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Possible demolition of former Sears store stirs memories for Allentown woman

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Dec 09 2011 07:38:11 PM CST
Updated On: Dec 09 2011 08:27:08 PM CST
Photo courtesy: Ruth Wittman

Photo courtesy: Ruth Wittman

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

This story has nothing to do with the demolition of buildings for Allentown’s new arena.

It is just one of many things that happen in the urban ecology of a city where traffic patterns shift, building’s age and ways of life change. But as human beings we tend to attach a certain value to places that touch our lives, particularly when we were young.

This was the reaction of Ruth Wittman, a native of Allentown when she was told recently by a family member that the owners of a building at 602-618 North 7th Street was being considered for demolition by its owners.

To some it is known as the Rite-Aid building, for the branch of the pharmacy chain which was housed there several years ago. But for Wittman it will always be Sears, or Sears & Roebuck as an older generation was taught more properly to call it.

And she can still remember the day in 1948 when as an Allentown High School (now William Allen High School) student she was among the hostesses at the grand opening at what was one of the Lehigh Valley’s newest retail stores. “One of the girls selected for the hostess job could not make it for some reason,” she recalls. “I was already hired to work in the lighting department so they asked me to fill in.”

The Allentown Wittman grew up in was a different place than the city of today. Living with her father, mother, older sister Dorothy and younger brother Erwin, Wittman remembers sounds no longer heard, like the rattle of the passing streetcar near her Washington Street home.

Courtesy: Frank Whelan In the late 1940s she was taking the high school business course and dating a young man from Pittsburgh who worked at KDKA, a Pittsburgh radio station. “I graduated from Allentown High School in 1948,” Wittman recalls. “My father saw that there was an article in the newspaper about a new Sears store opening and suggested I apply for a job, which I did.”

Sears was not a new store to Allentown. In the late 1920s it had opened a store in the 100 block of N 7th Street, a downtown location. But by the 1940s postwar pressures were building and the old store no longer seemed adequate. So Sears decided it needed something bigger.

According to the Sears history website, the Allentown store was part of an extended experiment in retailing the company was undergoing. Starting in the early 1930s they developed a new concept. “Before the merchandise had been fitted into buildings, now buildings were built around merchandise.”

The first of these stores opened in Glendale, California in 1935. “The new store planning and display department concerned itself with all the elements of the store- tables, fixtures, space requirements for the different merchandise lines, customer flow, and width of aisles,” says the Sears history.

But with the nation still in the midst of the Great Depression Sears could only do so much new building. And just when a light seemed to breaking through on the economy in the early 1940s, the U.S. entry into World War II in 1941 imposed wartime rationing of building materials.

It took awhile after V-J day for the government to begin to ease restrictions. But by 1947 restrictions were gradually being eased.

Up on busy Hamilton Street, Max Hess that year kicked off two magnificent additions to his department store. One was the introduction of New York style escalators, the kind that might be seen in a big city store. Another, just before the Christmas season was a huge illuminated Hess Brother’s sign. Hailed as the largest department store sign between New York and Chicago it blinked out the name Hess’s from 1947 to 1973, when it was removed and scrapped with the coming of the Hamilton Mall.

Sears was not in Max Hess’s game and did not try to be. But when it opened in 1948 the crowds turned out to see the new store.

Wittman still remembers the outfit she wore. She still has a picture of herself with the other 7 or so young women. Her hostess duties were confined to Saturday and Thursday nights. Allentown merchants of the era had made Thursday a major shopping night and the public responded well. Wittman recalls her major task was answering questions from the public who were not used to what were then considered the vast spaces of the store.

sign As hard as it may be to imagine today the location of the new Sears store was somewhat controversial at the time. Although the distance from its former location was not far, some people questioned the movement of it. Why was the store leaving “downtown?” What did it say that unlike most stores since at least the late 19th century, which had fought to get a location as close to possible to Hamilton Street, Sears was moving away from it? It is perhaps significant that over time it was along 7th Street that retailing in Allentown followed Sears out to MacArthur Road into the rural countryside. Two Guys in the 1950s, Whitehall Mall in the 1960s and the Lehigh Valley Mall in the 1970s all marched down the path Sears first forged back in 1948. And eventually Sears itself would follow as well to the Whitehall Mall.

For Wittman in 1948, all this was in the unknowable future. She remembers being at Sears about two years. Wittman went on to have number of jobs, marry and raise a family. Yet she still keeps the faded photograph of herself and her fellow hostesses of 1948 and remembers when the excitement was at Sears.