How one of the nation's greatest retail empires came to an end

Editor’s note: It’s been 15 years since the iconic Downtown Lazarus store closed its doors for good, though the influence and control of the family that built the beloved institution had already waned by then. In 1990, Columbus Monthly senior editor Herb Cook Jr. profiled the rise and fall of the Lazarus family’s mercantile empire.

When Char Witkind decided a couple of years ago that she needed to talk with her brother, Bob Lazarus, she drove Downtown from Bexley, parked her car in a Lazarus garage, walked to the huge store at Town and High streets, rode the escalators to the fifth floor and headed for the executive offices. Ever since she'd roamed the aisles and office corridors of Lazarus in her Columbus School for Girls tunic in the 1920s and ‘30s, Charlotte Lazarus had felt nearly as comfortable in the family store as in her own home.

But this time things were sadly different. Federated Department Stores had decided, a few months earlier, to cut costs and consolidate administration by moving the headquarters of the Lazarus division from Columbus to Cincinnati. Bob Lazarus, left behind to handle what remained of the store's community relations, was the only executive on the floor. “All those desks were just sitting there empty,” Witkind says. "I went in and talked to Bob, and then I came out and went in to Dad's office and quietly, by myself, burst into tears."

For Char Witkind, seeing the empty office from which her father, Robert Lazarus Sr., had run the store for more than 20 years triggered a cathartic moment of grief and understanding. Never again would a Lazarus run Lazarus. The store that had carried the family name for nearly 140 years might survive into the 21st century and even beyond. But it was no longer a family store, no longer the base that had made Lazarus the most recognized family name in Central Ohio and given family members instant credibility in the tight circles of community power.

The Lazarus family, its fifth generation in the prime of life and its sixth generation moving through childhood and adolescence, is larger than ever. Lazari (as family members like to call themselves) and Lazar-in-laws are spread from coast to coast and even overseas. Most have been made financially comfortable by the fruits of their fathers' and grandfathers' and great-grandfathers' labors. But the family store is history. And so, in a sense, is the family that built one of America's great mercantile dynasties.

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When Simon Lazarus left Wurtenburg, Germany, in 1850, barely 40,000 people lived in Franklin County. A rabbinical scholar who later served without pay as the first rabbi of Temple Israel, Simon came to Columbus with his wife, Amelia, his stepson, David, and his infant son, Fred. Another son, Ralph, was born in 1852, and four daughters followed. David later became a rabbi in Pittsburgh. Fred and Ralph joined their father in business and became the "F" and "R” of F. & R. Lazarus & Company.

The men's clothing store Simon opened at the southwest corner of Town and High streets in 1851 occupied 800 square feet—an area smaller than the home swimming pool one of his grandsons would build 75 years later. In the next 140 years Lazarus floor space would multiply a thousandfold, but for the first two decades Simon and his young sons were content to sell men's ready-to-wear from their little storefront.

When Simon Lazarus died in 1877 at the age of 69, Fred and Ralph took over, though not without considerable scrutiny from their mother, Amelia, who lived until 1899. "From Simon's death on," says Char Witkind, "Amelia went down to the store every day and counted the money. She didn't trust her kids to be entirely responsible."

If Amelia indeed served as a kind of self-designated corporate controller, she was as close as any Lazarus woman ever came to having a significant role at the store. While it was assumed through the fourth generation that male children would join the business, girls were expected to marry, stay at home and raise families. If they cared to join the Junior League or do good civic works on the side, so much the better. But merchants were men. "I don't think the Lazaruses ever expected their women to do anything of importance," Witkind says. "They treated us well and had great respect for our intellection, but they didn't expect that we would go into the business. And so we didn't."

By 1881, according to a company historical outline, the store had 22 clerks and a branch at Broad and High streets, on the lot where the Deshler Hotel would later be built. The branch was managed by Abraham Cohen, husband of Simon's daughter Rosalie (Sally Lazarus. Sally, born in 1853, holds the Lazarus longevity record; she died at age 102 in 1955. Sally also is remembered as something of a free spirit. When one of her daughters died in the 1930s, Sally, then in her 80s, personally brought the cremated remains from her home in California to Columbus for interment at Greenlawn Cemetery, where her brother, Fred, had built a family mausoleum. During the trip, Sally introduced the ashes to at least one startled customer at an airport restaurant. “Don't mind the box," Sally is supposed to have said. "It's just my daughter."

