Shand's two stores, the downtown flagship and a satellite store that had been added when the Park City Center Mall was built in the 1980s, to Bon-Ton's seventy-store chain of department stores in Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, and West Virginia. On March 4, 1995, Bon-Ton closed the former downtown Watt and Shand department store, citing heavy financial losses. The building remained vacant until it was demolished in 2007.

In addition to its retail complex. Watt and Shand also acquired additional noncontiguous property for warehousing and later parking. Four houses at 39-43 S. Christian Street had been purchased in 1921. In 1937, a three-story building on E. Mifflin Street was acquired and converted into a furniture warehouse. On December 1, 1961, James Shand signed a contract on behalf of Center Square Realty Corp. with the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Lancaster to develop a parking deck of "at least 600 spaces." The Redevelopment Authority designated the site as "Downtown Renewal Project #1" and assumed responsibility for acquiring the land at the northwest corner of S. Duke and E. Vines Streets and relocating any residents or businesses located on the site. Center Square Realty Corp. was required to clear the site of all buildings and to erect the parking deck within two years of signing the agreement. The project was formally announced in 1962. The new parking deck was completed in mid-1963 and opened on August 18 of that year. A covered walkway from the parking deck spanned S. Christian Street and provided direct access to the Watt and Shand store. Shortly after its completion, the parking garage was sold to the Lancaster Parking Authority for use as a public parking garage.

The Watt and Shand Department Store played an important role in local commerce and as a major employer from the time of its opening in 1878 until it closed in 1995. The store established a number of regional trends in retailing, including its early use of a "one price system," its cash-only policy, and its extensive use of advertising. Watt and Shand became one of Lancaster's first true department stores and eventually became the city's largest department store in terms of physical size.

Upon the creation of the company in 1878, Watt, Shand and Thompson immediately utilized several business practices that were innovative for Lancaster at the time. According to a Watt and Shand pamphlet entitled "Thirty Years of Progress," published in 1913: "The one-price system, which was made one of the cardinal principles of the new firm, was almost unheard of here, and nobody expected to pay more than two-thirds of the price first asked for an article." Watt and Shand marked a set price on each of the articles it sold, avoiding the bargaining process altogether. In addition, the firm operated on a cash-only basis. Previously, stores in Lancaster commonly extended credit to customers and utilized credit to purchase their stock. The cash-only policy saved the firm money and they passed the savings on to their customers. Watt and Shand was also among the first local stores to advertise heavily. Largely as a result of these practices, the firm's first year was very successful.

The department store, where a wide variety of goods were sold in separate and distinct departments, is generally credited as having been first developed in Paris in 1865. Shortly thereafter, Chicago's Marshall Field established the first department store in the United States. Department stores began to develop in other cities in the 1870s and 1880s. Watt and Shand adopted the practice of creating separate departments soon after it opened by curtaining off a "shawl room" at the rear of its store in its first year of operation, 1878.

Advertisements by 1885 suggested that "every department was a specialty" and when ready-made ladies garments were introduced in 1889 they were organized into coats, suits, dresses, and underwear departments. Three new departments, millinery, shoes, and carpets, were added in 1900.

A 1916 description of the Watt and Shand Store stated: "Standing conspicuously in the front ranks of [Lancaster's] mercantile institutions is the New York Store, of which the firm of Watt & Shand, are proprietors. This store, or more accurately speaking, these stores, for there are in reality more than a dozen stores contained in this mammoth building, serves as a drawing card not only for all the population of this city, but for the residents of rural districts for many miles around." The article cited the size of the store as 75,000 square feet and listed the following departments: "dry goods, millinery, shoes, men's clothing and men's furnishings, ladies' and children's cloaks, suits and ready to wear garments of all kinds, art department, carpets, rugs, drapery, house furnishings of every descriptions, jewelry and novelties of many kinds." The size of the sales staff had reached one hundred fifty. "This store is unquestionably the largest retail establishment in the city...."

In 1928, an article in the Lancaster New Era commemorating the store's 50th anniversary suggested that Lancaster's proximity to the larger trading centers of United States gave it an advantage in keeping touch with the national market. Watt and Shand's buyers could travel to New York one day and return home the next. Watt and Shand was affiliated with the Dry Goods Union, "composed of a combination of progressive stores throughout the eastern part of the country. "This organization maintains a central buying office in New York City, which employs scouts who are constantly alert to the ever changing mode of miladys apparel."

In addition to its innovative business practices. Watt and Shand also introduced a number of technological advances to Lancaster's retail business as well. In 1915, the store was the first in Lancaster to install a cashier tube system to convey cash taken in from sales to a centralized collection point. In 1949, Lancaster's first escalators were installed leading from the main to to the third floor of the Watt and Shand store. The escalators were extended to 4th floor in 1954.

In addition to its position as one of Lancaster's largest and most prominent retail establishments. Watt and Shand also served as a center for community activity. Often sales promotions would feature special programming, a naturalist exhibition occurring in 1898, an art exhibit in 1908, and elaborate anniversary sales occurring annually. The facility included a soda fountain by 1911 and a restaurant was eventually (by 1947) added catering to shoppers and Lancaster's large daytime downtown population. A local newspaper described the opening of the store's sixtieth-anniversary celebration in 1938: "At 12:45 Wednesday, the stagecoach drew up in front of Watt & Shand's store, the seven girls dismounted and proceeded around to South Queen Street, where at the signal of the first of six aerial bombs, the windows were unveiled one by one as the girls proceeded around the angle of the square to the windows on East King Street. The last of the six bombs was the signal for the doors to open and the sale to start."

Watt and Shand was recognized throughout much of the time of its operation as the largest department store in the city of Lancaster, both in terms of its physical size and its impact on local commerce. There were several other department stores in the community, none of which was housed in anywhere near as large a facility. Hager and Brothers, a firm started as a dry goods store in 1821 and renowned as the oldest department store in continuous family ownership on the same site in the United States when it closed in 1977, was less that one-half the size of Watt and Shand. Several additional department stores, all smaller than Hager's, operated in Lancaster during the early-twentieth century. Return E. Fahnestock founded a department store on E. King Street (now demolished) which was originally named for him, and eventually became known as Garvin's. The Beyer Store (later Darmstaetter's), at 35-37 N. Queen Street was built for Beyer and Company as a department store in 1910. Circa 1925, the first tenant in Edward Grant Eicholtz's rental commercial property at 43 N. Queen Street was the Ross Store, the first chain department store in Lancaster.