Hustle and Bustle
A look back at the magic of Downtown holiday shopping
Photos courtesy Columbus Metropolitan Library
As a child, Nancy Recchie’s stomach would flutter with anticipation the second the family car turned on to Interstate 70 at College Avenue. Heading Downtown from her East Side neighborhood, it was here she could see it—cascading strings of white lights falling from the Lazarus water tower to form a giant, luminescent Christmas tree.
Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Downtown was the place to be during the holiday season, recalls Recchie, who, along with her husband, started Benjamin D. Rickey & Co., a historic preservation consulting firm that has worked on a number of sites, including the Ohio Statehouse and Ohio State University’s Thompson Library.
Folks would dress up in their finest attire, pile into the station wagon and head to Lazarus or The Union to tackle the holiday gift list.
But it wasn’t just about shopping and buying, says Recchie, who worked as a part-time gift-wrapper at The Union during high school and moved to foundations and lingerie during college. “There was a certain magic to it—a certain anticipation,” she recalls.
For 153 years, F. & R. Lazarus Co.—the store at the heart of most Columbus memories—was a Downtown shopping staple, offering clothes, appliances, jewelry, makeup, toys and an assortment of restaurants throughout its six floors. Fred Lazarus Jr. believed in a department store experience comparable to a big circus—and for much of its run, it was, writes David Meyers in “Look to Lazarus: The Big Store,” co-written with his wife, Beverly, and daughter, Elise. “Sadly,” Meyers continues, “there is nowhere left [people] can go to experience what it was like when Lazarus and its kindred institutions were in their heyday.”
Though they’re gone, nostalgia remains—and so, through the memories of those who remember them best, a brief ode to the era of the family-owned Columbus department stores during the season they sparkled most.
It was during the holidays that Lazarus became more than just a department store. The huge attraction, recalls Greg Lashutka, Columbus mayor from 1992 to 2000, were the window displays. “They had train sets,” he recalls, “and simulated snow scenes that were warm and inviting.”
Come Thanksgiving evening, crowds would start to line up along High Street to glimpse the magical window displays with their whimsical wintry themes, including Santa, reindeer and snowmen, or paying homage to historical events, such as the end of the Spanish-American War or the dedication of Ohio Stadium. “We called them animated windows,” says family historian Shelley Bishop of Dublin, who recalls the displays in the mid-1960s when she was barely school aged. “I don’t know if they had any specific names, but that’s what we called them. They had little stories, with animals, people and street themes and music.”
Once through the revolving doors, shoppers would enter “a retail Christmas wonderland,” Bishop says. Luminescent chandeliers covered in mistletoe hung from high ceilings and the sounds of sleigh bells made the space welcoming. Escalators drew shoppers’ attention upwards, while an express elevator with an old-fashioned cage door beckoned youngsters—a store employee dressed as Santa’s helper shuttling crowds of wide-eyed children to the sixth.
“The sixth floor of Lazarus was really amazing,” recalls Franklin County Clerk of Courts Maryellen O’Shaughnessy. “It was just toy land. Anything that you could possibly want was there during Christmas time.”
Mr. Tree, a character from “Luci’s Toyshop,” a local children’s show that ran from 1961 to 1972, greeted kids exiting the elevator into a winter wonderland with colorful decorations, toy penguins, reindeer, snowmen and elves. The most courageous children would approach the talking tree, put their hands in his mouth and shake his tongue while he welcomed them.
A secret gift shop for kids was marked by a door so little only short people could walk through, Bishop recalls. Inside, Santa’s helpers would help kids pick out inexpensive gifts for their parents.
“I went and bought my dad a really awful ashtray shaped like a putting green,” laughs Pam Edwards, director of visitor services at the Columbus Museum of Art, who adds stopping to see Lazarus’ windows on Thanksgiving evening was a family tradition. “He smoked and played golf, so it made perfect sense.”
A NEW ERA
During college, the Historical Society’s Motz worked in the men’s department at Marshall Field’s, one of three anchor stores (the others were Lazarus and Jacobson’s) at the new City Center mall. “I remember Gov. [Richard] Celeste coming in,” Motz says. “I sold him a sport coat. He’s a 44 extra long.”