Under Mr. Fred and Mr. Ralph, as they were called by store associates, Lazarus was the first men's store in Columbus to adopt a "one-price policy" and eliminate the haggling that made buying clothes at other stores a test of the customer's negotiating skills. If the price tag on a Lazarus suit said $10, that's what the customer paid. And if the buyer later discovered some defect, he could return the suit and get his money back.

"Uncle Ralph and Father both looked after the service of every customer coming into the store with great care," wrote Fred Lazarus Jr. in 1972, "and the Lazarus name was recognized for its honesty, and the guaranty of the merchandise that they sold to give satisfaction. We boys grew up under that policy and it has been a very important part of our mercantile life.” By the 1890s Lazarus had expanded into most of the shop space on its original block. From their elevated offices about 100 feet back from the High Street entrance, Fred and Ralph used mirrors to keep an eye on all parts of the store.

Fred spent hours each day strolling the aisles of the store, chatting with associates and customers, frequently reaching into his own pocket to buy things for children. If he saw the man who hawked newspapers outside the store wearing worn shoes, Mr. Fred would send him inside for a new pair, gratis. When the Knights of Columbus launched a building campaign, Mr.

Fred made the first contribution. It didn't matter that he was Jewish and the Knights were Catholics. Fred loved everyone, and everyone seemed to love Fred.

"Mr. Lazarus had the most beautiful personality of anyone I ever met," eulogized Rabbi Joseph Kornfeld after Fred Sr.'s death in 1917. "He leaves a record of a life well spent, a record of thousands of acts of kindness quietly performed. A community could have no better example than he."

Fred's brother Ralph, a bachelor, outlived his mother, Amelia, by just four years, dying of cancer in 1903 at the age of 51. Ralph and Fred, by all historical accounts, trusted each other without question and functioned as equal partners, even sharing a single bank account. When Ralph decided at the turn of the century to join five other men in buying the Southern Hotel at Main and High streets, he simply withdrew $250,000 from the joint account and cabled the news to Fred, who was “taking the cure" at a health spa in Germany.

Family lore says it was Ralph who developed the store's policy of giving a free cigar to any man who bought a new suit, varying the quality of the stogie with the price of the suit. Fred's son Robert, who joined the Lazarus sales force in 1912, recalled, half a century later, how the system worked: “If we said, ‘Step back to my office, son, and get Mr. Smith one of our fine Three Brothers cigars,' it meant that the man had just bought a $10 suit. They were called Three Brothers, I think, because if one brother smoked the cigar, the other two had to carry him out. We gave proportionately better cigars to the $20 and $30 and $40 suit customers."

By the time Ralph died, Lazarus had grown to 100,000 square feet and was promoting itself as a "mammoth store." In addition to men's clothing, the store sold children's clothing, some ladies' accessories and shoes. A  25-stool soda fountain, installed in1891, was an instant success, setting the stage for numerous in-store restaurants and food counters in later decades. Fred and Ralph adorned the store’s roof with a clock tower, outlined in electric lights.

Fred Sr. and his wife, Rose, had five sons, one of whom died in infancy. The other four—Simon, Fred Jr., Robert and Jeffrey—all came into the family business. Simon, the oldest, became president after his father’s death. He continued his father’s decree that all who worked at Lazarus were to be known as associates, never as employees. Years later Simon would gain national publicity—and not a little hostility from fellow merchants—by supporting the country’s first minimum wage law.

“Mr. Si,” as he was known around the store, was a mild, likable man. An avid golfer, he once played eight of Scotland’s finest courses in 10 days and often called himself “The National Inspector of Jewish Country Clubs.” In the 1930s, Simon wrote almost daily letters to his son Charles at Yale, detailing the minutiae of life among the Lazari. Those letters, carefully saved by Charles Lazarus, fill an entire box in the Lazarus Family Papers collection at the Ohio Historical Society.

Even in his early 20s, Fred. Jr. was more ambitious than Simon. And that ambition drove the company. In 1907, during a sharp economic downturn that sent sales tumbling, Fred Jr. persuaded his father and brother that the time was right for a dramatic expansion. And in 1909 a new, six-floor store opened on the northwest corner of Town and High streets, just north of the original store. The new Lazarus proudly billed itself as “the largest and greatest ready-to-wear concern in the middle west.” With the first two floors finished in English oak, an aviary filled with singing canaries and the city’s first escalator, Lazarus was both the biggest and the fanciest store Columbus had ever seen.

