Bonwit Teller

Last updated on 7 August 2017

Bonwit Teller & Co. was a luxury department store in New York City founded by Paul Bonwit in 1895 at Sixth Avenue and 18th Street, and later a chain of department stores. In 1897 Edmund D. Teller was admitted to the partnership and the store moved to 23rd Street, east of Sixth Avenue. Bonwit specialized in high-end women's apparel at a time when many of its competitors were diversifying their product lines, and Bonwit Teller became noted within the trade for the quality of its merchandise as well as the above-average salaries paid to both buyers and executives. The partnership was incorporated in 1907 and the store made another move, this time to the corner of Fifth Avenue and 38th Street.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, Bonwit Teller was one of a group of upscale department stores on Fifth Avenue that catered to the "carriage trade". Among its most notable peers were Peck & Peck, Saks Fifth Avenue and B. Altman and Company.

Bonwit changed ownership frequently, particularly after 1979. Bonwit Teller's parent company declared bankruptcy in 1989, resulting in the closure of the bulk of the company's stores.[1] Despite efforts over the years to restore it, the Bonwit Teller brand is now defunct.

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Bonwit Teller

Distinctive features

The Bonwit Teller's flagship uptown building at Fifth Avenue and 56th Street, originally known as Stewart & Company, was a women's clothing store in the "new luxury retailing district",[2] designed by the Whitney Warren and Charles Wetmore,[3] and opened on October 16, 1929 with Eleanor Roosevelt in attendance. It was described by The New York Times a 12-story emporium of "severe, almost unornamented limestone climbing to a ziggurat of setbacks" — as an "antithesis" of the nearby "conventional 1928 Bergdorf Goodman.[2]

The "stupendously luxurious" entrance sharply contrasted the severity of the building itself. The entrance was "like a spilled casket of gems: platinum, bronze, hammered aluminum, orange and yellow faience, and tinted glass backlighted at night".[2] The American Architect magazine described it in 1929 as "a sparkling jewel in keeping with the character of the store."[2]

Originally, the "interior of Stewart & Company was just as opulent as the entrance: murals, decorative painting, and a forest of woods: satinwood, butternut, walnut, cherry, rosewood, bubinga, maple, ebony, red mahogany and Persian oak." But after, April 1930, Bonwit Teller took over the store in April 1930 — the architect Ely Jacques Kahn stripped the interior of its decorations.[2]

Two more floors were added to the main building in 1938 and a twelve-story addition was made to the 56th Street frontage in 1939.

Over time, the 15-foot tall limestone relief panels, depicting nearly nude women dancing, at the top of the Fifth Avenue facade, became a "Bonwit Teller signature".[2] Donald Trump, who purchased the building wanted to begin demolition in 1980. Trump "promised the limestone reliefs" to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When they were "jackhammered" "to bits" the act was condemned.[2] Through a spokesman named "John Baron" -- who turned out to be Trump himself[4] -- Trump said that his company had obtained three independent appraisals of the sculptures, which he claimed had found them to be "without artistic merit."[5] An official at the Metropolitan Museum of Art disputed the statement, stating: "Can you imagine the museum accepting them if they were not of artistic merit? Architectural sculpture of this quality is rare and would have made definite sense in our collection."[5] In addition to the relief panels, the huge Art Deco nickel grillwork over the entrance to the store, which had also been promised to the museum, disappeared.[6] Again masquerading as his own spokesman "John Baron," Trump said, "We don't know what happened to it."[6]

History

Founding and early history (1880s–1946)

In the late 1880s, Paul Bonwit opened a small millinery shop at Sixth Avenue and 18th Street in Manhattan's Ladies' Mile shopping district. In 1895, which the company often referred to as the year it was founded, Bonwit opened another store on Sixth Avenue just four blocks uptown. When Bonwit's original business failed, Bonwit bought out his partner and opened a new store with Edmund D. Teller in 1898 on 23d Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.[7] The firm was incorporated in 1907 as Bonwit Teller & Company and in 1911 relocated yet again, this time to the corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-eighth Street.[8] The firm specialized in high-end women's apparel at a time when many of its competitors were diversifying their product lines, and Bonwit Teller became noted within the trade for the quality of its merchandise as well as the above-average salaries paid to both buyers and executives.

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Bonwit Teller from an advertisement ca. 1920

They announced that this new location would provide consumers with:

an uncommon display of wearing apparel from foreign and domestic sources . . . which will appeal to those who desire the unusual and exclusive at moderate prices.

In 1930, with the retail trade in New York City moving uptown, the store moved again, this time to a new address on Fifth Avenue. Bonwit took up residence in the former Stewart & Co. building at Fifty-sixth Street, which would remain the company's flagship store for nearly fifty years. The building had been designed by the architectural firm, Warren and Wetmore in 1929 and redesigned the next year by Ely Jacques Kahn for Bonwit.

