In the post-World War II “do-it-yourself” boom, the Hechinger Co. became a dominant retailer in the Baltimore-Washington corridor. Mr. England, a Harvard graduate and Navy veteran, married a daughter of store founder Sidney Hechinger and rose swiftly in the business.
With Mr. England as chairman and the founder’s son, John W. Hechinger Sr., as president, the Hechinger Co. experienced tremendous growth locally and then nationally. They divided leadership duties, with Hechinger Sr. handling executive functions, including real estate, finance and accounting matters, and Mr. England presiding over the merchandising and advertising side of operations.
Hechinger Co. had 15 stores when it went public in 1972, vaulting into a multibillion-dollar enterprise selling hardware as well as plumbing, electric and other building material supplies. The business grew to more than 115 stores — comprising Hechinger and Home Quarters Warehouse outlets — throughout the Midwest and eastern United States.
The 1975 decision by Mr. England and Hechinger Sr. to move the Hechinger Co.’s corporate offices to Prince George’s County from Northeast Washington triggered criticism that the company was “deserting” the city. In fact, the company used the 10-acre site in Northeast Washington to build what it called Hechinger Mall, which slowly drew tenants back to a neighborhood devastated by the April 1968 riots.
Mr. England said the 180,000-square-foot shopping center would “create a focus, a community shopping center in this most underserved area that will assuredly cause the rest of the H Street commercial area to blossom again.”
Lloyd D. Smith, a city activist in development matters and an official in Mayor Walter Washington’s administration, once told The Washington Post that the mall was a rare sign of hope in a blighted neighborhood. “It was tremendous in those days to build a shopping center in a run-down area,” Smith said in a 2004 interview. “It was a symbol of revitalization of the eastern side of the city.”
Starting in the 1980s, as Mr. England and Hechinger Sr. were starting to retire, the rise of giant discount chains such as Home Depot and Lowe’s were gradually luring away Hechinger Co.’s customer base. It was left largely to the next generation of their families, notably company president John W. Hechinger Jr., to navigate the fallout.
In many stories about Hechinger’s decline, business analysts said the company for years was slow to react to the whirlwind growth of the competition and the latter’s emphasis on detailed customer service. In 1997, the Hechinger family sold its namesake business to investor Leonard Green of Los Angeles and his partners for a reported $507 million. Hechinger Co. filed for bankruptcy in 1999, 80 years after its opening in Washington.