“People thought we were nuts,” recalled younger brother Robert in 1953. “The family was going into debt, deeply into debt. We were going to do it because a youngster of 24 years old had the determination and the vision that with the proper tools he and Si together could build a great store. My father liberally backed that proposition, and the family did go deeply into debt, and it wasn’t until  about 1912 or 1913 that we saw daylight.”

“Fred went down to New York and arranged for the financing. He arranged the insurance. He let every contract and he personally supervised the construction. … I’ve only envied Fred one thing, and that’s been his drive and his terrific nervous energy. Many’s the time I’ve said to him, ‘Fred, you need a vacation. I’m awfully tired.’ ”

Sally Lazarus Cohen, too, was a great fan of her nephew Fred Jr. “Fred is a man of broad vision,” Sally wrote to Simon in the 1930s. “His ideas are so clarified by his knowledge of the real situation, he is both teacher and guide to his complete family. … I have great faith in him (not that I love you less, honey) but I feel that we can all feel proud of him, and I say—God bless him.”

Afflicted with hand tremors, Fred Jr. could barely sign his name. In an ROTC class during his brief stint at Ohio State in 1902, his hands shook so badly that he shot out a light bulb in the armory ceiling. Years later, his bad driving terrorized family members and associates who dared to ride along on trips to Cincinnati. Not much over five feet tall, he seemed to be in constant, if sometimes unpredictable motion. And when he set out to do something, it got done.

Two expansions in the 1920s extended Lazarus west to Front Street and brought the size of the store to 417,000 square feet. Sales in 1929 approached $13 million. The four brothers and their families lived well, moving from big houses on Bryden Road and Kendall Place on the Near East Side to even bigger houses in the new village of Bexley, just east of Alum Creek. Simon built on Columbia Ave nue, Fred Jr. on Park Drive, adjacent to what is now Wolfe Park. There were cooks, live-in maids, chauffeurs and nurses for the kids—all the trappings of affluence.

If they lived like the wealthy merchants they were, the third generation Lazari also demonstrated social conscience and civic concern. Fred Sr. had helped to found Children's Hospital; later Simon chaired the hospital's board and raised a major portion of the money for a new building. When much of Columbus was underwater during the great flood of 1913, Lazarus loaned its entire stock of canoes to the rescue effort. In the flood's aftermath, Fred Sr. and Simon campaigned for construction of the Scioto River levee and the Civic Center buildings that still dominate the Downtown riverfront.

Lazarus family members helped found the Community Chest, which evolved into United Way. Simon's son, Charles, headed the first United Appeal campaign in 1951. In the same year, in honor of the store's centennial, Lazarus donated $100,000 to purchase what became United Community Council's headquarters building on East State Street. Robert Sr. was a member of the Metropolitan Committee, which dictated most major development and civic decisions in the 1940s and 1950s. His son, Robert Jr., later headed the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce and the Columbus Urban League. Lazarus women chaired the League of Women Voters and Planned Parenthood. Indeed it was hard to find a charity or a civic committee without a Lazarus on its board.

Inevitably, people contrasted the liberal social views of the Lazari with the more conservative outlook of the Wolfe family. Although the Wolfe-owned Dispatch published warm eulogies after the deaths of Fred Lazarus in 1917, Simon in 1947 and Robert in 1973, there was considerable friction over civic and political issues. Trent Sickles, who handled Lazarus civic and charitable activities for many years, was frequently critical of the Wolfes, and during the '50s, '60s and '70s the two families were often viewed as competing power centers.

All four third-generation brothers were members of Temple Israel, the synagogue their grandfather had helped to found. But only Simon was active in the congregation. Witkind says her father, Robert Sr., was an "areligious" man who objected to the Schottenstein family's insistence on observing the Jewish sabbath by closing their stores on Saturday. "To him," Witkind recalls, "business was business, and you were supposed to be closed on Sunday and open on Saturday. He considered himself a merchant. He didn't consider himself a Jew first." Even today, few Lazarus family members are religiously active, and most fifth-generation Lazari have married outside the Jewish faith.

