Former Five and Dime Department Store in TX


F. W. Woolworth Building, Fort Worth Texas
Date added: April 11, 2024 Categories:
North and west facades (date unknown)

The F.W. Woolworth Co. Building (1926), designed by W. G. Clarkson, reflects a period of great change and growth in Fort Worth's history - the years between World War I and World War II. These years were the last major period of economic growth for the city. This building also represents a juxtaposition of newly created wealth in Fort Worth and influence on spending through national social change which led to _ the expansion of retail in the U.S. This included a time of great expansion for the Woolworth Company as well as other chain store organizations which were becoming well established in the United States. Woolworth's epitomized this change from home sewing and locally based retailers to national chains offering a great assortment of mass-produced goods across the country at competitive prices. In June of 1925, the Fort Worth Press reported that the Fort Worth Woolworth store was to be one of the finest 5 and 10 cent stores in the south. This handsome Art Deco building was designed by the prominent architect Wiley G. Clarkson, head of one of the two largest architectural firms in Fort Worth during the 1920s and 1930s. Stylistically, this building responds to the changing architectural venues of the day, a transition from Classical and Beaux-Arts to Art Deco. Clarkson was known for his Beaux-Arts and Classical buildings, but after the Woolworth building he and his chief designer, Charles O. Chromaster, went on to design some of the finest examples of Art Deco in Texas, including the Sinclair Building (1929), the Masonic Temple (1930) and the U.S. Court House (1933), all in Fort Worth.

The F.W. Woolworth Company which began in 1879, experienced a period of great expansion during the 1920's. In 1924, the company expanded to Cuba and two years later the first German Woolworth store opened. By 1926, the year the Fort Worth store was opened, there were 1,480 stores around the world with total sales at 253.6 million and sales per store were $171,400. Total sales had more than doubled in the decade of the 1920s. By 1929, the company sales were $303 million, a record high which was not broken until eight years later. In that same year (1929), it was estimated that of the 122 million people in the United States at that time, some 60 million of them browsed weekly in Woolworth stores.

This period was a time of great expansion for the Woolworth Company as well as other chain store organizations that were becoming well-established in the United States. The post-World War I years saw new wealth in Fort Worth from cattle and oil which created a heady economic period of spending for material goods as well as construction. During this same time frame, social change and the advent of motion pictures influenced national fashion and product sales, which led to the burgeoning of the manufacturing and retailing industries. Large operations such as F.W. Woolworth's epitomized this change from home sewing and locally based retailers to national chains offering a great assortment of mass-produced goods across the country at competitive prices.

In 1925, one year before the Woolworth building was opened, a new City Charter providing for a Council-Manager form of government was instituted in Fort Worth. The announcement in June 1925 in the Fort Worth Press indicated that the Woolworth building was part of a building boom that began in the early 1920s and continued until the Second World War. The Fort Worth Press article stated that "with the new Woolworth's there would be no let up in Fort Worth's business boom." The paper went on to report that this Woolworths was to be one of the finest 5 and 10 cent stores in the south. This building helped to contribute to the fact that in 1926 Fort Worth was ranked seventh in the nation for new construction and, in 1928 Fort Worth led all other Texas cities in the volume of out-of-town retail business.

Although the Woolworth Building was built a few years before the Chamber of Commerce's Five year building expansion plan, it occupies one of the most strategic retail locations in the city. The intersection of Fourth and Houston in downtown was the most important location for retail in the city being adjacent to the twelve-story Burk Burnett Building and across the street from other major office buildings, hotels, and department stores.

The architect, W. G. Clarkson, studied at Chicago's Armour Institute of Technology and the Art Institute of Chicago for training in architecture. Clarkson's chief designer during this time was Charles O. Chromaster, originally of Chicago, who also received his training from the Chicago Art Institute. He joined Clarkson in 1922 after working for architectural firms in Chicago and Milwaukee. Chromaster and Clarkson both preferred classical ornamentation and balance and together designed some of the finest Art Deco buildings in Texas.

Clarkson was the head of one of the two largest and most prolific architectural firms in Fort Worth. His commissions included numerous public and private buildings in Fort Worth including the Cook Children's Hospital (1928), Methodist Hospital (1930), Texas Christian University Library (1925-1927), the first Fort Worth Sanger Brothers Department Store (1925-1927), the YMCA (1925-1927) and several residences in the exclusive Ryan Place and Rivercrest areas of Fort Worth. His Art Deco buildings include the spectacular Zig-Zag Moderne Sinclair Building (1929), the Masonic Temple (1930-1931), the U.S. Courthouse (associate architect to Paul Cret, 1933), the Municipal Airport Administration Building (1936), the McCrory Store remodeling (1937), the Tarrant County Building and Loan Association (1938) and the City-County (John Peter Smith) Hospital (1938-1939). Clarkson also designed four Fort Worth school buildings. In 1938 and 1939, he was chief architect to five other architects designated to design and build Fort Worth's two federal housing projects.

