New book details the history of Woodward & Lothrop, a vanished D.C. department store


“Woodward & Lothrop never strived to be the best but certainly never found itself at the bottom,” Michael J. Lisicky writes in his new book. (James M. Thresher/The Washington Post)
Columnist April 16, 2014

There’s no index in Michael J. Lisicky’s book “Woodward & Lothrop: A Store Worthy of the Nation’s Capital” (The History Press; $19.99), so I had to read the whole thing to see if I was mentioned.

I wasn’t, but that’s okay. The 160-page paperback is a nice history of the late, lamented homegrown department store, which counted many of us as customers. Some of us even worked there. (I was a dishwasher in the Brass Pony, the restaurant in the Wheaton Plaza Woodies, where my nemesis was the cheese that wound up cemented to the earthenware ramekins in which French onion soup was served.)

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

There was a time when every major U.S. city had its own, unique set of department stores, each catering to a different clientele. In the book’s preface, Lisicky likens Woodward & Lothrop to a Buick, or what Buick once represented: more upmarket than a Chevy (Hecht’s), less exclusive than a Cadillac (Garfinckel’s). Like the U.S. automobile industry, stores such as these faced great challenges. Unlike General Motors, they and others didn’t survive.

“Woodward & Lothrop never strived to be the best but certainly never found itself at the bottom,” Lisicky writes. “The store was famous for being better and became a store where you wanted to shop, not a store where you had to shop.”

The store was in many ways a pioneer. Founded in 1880 by two transplanted New Englanders — Samuel Walter Woodward and Alvin Mason Lothrop — it was the first retailer of its kind in Washington to do away with haggling. The first store was called the Boston Dry Goods House and featured a big sign that read “One Price.” Its fabrics could be examined, an advertisement promised, with “no one importuned to purchase.”

D.C.’s homegrown department store is detailed in the 160-page paperback.

By 1886, the name had changed to Woodward & Lothrop, and the founders were busy expanding into Richmond and Baltimore. More expansion was to come.

Lisicky doesn’t shy away from the racism practiced at Woodward & Lothrop. Most of the District’s white-owned department stores were explicitly or casually racist — not allowing African Americans to shop or dine; maintaining separate restrooms when blacks finally were allowed; hiring few minorities — and Woodies was no different. The NAACP and CORE were among groups that organized demonstrations and boycotts that eventually forced Woodies and other retailers to be more welcoming.

The riots that swept through downtown Washington in 1968 hurt Woodies, which by then was known for its flagship building at 11th and G streets NW, but the suburbs were where the growth was anyway.

Woodies had opened its first suburban store in 1950, in a place that may not strike us as particularly suburban today: Wisconsin and Western avenues in Chevy Chase. Two years later, it opened a small store on Washington Street in Alexandria. The Woodies march across the Washington area mirrored the region’s growth: Seven Corners (1956), Wheaton Plaza (1960), Landmark Shopping Center (1965), Prince George’s Plaza (1966), Tysons Corner (1969).

While the merchandise mix catered to the particular customers at each location — then as now, Wheaton was different from Chevy Chase — the local chain had a reputation for quality merchandise, pleasant surroundings and knowledgeable salespeople. The downtown store spent lavishly on holiday window displays and hosted a Christmas season “stag night.” Writes Lisicky, “Only male shoppers were allowed into the store for special purchases, shopping aid and an occasional negligee show.” (Another bit of trivia: In 1956, Woodies was the first store in the country to formally introduce a new toy called Play-Doh.)

We miss Woodies — and, depending on how old we are, Hecht’s, Garfinckel’s, Kann’s, Lansburgh’s, Jelleff’s, Palais Royal — but the D.C. retail landscape has changed a lot since 1880.

Bloomingdale’s came to town in the 1970s, Macy’s and Nordstrom in the 1980s. Developer Albert Taubman bought Woodward & Lothrop in 1984, then added ailing Philadelphia department store John Wanamaker to his portfolio. The merger was imperfect, Woodies’ reputation began to sour, competitors nipped at its heels, and in 1994 it filed for bankruptcy protection.

The once vaunted chain closed its stores in 1995, its assets purchased by the May Department Stores and JCPenney. You can still see that beautiful G Street building, though. And shop at the Forever 21 that’s in it.

Reunions

These area schools are holding reunions in the coming months:

Central High (Washington) — 106th annual meeting/reunion, May 15. Contact Howard Hooper at 410-721-0731.

Crossland High Class of 1969 — Sept. 5-7, Visit www.crossland1969.com.

Frederick Douglass High (Croom, Md.) Class of 1964 — Sept. 27. Contact Anthony (Tony) Marshall at f4tony@aol.com or 760-247-0456.

Eastern High (Washington) Class of 1964 — Oct. 11. Call Shirley Clayton, 301-808-7305, or Jerri Minor, 301-499-3343; or visit www.easternclassof64.net.

Herndon High Class of 64 — May 31. Contact Mike Murphy at 41murph@gmail.com.

Herndon High Alumni Picnic — For all classes through 1974. June 1. Contact Ann Jenkins at mann_jenkins@yahoo.com.

Walter Johnson High Class of 1964 — Oct. 11. Visit walterjohnson1964reunion.
weebly.com
or e-mail walterjohnson1964reunion@gmail.

Richard Montgomery High Class of 1964 — Oct. 10-12. Call W. Thomas Curtis, 301-258-0300, or David Whelan, 703-759-9611, or visit www.classreport.org/usa/md/rockville/rmhs/1964.

Bishop Dennis J. O’Connell High Class of 1974 — Oct. 10-12. E-mail djo1974reunion@gmail.com.

Theodore Roosevelt High Class of 1964 — Nov. 28. Visit www.trhs64.com.

Theodore Roosevelt High Class of 1974 — Aug. 29-30. Contact Willie Jolley, 202-723-8863, willie@williejolley.com; Greg Booker, 301-494-7032; or Dorita Norman Smith at doritaaka@hotmail.com.

Springbrook High Classes of 1964, 1965 and 1966 — July 25-27. Contact Bonnie (Rosenbaum) McPhillips, ’64, at mdbaygirl@mcpfamily.com or call 240-893-2545.

West Potomac Class of 1989 — June 21. E-mail westpotomacclassof89@gmail.com.

Western High Class of 1964 — May 2-4. E-mail harvey@golomb.com.

Wheaton High Class of 1964 — July 11-13. Contact Rick Greenfield at rick_kathy@excite.com or 301-946-3933.

T.C. Williams Class of 1974 — Aug. 15 and 16. Visit www.tcwilliams74.com.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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