The company, in need of capital, partnered with noted financier Floyd Odlum. Odlum, who had cashed in his stock holdings just prior to the stock market crash of 1929, was investing in firms in financial distress and in 1934 Odlum's Atlas Corporation acquired Bonwit Teller. Odlum's wife, Hortense, who had already been serving as a consultant, was named president of Bonwit Teller in 1938, making her the first female president of a major department store in the United States. The Odlums also retained a connection to the firm's founding family, naming Paul Bonwit's son Walter Bonwit as vice president and general manager.[8]

For a brief time in 1939-1940, the store owned radio station WHAT in Philadelphia.[9]

Changing ownership (1946–1979)

Floyd and Hortense Odlum would sell their investment in Bonwit Teller to Walter Hoving's Hoving Corporation. At the same time, Albert M. Greenfield's Philadelphia-based investment company Bankers Securities Corporation acquired Bonwit Teller's Philadelphia stores. With Bonwit Teller, Hoving would establish a strong retail presence on Fifth Avenue that would also include Tiffany & Co. Although Hoving was responsible for the significant growth of Bonwit Teller, it was ultimately this over-expansion, along with constantly changing ownership, that led to the firm's collapse.

The company would undergo another ownership change just ten years later with the acquisition of Bonwit by Genesco in 1956. At the time, Genesco was a large conglomerate operating more than 64 apparel and retail companies. While Genesco's portfolio included other upscale brands, including Henri Bendel, the company was largely known as a shoe retailer. Bonwit Teller, which had developed a cutting edge reputation promoting a young Christian Dior and other prominent American designers, began to lose both its fashion and sales momentum in the mid-1950s following the acquisition by Genesco.[7][10]

Branch locations

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Bonwit Teller in Boston's Back Bay

Bonwit Teller had started to expand as early as 1935 when it opened a "season branch" in Palm Beach, then in 1941 it opened a full-time branch in White Plains. This was followed by the opening of a Boston store in 1947 in the Back Bay neighborhood. By 1958, the store had locations in New York, Manhasset, White Plains (which it moved to Scarsdale/Eastchester next to a large Lord & Taylor store), Cleveland, Chicago, and Boston (234 Berkeley Street), as well as resort shops in Miami Beach and Palm Beach. In 1961, the company added a store in Short Hills and, in 1965, merged with the three-store Bonwit Teller Philadelphia chain (Philadelphia, Wynnewood, and Jenkintown). Later branches were located in Oak Brook, Troy (MI), Palm Desert, Beverly Hills, Bal Harbour (replacing the Lincoln Road resort shop in Miami Beach), Kansas City, Buffalo, Syracuse, and Columbia, South Carolina.

During this period, Bonwit grew at a much slower pace and with a lower degree of coordination than its peer, Saks Fifth Avenue, which was roughly the same size as Bonwit in the 1950s. During this period, Bonwit did retain a role on the development of fashion and design, most notably helping to launch the career of Calvin Klein.

Decline and bankruptcy (1979–1990)

Allied Stores Corporation acquired the company, with the exception of its flagship Fifth Avenue store, in 1979.[7] Shortly thereafter, the company's flagship store was sold separately to Donald Trump.[11] Trump demolished the flagship Manhattan location in 1980 to build the first Trump Tower[12] and Bonwit opened a new location, around the corner from its original store, at Fifth Avenue and 56th Street. The new location would be attached to Trump Tower's indoor mall and was constructed by joining several adjoining buildings. The new store, with 84,000 square feet (7,800 m2) of space, was significantly smaller than the original Bonwit Teller with over 225,000 square feet (20,900 m2).[13] Ultimately, Bonwit only lasted a short time in its new location, before being closed in 1990. Bonwit would be replaced by another short-lived department store venture, Galeries Lafayette.

In 1986, Bonwit's parent company was sold to Canadian entrepreneur Robert Campeau. Just a year later, in 1987, the company was sold for $101 million to Hooker Corporation an Australian developer that also controlled B. Altman & Company.[7] Hooker would attempt an aggressive expansion of the company's store base from 13 to 28 but losses mounted and the company, with 17 stores in the U.S., filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in August 1989. Bonwit was once again put on the auction block but under the bankruptcy plan, Hooker liquidated most of the Bonwit stores. As a result, there was a sharp cutback in the number of stores, to 4 from 16, effectively putting the other 12 out of business.[1]

Post-bankruptcy (1990–2000)

The Pyramid Company purchased the Bonwit Teller name and its remaining stores from bankruptcy court for $8 million in 1990.[14] Pyramid included a Bonwit store as one of four major anchors in the company's then soon-to-open Carousel Center mall in Syracuse, New York, which opened later that year.[15] The company had plans to expand the store name throughout the company's other two dozen malls and to create a new flagship store in Manhattan. However, these plans never materialized. The Syracuse store, the last remaining, closed in March 2000.[16]

