Woodward & Lothrop Building
The Woodward & Lothrop Building was the flagship store of a popular department store chain in the D.C. area. The Woodward & Lothrop company, founded in 1873, moved to its permanent location on 11th and F Streets, NW, in 1887. It began with the five-story Carlisle Building designed by James M. Hill (1887), then expanded with the Henry Ives Cobb portion along G Street (1902) and the Frederick Pyle portion along F Street (1912 and 1925). The Carlisle Building was replaced in 1926, creating a more uniform, nine-story building that occupied almost the entire block. Together, the portions of the building comprise a mix of Beaux Arts and neoclassical architecture. Woodward & Lothrop, nicknamed “Woodies,” was one of the most expansive and entertaining department stores in Washington, D.C. from the 1880s to the 1970s. After closing its doors in 1995, the Woodward & Lothrop flagship store was nearly demolished. Today, it houses a Forever 21, H&M, and Zara and still boasts its beautiful architecture.
Backstory and Context
In 1873, Samuel Walter Woodward (1848-1917) and Alvin Mason Lothrop (1847-1912) founded the Boston Dry Goods House in Massachusetts. In February 1880, they moved to Washington, D.C. and reopened the Boston Dry Goods Store at the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and 7th Street NW, now the location of the United States Navy Memorial. They briefly partnered with Charles E. Cochrane, a local merchant, and rebranded the business as the Woodward, Lothrop, and Cochrane Boston House. Under their successful business model, they organized the store in departments, offered clothing one season ahead, and sold merchandise at “one price,” unlike competitors that allowed bartering. By December 1880, Woodward and Lothrop outgrew their space and moved to 921 Pennsylvania Avenue. After differences caused Cochrane to depart and form his own business in 1886, the company was renamed Woodward & Lothrop.
In 1886, Woodward & Lothrop outgrew its space and acquired property at the corner of 11th and F Streets. They hired investor Calderon Carlisle to build their company headquarters and James G. Hill, a prominent local architect known for the original Bureau of Engraving and Printing Building, to create an Italian Renaissance design. Woodward & Lothrop’s new building and location reflected broader patterns of commercialization in the area. Modest storefronts gave way to department stores comprising multiple stories and entire blocks. Opened in 1887, the Carlisle Building included large show windows, a grand staircase, elevators, a marble drinking fountain, and a tourist information desk. Soon, Woodward & Lothrop encompassed almost the entire block, removing existing buildings to create tall, fashionable retail spaces. In 1902, the G Street portion was built by Henry Ives Cobb in the Beaux Arts Renaissance style, with beautiful engravings on the exterior. The F Street portion built by Frederick Pyle in a simple neoclassical design in 1912 and expanded upon in 1925. Finally, in 1926, in-house architect Linden Kent Ashford replaced the Carlisle Building with a new structure that complemented Pyle’s design. The Woodward & Lothrop building is representative of downtown commercial architecture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, which were distinct in design and purpose from the city’s federal hubs. Other popular, neighboring department stores of the time included the Hecht Company at F and 7th Streets, Lansburgh’s on 7th Street, Garfinckel’s at F and 14th Streets, and Kann’s at 8th Street and Market Place.
Nicknamed “Woodies,” Woodward & Lothrop grew into one of D.C.’s most expansive and entertaining department stores, comprising an open retail space, customer services, offices, and storage areas, all powered by its own power generating plant. Woodward & Lothrop included departments in men’s and women’s fashions, a jewelry department, engraving shop, optical department, and a furniture showroom. Woodies also sold experiences with its tourist information desk, travel agency, messenger service, beauty shop, tea room, ice cream parlor, and dining room. Elaborate window displays advertised all that Woodies had to offer, especially during the holidays. Staff at the flagship store had increased from 300 when the Carlisle Building was built to 1,700 in 1917, with thousands more added in the coming decades for the holiday season. In the 1930s, Woodward & Lothrop purchased and constructed warehouses, including a service warehouse at 131 M Street, NE, that is now on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1946, Woodies began its franchise when it bought out the Palais Royal department store, establishing Woodies North at 11th and G Streets and several suburban branches in Arlington and Bethesda. Competing with the Hecht Company, Woodies opened another branch in Chevy Chase and more than a dozen other suburban branches throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
Both the flagship and branch stores of Woodward & Lothrop were popular destinations for well-to-do shoppers and tourists, yet not everyone was welcomed equally. Department stores, including Woodward & Lothrop, engaged in discriminatory practices that restricted African Americans shoppers and employees. These practices included segregating entrances and restrooms, prohibiting black shoppers from trying on merchandise or eating in certain dining areas, and requiring notes that permitted access to certain floors. African American employees were accused of being overpaid for poor work and were assigned the most difficult jobs. Civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) advocated for integration. After Brown v. Board of Education declared segregation unconstitutional in 1954, black shoppers received equal access, yet did not experience true social equality. Persisting oppression of African American communities in D.C. gave way to violence after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968. Rioters broke department store windows and looted merchandise in protest. In 1969, Woodward & Lothrop began unraveling its discriminatory practices, declaring itself an equal opportunity employer in 1969, and paying black and white employees equally. Their advertisements and magazine began featuring African Americans more prominently and black mannequins appeared in store windows for the first time.
The late twentieth century proved difficult for downtown shopping with suburbanization and competitive chain stores like Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, and Nordstrom. Woodies fumbled through transfers, mergers, and ownership outside of D.C. throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Woodies filed for bankruptcy in 1994 and closed its doors in 1995, selling remaining assets to J.C. Penneys and May Department Stores. The original Woodward & Lothrop building was sold a few times and nearly lost to urban renewal efforts of the 1990s. Its current owners purchased the building in 2002, and renovated it for modern shopping experiences. The colorful Beaux Arts engravings on the building’s exterior are likely its most notable feature. Though historically accurate to the Beaux Arts style, the building was not originally painted these colors. Instead, these colors were added to draw attention to the building’s fine detail. The Woodward & Lothrop monogram is still visible, a subtle testament to the building’s history as a retail destination.
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