By 1928, Fred Jr.'s ambition was reaching beyond Columbus. When Shillito's, a store that had once dominated Cincinnati retailing, fell on hard times in the 1920s, Fred Jr. saw an opportunity. Buying Shillito's also provided a painless way to get the youngest of the four third-generation brothers, Jeffrey, out of Columbus. "Uncle Si, Uncle Fred and Dad [Robert Sr.] were all crazy about each other," says Witkind. “Uncle Jack [Jeffrey] used to drive the others nuts. He was the youngest, and he was bullheaded as hell."

First as general manager and later as president, Jeffrey would run Shillito's for 37 years, until his retirement in 1965. Under Jeffrey's management, with healthy doses of supervision from Fred Jr., the store regained its dominance in Cincinnati during the 1930s. In 1986, Shillito's became part of Lazarus.

Fred Jr. remained in Columbus until 1944, commuting regularly to Cincinnati and often visiting New York and other eastern cities for meetings of national retail councils. In 1929, on a yachting weekend on Long Island Sound with the presidents of Abraham & Straus of Brooklyn, Filene's of Boston and Bloomingdale's of Manhattan, Fred Jr. hatched his most ambitious plan—a loose confederation of department stores, combining autonomous management with common stock ownership through a holding company. Thus was born Federated Department Stores Inc., which would multiply the Lazarus family's wealth, but ultimately cost it control of the Columbus store that started it all.

By 1944, when Federated chairman Lincoln Filene died, Fred Lazarus had become one of the most powerful merchants in the country. So great was his influence that in 1939 he successfully lobbied President Franklin Roosevelt to change the day of Thanksgiving, historically the last Thursday in November, to the fourth Thursday in November. Fred Jr.'s purpose—to guarantee the maximum number of shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas—was coldly received in some quarters. But ultimately he prevailed.

By the 1940s Fred Jr. was painfully aware that his family had gotten the worst of the 1929 stock deal that created Federated. Shareholders in Lazarus, usually the most profitable store in the group, had received relatively fewer Federated shares than the owners of the eastern stores, which were larger but not as dominant in their markets. Not only had the Lazarus family given up control, but Lazarus profits were being spread around the country to pay dividends to the former owners of other stores.

Fred Lazarus couldn't undo the 1929 deal. But in 1945, following the death of Lincoln Filene, he became president of Federated, moved his own home and Federated's headquarters to Cincinnati and set out to make the Lazarus family whole again. Most family members didn't realize it at the time, but when Fred Jr. moved from Columbus to Cincinnati, so did the base of family power.

For the next two decades under Fred Jr.'s aggressive management, Federated voraciously gobbled stores all over the country: Foley's in Houston, Sanger Brothers and A. Harris & Company in Dallas, the Boston Store in Milwaukee, Halliburton's in Oklahoma City, Burdine's in Miami, Rike's in Dayton, Goldsmith's in Memphis, Bullock's and I. Magnin in California. Only a federal antitrust action in the mid ’60s slowed the Federated juggernaut.

In 1951 Ralph Lazarus left his job as vice president and general merchandise manager at Lazarus and moved to Cincinnati to become executive vice president of Federated. Fred Jr.'s other two sons, Fred III and Maurice (known as Mogie) also wound up in the Queen City, Fred III as chairman of Shillito's and Mogie as chief financial officer of Federated.

After Fred Jr., Jeffrey, Ralph and Maurice moved to Cincinnati, Simon and Robert Sr. ran Lazarus. Simon's son Charles joined the store after graduating from Yale in 1936. “I worked the counters as a kid when I had to stand on boxes so people could see me," he recalled 40 years later. "I really never had much doubt but what I wanted to go into the retail business.”

An astute systems man and financial manager, Charles spent four years building SAC air bases during World War II, then returned to the store and rose rapidly after Simon's death in 1947. He became executive vice president in 1950, president in 1959 and chairman in 1969. Along the way Chuck, as he's called by family and friends, took on a string of civic jobs and became, by the 1970s, one of the most powerful men in Columbus. Like his father, Charles spent hours each week walking through the store, often stopping to chat with associates and customers. But he was considered more distant than Simon, perhaps a little shy. And so it fell to his uncle, Robert Sr., to maintain the store's image as a warm and friendly place to work or shop.

Long past normal retirement age, Robert Sr. came to work every day and took work home every night. Not until 1969, at the age of 79, did he finally consent to retire. And even then he didn't stop working. As he was walking toward the store about 9:30 on the morning after his retirement ceremonies, Char Witkind says,an associate saw him and said, "Why Mr. Robert, I thought you retired yesterday."