Pyramid reportedly lost $60 million between 1990 and 1999 operating Bonwit Teller. The amount was the subject of a lawsuit alleging company chairman Robert Congel illegally transferred $20 million of the debt to partners in the company's Crossgates Mall in Albany, which never housed a Bonwit Teller store.[17]

Since 2000

In 2005, River West Brands, a Chicago based brand revitalization company, announced that it had formed Avenue Brands LLC to help bring back Bonwit Teller as a luxury brand. The company was seeking to use the Bonwit brand to draw attention to a line of upscale apparel and accessories.[18]

In June 2008 it was announced that Bonwit Teller "boutiques" would be opening in as many as twenty locations, beginning with New York and Los Angeles. However, with the onset of the recession in 2008 and 2009, it appears that this venture is not proceeding as originally anticipated.

Appearances in film

  • In the opening scene of the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany's, when Audrey Hepburn is driving up Fifth Avenue, the Bonwit Teller store next to Tiffany's is clearly visible including with a flag in front of it.
  • In the opening sequence of the 1995 film Die Hard with a Vengeance, Bonwit's Fifth Avenue store is bombed by villain Simon Gruber. Bonwit had been out of business for five years by that time.
  • In the 1978 film Oliver's Story, starring Ryan O'Neal and Candice Bergen, Candice plays the role of Marcie Bonwit. Later in the movie, it transpires that Marcie Bonwit is an heiress to the Bonwit Teller fortune.
  • In the 1979 film Rocky II, Rocky Balboa shops at Bonwit's store in Philadelphia as part of a spending spree sequence. Rocky purchases an expensive leather jacket (with a tiger design on the back), a fur coat for his wife Adrian and expensive wristwatches for his brother-in-law Paulie.
  • In 2009, Bonwit Teller was written into a scene in Mad Men, a television series that explores the world of advertising. Peter Campbell, advertising account executive, returns a Bonwit Teller dress to its Fifth Avenue store, where he discovers that Joan Holloway, a former co-worker, is now employed there as a sales clerk.
  • In the 2013 Hallmark Channel movie Window Wonderland, a window dresser (Chyler Leigh) explains how Salvador Dalí dressed windows at Bonwit's in his surrealist style.

References

  1. ^ a b Bonwit's Owner Files for Bankruptcy. New York Times, August 10, 1989
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Gray, Christopher (October 3, 2014). "The Store That Slipped Through the Cracks: Fifth Avenue Bonwit Teller: Opulence Lost". The New York Times. Streetscapes. Retrieved May 19, 2017.
  3. ^ Stewart & Company Building, 402-404 Fifth Avenue
  4. ^ Borchers, Callum (May 13, 2016). "The amazing story of Donald Trump’s old spokesman, John Barron — who was actually Donald Trump himself". Washington Post. Retrieved August 7, 2017.
  5. ^ a b McFadden, Robert D. (June 6, 1980). "Developer Scraps Bonwit Sculptures". New York Times. p. B1. Retrieved August 7, 2017.
  6. ^ a b McFadden, Robert D. (June 8, 1980). "Designer Astonished by Loss of Bonwit Grillwork". New York Times. p. 47. Retrieved August 7, 2017.
  7. ^ a b c d Australians buy Bonwit Teller. New York Times, May 1, 1987
  8. ^ a b "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2007-04-19. Retrieved 2007-03-20.
  9. ^ "J.D. Stern Enters Radio; Jars Philly" (PDF). Billboard. July 17, 1940. p. 6. Retrieved 31 December 2016.
  10. ^ Bonwit's Lady Boss. Time, Jan. 22, 1965
  11. ^ Kaminski, Joseph; 15, Jan; Comments, 2016 0. "The Political Fate of Bonwit Teller". Joseph Kaminski. Retrieved 2016-02-19.
  12. ^ The Midtown Book - Trump Tower
  13. ^ Bonwit Teller: Lively Interior On 57th Street. New York Times, April 23, 1981
  14. ^ 5 Bonwit Teller Stores Are Sold, Likely Insuring Retailer's Survival. New York Times, March 11, 1990
  15. ^ "Carousel Center 20th Anniversary (1990-2010)" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 11 August 2011. Retrieved 19 November 2011.
  16. ^ "Bonwit Teller to make last sale", Chicago Sun-Times, p. 41, 2011-03-07, retrieved 2011-11-19
  17. ^ "Suit Slams How Congel Covered Losses" Syracuse Post-Standard. May 28, 2006
  18. ^ Bringing back Bonwit. Crain's Chicago Business, June 05, 2006

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