In the 1940s, Clarkson was associated with Pelich, Geren and Rady in projects for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In Texas, his work included the Liberator Village in Fort Worth; the Army Air Force Hospital in Temple; Harmon Army Hospital in Longview; and military housing at McGregor. He also was the architect that remodeled the Sanger Brothers Department store into the largest and finest' United Service Organization (USO) facility in the country (1943). The Fort Worth Art Center (1953) was one of Clarkson's last projects in association with George King, Herbert Bayer and Gordon Chadwick. Clarkson was a charter member of the Texas Society of Architects and the Fort Worth Chapter of the AIA.

Because of Clarkson's academic training at the Chicago Art Institute, his initial design preferences were Classical, Gothic, Italianate, and Beaux Arts, which can be seen in many of his earlier buildings in Fort Worth during the mid to late 1920's. Buildings like the original Sanger Brothers department store (adjacent south of this site), Cook Children's Hospital, and the TCU Library exhibit these styles. However in the 1930's Clarkson began perfecting his Art Deco preference on structures like the Zig-Zag Moderne Sinclair Building, an early example of a highrise skyscraper, and on others like the Masonic Temple, Municipal Airport Administration Building, and John Peter Smith Hospital. The Woolworth Building is the best example of Clarkson's transition from his earlier to later stylistic preferences, exhibiting an Art Deco "look" on the exterior with the clean, streamlined use of white limestone for the facing material, yet with Classical detailing of the cornices and the upper frieze. Even the interior crosses over to both styles with Classical detailing on the column capitals and Art Deco detailing on the stair railings.

Woolworth's design philosophy was to commission building designs that "fit" each community. For example, world-noted architect, Cass Gilbert of New York City was selected to design the Woolworth Building in that city. This same corporate attitude filtered down to the local level, by employing local architects to create buildings befitting local communities. As a result of this philosophy, many Woolworth buildings were significant and unique buildings in their community, including this one in Fort Worth. As has been noted, the basic building design was influenced by the Chicago commercial style that had evolved by this period and used by Clarkson. However, the Art Deco influence is exhibited by the exterior smooth-faced stone and ornamental detailing in the same material, and by the low relief stylized ornamentation at the cornice and string course. The Fort Worth store followed the Woolworth attitude of locally designed buildings unique in their community.

James T. Taylor was the contractor on the Woolworth building. He came to Fort Worth from England in the 1890's. Taylor established the first Portland Cement factory in Dallas which, in the 1920's, employed over 2,500 men. He also established a sash and door factory in Fort Worth that was considered the most modern plant of its kind west of the Mississippi River. His company had the contract for building a system of cardinal roads leading into Fort Worth. Apparently, at the time they were built, this system attracted a great deal of interest and was used as a model for road improvement in other places.

The Woolworth Company experienced another period of expansion and store improvement in the years after World War II. The greatest sales boom in Woolworth history occurred from 1945 to 1954, with sales of $477 million to over $700 million respectively. The Company's costs for modernization and improvement which included the Fort Worth store was over $175 million. The year 1954 was the 75th (Diamond) Anniversary of the Woolworth Company, and this event was celebrated throughout the chain. It was during this year that the Fort Worth store was remodeled and updated along with many other stores in the chain. This store remained active until January of 1990 when it was closed and the property sold. This building stands as a reminder of the phenomenal growth and change which occurred in Fort Worth; changing from a town into a large metropolitan city. The Woolworth Company and its stores, designed to harmonize with the local architectural landscape, were a driving force in commerce and retail trade locally, nationally, and around the world.

Building Description

The F. W. Woolworth building and several other major buildings built in 1926, were the precursors of the most dramatic commercial building boom to ever occur in downtown Fort Worth. This Art Deco, low-rise commercial style building with classical detailing, was designed by Wiley G. Clarkson, a well-known regional architect of the 1920s through the 1940s, and was constructed by James T. Taylor, a well-known local contractor and owner of the first Portland cement factory in Dallas. This 38,000-square-foot building is located at the center of the historic "retail intersection" of downtown. It is adjacent and to the north of the old Sanger Brothers Department Store building built in 1925, and across the street from the "new" Sangers Building built in 1929. Other important department stores of the day were located at or near this intersection.

Construction on the building began in the summer of 1926 with an estimated cost between $250,000 and $300,000. The flat-roofed, rectangular building is constructed of concrete, brick, and steel, and is faced with white Texas limestone. The building has two walls facing the street. The north wall is 100 feet in length and is built to the sidewalk edge along Fourth Street, and the 95-foot western wall fronts Houston Street. The south wall abuts the adjacent building and the east wall abuts an alley across from the twelve-story Burk Burnett Building built in 1914. Although the building includes a full basement and three stories, the foundation and structure of the building was initially designed to accommodate a ten-story structure (Texas Writers Project). The five groups of three one-over-one windows produces a fenestration across the second and third stories on the west and north sides reminiscent of the Chicago Commercial Style of building design.

