The Bon-Ton Building, York
Completed in 1912 and designed by prominent Pennsylvania architect, John A. Dempwolf, the former Bon-Ton Department Store is now the York County Human Services Center. The chain’s initial flagship store, the building was abandoned in the late 1970s when the Bon-Ton moved to a York suburban mall. It then sat vacant for over a decade until it was acquired by York County and underwent a major renovation in the early 1990s. Best known for hosting Santa during the holiday season, who arrived via the York airport astride a fire truck, the building and department store are fondly remembered by most of York’s older residents.
Backstory and Context
The Bon-Ton began in 1898 when Max Grumbacher and his father, Samuel, opened Grumbacher & Son, a millinery and dry goods store that occupied a single room. It soon outgrew its small beginnings and the family built a five-story, 37,000 square-foot store at the corner of Market and Beaver Streets in downtown York in 1912. Attempting to lure high-end patrons, the Grumbachers chose the moniker “Bon-Ton,” a British term that designates a member of the elite or high society, for their department store. The store continued to thrive and, as a result, incorporated in 1929.
Max Grumbacher Sr. died in 1933 and his two sons, Max Jr. and Richard, along with his widow, Daisey, formed a partnership and not only continued the family business, but expanded it as well. A second store was opened just after World War II in Hanover, Pennsylvania and a Bon-Ton arrived in Hagerstown, Maryland soon after. Today, Bon-Ton maintains its corporate headquarters in York and its merchandising headquarters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And while there is some evidence that the chain is struggling financially, it still operates over 260 stores in 26 states.
As for their flagship store, the Grumbachers selected the well-known firm of J. A. Dempwolf to design a building that reflected their vision. Dempwolf responded by designing a structure in the Commercial Style made popular by Chicago department stores. His design featured a glazed terracotta façade, large rectangular windows and stepped parapets along the roofline. It also featured a Tea Room that could accommodate over 250 patrons and a second-floor café that kept people in the store for lunch. The store even eventually incorporated York’s first “moving stairway” or escalator in 1956.
happened to numerous downtown retail stores across the country, the Bon-Ton
followed the people to the suburbs, where multi-store malls were being
established in the 1960s and 1970s. As a
result, their downtown York store sat unused for over a decade. It was eventually acquired by York County,
which hired the firm of Nutec Design to re-imagine it as the York County Human Services
Center. To achieve that goal, the entire
interior was gutted, to include asbestos removal, its exterior was restored to
it heyday of the early 20th century and the large warehouse behind
it was demolished. Currently, the
building still serves as a county government building.
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