"I did,” Robert Sr. replied. “That's why I'm not here until now."

Three of Robert Sr.'s four children were girls—Witkind; Babette Lazarus Sirak, who's called Babs; and Jean Lazarus Hoffman, who died in 1980. Witkind, a baseball nut, has a satellite dish outside her Bexley home to keep tabs on her partnership in the New York Yankees. “Best damn investment I ever made," she says of her decision 15 years ago to take a piece of George Steinbrenner's Yankees deal.

Sirak and her husband Howard, a retired surgeon, amassed Columbus' finest private art collection. Sirak runs a consulting business called Winning Images, which advises companies on art acquisitions and interior design. Most of the Siraks' art is to be transferred to the Columbus Museum of Art in 1991 under terms of a gift/purchase deal negotiated six years ago.

All three of Robert Sr.'s daughters were active in community organizations. But it was Robert Sr.'s only son, Robert Jr., who was expected to join the store and carry on the family retail tradition. And that was a charge with which Robert Jr. was never entirely at ease.

A mild man with deep convictions about social issues and the importance of community work, Robert Jr, never really wanted to be CEO of Lazarus. "Dad expected a lot of Bob," says Witkind. "I think part of him felt terribly pressured. ... And he made a very conscious decision that he was not going for the top. He said, 'There's a lot useful for me to do here, but I'm not going to be president.' ” When Charles became chairman in 1969, it was Robert Jr.'s good friend, Bill Giovanello, who became the first non-Lazarus president in the store's 120-year history. Bob Lazarus doesn't enjoy talking about family history, especially his own. "Talk to Char," he says. "She knows everything."

Nine of the 17 fourth-generation Lazari were male, and all nine worked either for Federated Department Stores or for one of its divisions, though several of the Cincinnatians left in mid career. But of 51 fifth-generation children, most born in the 1940s, not one is active in the company today. Though a number started their careers with Federated—Witkind's son Bob Gorman, for example, worked for Foley's and Sanger-Harris in Texas; and Ralph's son John worked for Filene's in Boston—all left relatively early in their careers. “I think there was a box put on their heads," Witkind says, "and they never could get beyond a certain point. They were just clearly not going to go up the ladder.”

Most of the fifth generation never tried. "By the time we became active, the store was a much different place," says Charles Lazarus's son Stuart, who turned 40 in 1989. "It was no longer a place where four brothers could run it and have a good time. ... It was too large, too over-reaching, and it just didn't seem right for me.” Stuart earned a doctorate in education and now runs a small educational materials development company in Columbus. His wife, Columbus City Council member Cindy Lazarus, is frequently mentioned as a potential Democratic challenger to Buck Rinehart in the 1991 mayoral election. Ironically the former Cynthia Cecil, a Lazarus by marriage, is now the most visible bearer of the family name.

The fifth generation is spread from California to Ireland, raising its own families and pursuing varied careers: teaching, writing, law, consulting, advertising. Thanks to trust funds and inherited stock, most are affluent enough to be able to choose professions without worrying much about income. The fifth generation is, in part, living off the profits of the first four generations, translated into cash by Robert Campeau's ill-fated buyout of Federated in 1988. In a sense, all that's left of a family saga is the money.

Yet still, 139 years after Simon arrived from Germany, there's something about being a Lazarus. After one of Ralph's sons, Richard Kleeman Lazarus, died in a car wreck in 1979, his siblings and cousins decided to form a charitable foundation in his memory. The foundation, which accepts contributions only from fifth generation Lazari, "has become sort of a social glue for our generation," says Stuart. "Dick's death was an occasion for us to recognize what the family had meant, and what it still meant to many of us. … Today nearly all of us are financially comfortable. That seems to me to leave us with an enormous obligation to the family and to the community."

Even more important than the $10,000 to $20,000 the foundation distributes annually, Stuart Lazarus says, are the annual meetings, held in a different city each year and attended by as many as 25 to 30 fifth-generation Lazari and their families. "They're like family reunions," says Witkind. Fifth generation members "don't look much alike if you get two of them together, but you get the whole mess of them together and you know they're a family. And they share a strong feeling, which is really the most Jewish thing about this family, that you are your brother's keeper, and you watch out for one another within the family.”

This story originally appeared in the May 1990 issue of Columbus Monthly.

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