Historic Structures

Manchesters Department Store, Madison Wisconsin

Date added: April 18, 2016 Categories: Wisconsin Commercial Retail

The Manchester's Building was constructed in 1929-1930 to house the "largest department store" in the City of Madison (Capital Times, Sept. 28, 1930). The founder of the establishment, Harry s. Manchester, was born in Kewaunee, Illinois in 1868. At the age of 18, he began his career in the retail business in a Kewaunee store doing odd jobs. Eventually he was promoted to buyer, and in his contacts with big-city jobbers he developed a desire to go farther in the business than he could get in Kewaunee. Although he worked in several department stores around the country in the next few years, he was most successful in his positions in Marshall Field's in Chicago. In that store, he rose to become manager of all of the ready-to-wear departments and was awarded for his efforts by receiving company stock. When his son, Morgan, was about to graduate from college, Manchester decided to buy a dry goods store in Madison so that he and his son could work together. In 1921, Manchester purchased Keely and Neckerman, a successful 31-year old firm, which in that year employed 80 people and did $700,000 worth of business annually.

For nine years, Manchester and his son continued running the dry goods store at 15-17 North Pinckney Street (demolished ca. 1970). At that time, the store specialized in fine women's apparel, reasonably priced dress accessories, yard goods, linens, toys and rugs, with a beauty parlor and bobby shoppe (a hair cutting shop for young women and girls featuring the trendy, short hair cuts). Under the Manchesters1 leadership, the establishment thrived so that by 1930, just before the store moved into its new home, the business employed 130 people with 70 more added during the holiday season and did $1,250,000 worth of business annually (Wisconsin State Journal, Sept. 28, 1930}.

When the doors of the new store were thrown open, Mayor Schmedemann said that the new building placed "Madison's shopping center in a class with merchandising centers in Chicago and the East" (Wisconsin State Journal, Sept. 30, 1930). Local newspapers said it was "probably the outstanding department store building of any city in America comparable with Madison's size (Capital Times, Sept. 28, 1930). The move was also hailed from an economic standpoint. The Wisconsin State Journal (Sept. 28, 1930) noted that the expanded operation would "make a sizeable contribution to the solution of the employement problem in Madison, and to the city's population growth as well". It noted that the staff had been increased 15% in anticipation of the move and that new buyers and department managers had moved to Madison with their families.

Eight years later, in 1938 when Harry S. Manchester died, the firm employed 300 people with an additional 300 seasonal workers. In 1937, it did $1,900,000 worth of business (Capital Times, July 15, 1938).

Morgan Manchester took over as president of the corporation after his father's death. In the 1950's an east side branch was established in Madison's first suburban shopping center, which was developed by the Manchester family. Later, with Morgan's son, H. S. Manchester II, at the helm, two stores were added in shopping centers on the west side. Shortly thereafter, downtown Madison's position as a major retail center in the region started rapidly eroding. In 1978 a Milwaukee department store chain bought the Manchester's firm, and in 1981 the downtown store was closed.