WORCESTER — When Petula Clark sang about forgetting about all her troubles and cares on her 1965 smash hit “Downtown,” she easily could have been singing about shopping at Denholm & McKay.
Traditionally during the Christmas shopping season, the six-story façade of Denholm & McKay at 484 Main St. would be adorned with an 80-foot-tall “tree of lights” made up of 2,500 sparkling 10-watt bulbs and complete with a 12-foot-tall star on top and 70-foot-long base.
For those of us old enough to remember those days, the memories linger on and shine the brightest during the holiday season.
In the age before shopping online or waiting in checkout lines at crowded box stores for Black Friday specials, Denholms was the place for all home and holiday shopping needs.
Customers carrying gold and white shopping bags marked Denholms in black script were once commonplace in downtown Worcester.
For many decades the holiday shopping experience was not complete without a visit to Denholms, where the decorations alone were once the talk of the town.
Inside and out, Denholms was a winter wonderland of holiday displays, keepsake Santa photo ops and elaborate window displays that would attract crowds even during the bitterest cold.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the store closing its doors.
Modest origins, rapid growth
On Nov. 26, 1870, Denholm & McKay began as a dry goods store at Main and Mechanic streets. The store was a charter member of the “Scotch Syndicate,” a group of eight houses that collectively became one of the largest buyers of dry goods in the world.
The original Denholm & McKay location was built by William C. Clark and was known as the Clark Block. In its time, it was considered one of Worcester’s finest locations and stores.
Founded by William Alexander Denholm and William C. McKay, the store was often referred to as “The Boston Store” because of its modern conveniences and was the largest retailer in Massachusetts outside Boston.
Advertising men’s suits for $5 and “extra good ones” for $20, Denholm & McKay was staffed by 18 employees when it first opened, an opening which was advertised in the Worcester Daily Spy newspaper, boasting “New stock, small profits, one price.”
Business grew by leaps and bounds, requiring the store to have larger quarters.
On Sept. 21, 1882, the retail juggernaut took over the Jonas G. Clark block at 480-500 Main St. and increased its workforce to more than 100.
The store originally occupied only the street floor of the new location. But as the business continued to grow, expansion became necessary until the entire building, with its five floors and basement, was occupied.
In 1904, an annex was constructed behind the original building on Chase Court. The bridge building, linking the two older structures, was built in 1916.
In the March 6, 1936, edition of the Worcester Telegram, Denholm & McKay was praised for not sparing anything on time and expense.
“A few hours after a new style has proved successful in the metropolitan centers of the nation, the purchasing agents at Denholm’s have all the details on it,” the article stated.
In the mid-20th century, Denholm & McKay Co. became the crown jewel of a once-bustling downtown that also included the John C. MacInnes Department Store, directly across from City Hall; C.T. Sherer on Front Street; Barnard, Sumner & Putnam Co., a block or two north on Main Street; Filene’s with its bargain basement on Main Street next to the Park Building; as well as Woolworth’s and Newberry’s, both on Front Street; and Kresge’s, on Main Street across from City Hall.
A big-city department store in downtown Worcester
As the country came out of World War II, Denholms shared in the business boom, with its workforce rising to nearly 600.
The second-largest employer in the city and the second-biggest taxpayer, Denholm & McKay grew into a large and elaborate department store in a style only found in the largest cities.
Lavish decorations heralded each change of season, while store windows displayed the latest fashion finery.
With sophisticated window displays and promotional literature, the store managed to stay on the cutting edge of fashion, particularly in regard to women’s styles and fashions.
In 1951 president and general manager Harry Wolf decided to modernize the existing brick facade with an updated look consisting of Indiana limestone, Belgian marble and stainless steel. The $150,000 exterior face-lift, which also included a marquee and redesigning the eight storefront windows, won its share of architectural awards.
With the completion of a water tower with a 300-ton capacity atop the building, Denholm & McKay Co. in 1952 added 120 tons of air conditioning to the 40 tons already in operation.
In 1961, Denholms tore down buildings it owned on High Street and constructed the High Street annex and parking lot.
In 1963, the company purchased the former YWCA building on Chatham Street and reconditioned some of the structures for store use, with the original YWCA pool boarded over.
The High and Chatham streets expansion brought Denholm to its permanent 250,000 square feet of selling space.
With the final expansion, Denholms increased the size of its fabric center and added a gourmet shop and restaurant in its lower level.
Subsequently, other departments were added including the “Poise ‘N Ivy Shop” and “Junior Hi Shop.”
On Aug. 28, 1964, Denholm & McKay Co. opened both flights of its new $100,000 escalators to shoppers.
Designed by the store’s architect, Charles Slatter, the escalators were the only ones of their kind in the United States, according to a Sept. 1, 1964, edition of The Evening Gazette.
Operating on all six floors, the escalators could handle 5,000 customers an hour, four times more than could be handled by the elevators, which were run by uniformed elevator operators in gray suits with white gloves.
In 1969, Denholms president Howard Feist merged the company with two Rhode Island-based retailers, Shepard’s and Gladding’s. It also opened its only Denholms branch store in March 1970 at the Auburn Mall.
On Nov. 17, 1973, the Friday before Thanksgiving, the city’s 102-year-old shopping tradition closed its doors for good after months of fiscal struggles that forced Denholm & McKay into involuntary bankruptcy proceedings.
The closing of Denholms marked the end of a more genteel era in retailing.
Opening July 29, 1971, the Galleria at Worcester Center, the shopping mall behind City Hall with Filene’s and Jordan Marsh as anchor stores, was cited by many Denholms employees and customers as a reason for the store’s demise, according to a Nov. 17, 1973, article in the Worcester Telegram.
“A final group of shoppers came into the store about 5 p.m. Most were middle-aged or older, dropping by for one last look at the store, for a last word with the people who sold their clothes, their furniture, their Christmas presents for so many years,” the article reported. “The employees followed the last customers out into the November night a few minutes later, walking out of the store as the front doors were locked behind them, leaving behind a big empty building on Main Street.”
After its 1973 closing, the building hung on as the home for smaller Worcester businesses, offices and nonprofits.
Two months later, Denholms’ belated efforts to join the mall era came to an end when the Auburn Mall store closed.