The building displays a clean, streamlined Art Deco look especially through the use of white limestone for the facing material. The minimal ornamentation that is used, is a cross between Art Deco and Classical design styles. The cornices, at the top of the street walls, are simple molded projections immediately above the upper frieze. The horizontal frieze below the cornice and above the third-floor windows displays a stylized floral motif interspersed with a floral-type medallion at each bay. The medallion and bay spacing are replicated by the column grid on the interior. There is a projecting limestone sill below the third-floor windows, with Classical styling that includes four simple brackets beneath. The jamb between each window in the fenestration on the second and third stories is a Classical or Doric column design. The string course below the second-story windows extends continuously around the building with a molding of Classical design. The sidewalk-level bulkheads of the first floor are of granite. There was an entrance on the north side of the building which remains today. The other entrance was on the west side of the building and recessed somewhat from the line of display windows across the front of the building. This entrance was changed in 1954.

The interior of the store consists of open space throughout except for large, square, support columns on a grid with the exterior bay spacing. The rear (east) wall includes a stair and elevator space, and the south wall includes another stair core. The open retail space design was common for major department stores of the day, allowing for the greatest flexibility of merchandise display. The first-floor columns have a band at the top with a simple design and medallion on each side. Neither the second nor the third-floor columns include ornamentation. The second and third floors are similar in layout to the first floor except for some office space for the original store. The basement is the same as the first floor. There are two stairways, one in the northeast corner and the other in the southwest corner. Both stairways exhibit Art Deco detail in the railings, metal supports, and stair design.

In 1947, the Woolworth Company spent $20,000 for interior renovations and remodeling along with general repairs and interior alterations. The biggest changes, however, were made in 1954, which was the 75th "Diamond" anniversary of the Woolworth Company. At this time, the company began a modernization and improvement program which was instituted at the more than 2,000 stores across the country. At this time, new "see-through" windows were installed on the first floor so that customers could see beyond the merchandise displays and into the store from the street. The upper-story windows were refaced with aluminum covers nailed into the wood window jambs. In the interior, new floors, merchandise counters, and an escalator were added. In 1954, the west side entrance to the building was shifted to the northwest corner. There are two elevators, one for passengers, and the other for freight. Although the initial lettering identifying the store has been removed, the familiar red Woolworth band is still intact. The sign was removed when the store closed in 1990.

To keep pace with various retailing changes over the past 65 years, some changes have been made to the first-floor exterior of the building, however, the basic configuration of the (first floor) windows remains the same, and the granite bulkhead is intact. None of the remaining building facade, materials, or embellishments has been damaged or altered in any irreversible way. Only the window jambs have been covered with aluminum trim to stop the deterioration of the wooden elements.

Woolworths employed local architects to create buildings befitting local communities, and, as a result, many of their buildings were significant and unique in their community, including this one in Fort Worth. The Fort Worth based architects, W. G. Clarkson, and his chief designer, Charles O. Chromaster, studied at Chicago's Armour Institute of Technology and the Art Institute of Chicago for training in architecture. Although the basic building design was influenced by the Chicago commercial style that had evolved by this period, the Art Deco influence is exhibited by the exterior smooth-faced stone and ornamental detailing in the same material, and by the low-relief stylized ornamentation at the cornice and string course. Although the red sign band at the top of the first floor is familiar, many Woolworth stores used only the gold letters for exterior signs, or in other cases, a completely different type of sign was employed.

F. W. Woolworth Building, Fort Worth Texas North facade (1991)
North facade (1991)

F. W. Woolworth Building, Fort Worth Texas North facade (1991)
North facade (1991)

F. W. Woolworth Building, Fort Worth Texas West facade (1991)
West facade (1991)

F. W. Woolworth Building, Fort Worth Texas Corner detail (1991)
Corner detail (1991)

F. W. Woolworth Building, Fort Worth Texas First floor (1991)
First floor (1991)

F. W. Woolworth Building, Fort Worth Texas First floor lobby (1991)
First floor lobby (1991)

F. W. Woolworth Building, Fort Worth Texas First floor column (1991)
First floor column (1991)

F. W. Woolworth Building, Fort Worth Texas Northeast corner stairs (1991)
Northeast corner stairs (1991)

F. W. Woolworth Building, Fort Worth Texas North and west facades (date unknown)
North and west facades (date unknown)

F. W. Woolworth Building, Fort Worth Texas North side, Burk Burnett in foreground (date unknown)
North side, Burk Burnett in foreground (date unknown)