The three-story, 100-store shopping mall bustled during the holidays with its own Santa Claus and the City Centertainers, a group that would break out in song and dance, Motz recalls. While Lazarus offered a shopping experience to just about anyone, City Center—with its wide mix of exclusive stores, including Brooks Brothers, Gucci and Henri Bendel—catered to an entirely different kind of customer.
“The city really began to think of itself as being more sophisticated,” Motz says.
The opening of the 1.3 million-square-foot mall came at an opportune time, as downtown had begun to hemorrhage shoppers to the suburbs, where they could live—and where store owners could operate businesses—more cheaply. Its opening was designed as a way to lure them back with the higher-end outlets and boutiques they sought.
“As Columbus consumers wanted a broader array of options, City Center not only answered that, but answered it by bringing people Downtown and bringing vitality to other amenities,” says Lashutka, the former mayor. Nearby restaurants, hotels and theaters, all cushioned by the influx of new shoppers, saw increased business during the 1990s.
O’Shaughnessy stopped by City Center several times a week. “They had that atrium where they had nonstop entertainment with choral groups and others during Christmas time,” she says. “There was so much going on.”
One of her fondest memories remains her now-grown son’s purchase of a tube of red lipstick for his mother from Jacobson’s when he was just a toddler. “My husband helped him find it,” she remembers. “I believe I still have this tube.”
NAUGHTY OR NICE?
The main holiday attraction at the old department stores and malls was always Santa Claus, whose lap offered both excitement and anxiety for kids. Many had their sights set on that special toy, but before they could make their big request, the youngsters first had to wait out their competition in what was always a long line.
“The anticipation was intense,” O’Shaugnessy recalls. “Your time in line was spent rehearsing what you would say to the Big Guy once you got there. Then, once you got there and were whisked onto his lap, the stammering began and all your rehearsed lines flew out of your head.”
For many young shoppers, those overwhelming moments of excitement, anxiety or sheer panic were caught on film. Regardless of where or when these photos were taken, it seems that some things never change.
1932, Town and High streets
Even at the height of the Depression, Downtown Columbus was a flurry of holiday retail activity. Folks shopped with their eyes if they were unable to with their wallets, says Doug Motz, president of the Columbus Historical Society. “Even if you were a poor person and you couldn’t afford a lot, there’s nothing that says you can’t go look at the animated windows,” he says. This photo shows South High Street from Town Street in 1932. The Fashion (center, left) and Morehouse Martens (center) are covered in holiday decorations. After changing hands several times over the next 50 years, the site of these stores would become City Center.
Luckoff’s department store opens at 60 E. Main St., site of the current Columbus Commons parking garage.
At the corner of South High and West Town streets in the 1950s, a crowd (left) gathers to admire a holiday display in the Lazarus storefront windows. The photo above depicts the Lazarus exterior with its traditional holiday decorations in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
Zayre department store opens at West Broad Street and Old Village Road.
Luckoff’s closes. Woolco, a subsidiary of Woolworth, opens in Graceland Shopping Center.
The Union department store opens on High Street in the former The Fashion department store space—a direct competitor to Lazarus across the street.
The Centrum, a $3.4 million ice/roller rink attraction on South High Street, opens adjacent to Lazarus.
The week before Christmas 1980, ice skaters enjoy a snowless evening at the Centrum, which doubled as a roller rink in warmer months and featured a small restaurant. “You could go and get hot dogs and hamburgers and stuff like that, and get hot chocolate and coffee,” Motz recalls. “People loved the Centrum.” It closed in 1986 to make way for City Center, and eventually Columbus Commons.
The Union, bought by Marshall Field’s, is converted into a Halle’s department store.
Woolco closes at Graceland, and the city purchases the Halle’s building from Marshall Field’s, paving the way for what would become City Center.
1989, City Center opens
1990 Zayre closes
2004 Lazarus closes
2009 City Center closes