Vacant Department Store in South Carolina

W.L. Hill Department Store, Sharon South Carolina
Date added: July 30, 2023 Categories:

William Lawrence Hill (1866-1953), a "well-known Sharon merchant and farmer," was a young man when he first entered retailing around 1888. By the time of his death in 1953, he was regarded as "the dean of merchants in York County." During a career that spanned six and one-half decades, he built a successful empire that included substantial land holdings, cotton farming and ginning, grain milling, banking, and retailing.

In or around 1913, he erected what remains today the largest building and grandest commercial structure in the tiny town of Sharon, South Carolina (1910 population 374). In order to succeed, Hill had to, and did, draw customers from around the region, and two states. The store attracted customers from as far away as Chester, Gaffney and York in South Carolina and Shelby and Gastonia in North Carolina.

To fulfill his customer's desires, Hill stocked a large inventory of goods, ranging from meat to millinery and from shoes to Chevrolets. Dry goods, groceries, meat, and shoes were sold on the first floor. Ladies ascended the grand staircase to reach the millinery department, while gentlemen handled hardware and farm implements on the second floor. Buggies and wagons could be bought on the third floor. Feed and seed were supplied for the farming community. An authorized automobile dealer, Hill sold Chevrolets at one time, and later Fords. He installed a tank and sold gasoline and also dealt in parts for the automobiles as well as the buggies and wagons.

Merchandise was delivered in quantity by rail car and delivered directly to his warehouse. Hill had paid for a rail spur that ran behind a warehouse building he owned across the street from the store. Goods were held there, as well as in the basement of the store. With this arrangement, Hill was able to buy goods in quantity, at lower prices, and be assured of always having a full inventory. Undoubtedly, this was appealing to the customers who had traveled considerable distances to shop with him.

Hill catered to the needs of an overwhelmingly rural population. He was able to reach this goal by keeping up with fashions, by maintaining a complete inventory of a wide range of goods, and through clever marketing. He had other concerns, all of which were conducted on the premises. He ginned and stored cotton and ground corn on the property, and operated a bank in the back of the store itself. Even the local telephone exchange was located in the building. When a farmer came to town to conduct business with Hill, undoubtedly his wife would be inclined to come along and do a little shopping. She could be assured of finding up-to-date fashions and all of her domestic necessities.

The building directly reflects its function as a fashionable emporium. The exterior was designed to be grand and imposing, and relate to the consumer that fine things could be had inside. The main selling space was elegant, with its grand cherry staircase, pressed tin ceiling, mirrored, paneled columns, and rows upon rows of display cases. The bank teller's cages, once aligned across the back of the store, are ornate, yet rich and sturdy. Even the walk-in vault, which was visible from the selling floor, suggested importance and stability.

As it stands today, the W. L. Hill store is virtually unaltered and completely intact. Even without the display cases overflowing with dress goods or high-topped shoes, one does not need to use much imagination to understand the glamor and excitement of shopping at Hill's.

Throughout the nineteenth century, general stores predominated across America, especially in rural areas. They were prolific, but small, and stocked the basic necessities without much variety. By the end of the century, however, manufactured goods were on the increase, and consumers were becoming discontented with the high prices and lack of selection found in country stores.

During the period from 1860 to 1910, several factors combined to create an atmosphere more conducive to marketing goods on a larger scale. General population growth, better transportation systems, more available capital, a higher standard of living, and with it an increased demand for quantity and quality goods were all precursors of a change to come. By the early 1890s, the department store genre had evolved and was experiencing a period of tremendous growth throughout America. Thousands were established during the quarter century lasting from 1905 to 1930. By definition, a department store is "a large retail shop, centrally located in a city, doing a big volume of business, and offering a wide range of merchandise, including clothing for women and children, small household wares, and usually dry goods and home furnishings." Naturally, the earliest and largest stores were located in urban areas, but it was not long before smaller merchants in less-populated areas followed the trend.

Inherent in this new system of offering mass quantities of goods for sale was an increased need for creative marketing. Customers were enticed by displays and advertisements, selection, and style. The open floor plan in a department store was no doubt purposely planned in order to tempt the buyer by encouraging her to become drawn to something over in the next department. Buildings had to be larger and grander. They had to be eye-catching, inviting and appealing. They had to be places that one would want to spend time (and money) in.

It was in this context, during the most prolific period of development for department stores in America, that the W. L. Hill Store opened for business in 1913.

Building Description

The W. L. Hill store (c. 1913) is a three-story brick department store located in the small town of Sharon, South Carolina. Conspicuous for its size and prominent siting, it stands at a bend in State Route 49 as it enters the town from the north. It is by far the largest building in the town, which is in a predominately rural area.

The walls of the building are laid up in common-bond of brick that was handmade on-site using local materials. There are three stories and three prominent divisions across the facade. Raised brickwork, resembling pairs of engaged pilasters, mark the divisions between the three sections and also the edges of the facade. Each section has one bay in the first story and three bays on each of the second and third stories. The parapet roof is enhanced by decorative corbelling.

There are two recessed entries on the ground level, located in the two end bays. They are both paired glass doors topped by two-pane transoms. The original plate glass windows are still intact beneath a temporary covering of vertical-board siding applied by the current owner as a security precaution. The windows are one-over-one double-hung sash, many of which are replacements.

The side (east and west) and rear (south) elevations are also laid up in common-bond brick and punctuated by one-over-one double-hung sash windows. There are three small fixed-sash, arched windows along the front half of each side elevation (in lieu of the larger double-hung sashes). The reason for this was that it left the interior walls free for much-valued display space. There is a side door in each of the two side and rear elevations. The lot is sloped to the south, so that the basement is fenestrated only on the rear facade.

The interior is notable for its solid oak floors and the grand cherry staircase which dominates the center of the first floor. It rises about two-thirds the height of the first floor to a landing from which two side stairways split off perpendicularly. The third floor is reached by two smaller, simpler staircases that rise up from either side of the rear of the second story. The second and third floors are O-shaped, leaving the center of the store open to receive light from the clerestory window in the roof. Paneled square columns, some of which are mirrored, support both the second and third floors. The first floor has an ornate pressed tin ceiling.

An original manually operated freight elevator stands in the rear (southwest) corner, and rises from the basement up to the third floor. There are built-in, walk-in vaults in the center back of both the basement and first floor. The first-floor vault secured the cash for the store and "The Planters Bank" (W. L. Hill, President), which was located in the rear of the store. Inside the vault stands a "Cannonball" safe set in concrete. The original teller's cages, made of cherry wood and Florentine glass, are still on the premises (presently in storage). The basement vault served as a repository for records of the store's business.

The only substantial alteration to the building is a partition that partially encloses the other rear (southeast) corner. During the 1950s, the local telephone exchange was located in the building, and the partition was erected in order to create a sound barrier for the switchboard operators. Otherwise, the fabric of the building is virtually original and the condition is excellent.

The ruins of a cotton warehouse stand on the property near the store. Although the exact date of construction is unknown, it appears to be contemporary with the store. Typical for a structure of its type, the walls and roof were frame while the foundation and fire walls were fabricated of masonry. Only the brick portions remain.

W.L. Hill Department Store, Sharon South Carolina

W.L. Hill Department Store, Sharon South Carolina

W.L. Hill Department Store, Sharon South Carolina

W.L. Hill Department Store, Sharon South Carolina

W.L. Hill Department Store, Sharon South Carolina

W.L. Hill Department Store, Sharon South Carolina