The Hecht family, immigrating from Germany to the United States in the 1860s, found immediate success in the retail industry. The first family member, Simeon Hecht, arrived in Baltimore to open a furniture store in the city, and after his initial success, more family members, including Moses Hecht, followed suit. While the other Hecht men also opened businesses in Baltimore, Moses set his eyes on nearby Washington, DC. What followed was a long and prosperous department store business that expanded throughout the area.
Moses Hecht’s first store at 515 7th Street NW opened in 1896, which coincided with many other retailers opening at the same time. Hecht found great success because he offered lower prices in his store, catering to working-class customers. As his success grew, so did the store; Hecht, like many other retailers, opted to expand organically into the surrounding buildings as needed. However, by 1924, Hecht’s had grown so much that it necessitated a new building.
To complete the project, Hecht’s hired architect Jarvis Hunt to design the store. When completed, the new Hecht’s flagship store had an American Gothic style. The new store’s features did not stop at the exterior, either. In 1934, Hecht’s introduced DC’s first escalators, a marvel that would efficiently transport customers between floors without having to wait for an elevator. The escalator helped to maintain an open-air environment and cut down on the time shoppers would miss on seeing the store’s merchandise.
While Hecht’s became a favorite for many shoppers in DC looking for low-prices, they adhered to the segregationist policies common throughout the city and nation. Hecht’s had segregated entrances, dressing rooms, and customer services throughout their stores. These policies became the heart of protests outside the store in 1951, due, in particular, to the segregationist policies they enforced at their lunch counters. Civil rights activists, led by Mary Church Terrell, picketed the store for several months to protest their lunch counter policy. These protests led Hecht’s to open the entire store to all customers, a major win for integration in department stores in DC.
Beyond the flagship store, Hecht’s would expand throughout the mid-to-late-20th century, opening branch stores in Maryland and Virginia. Hecht’s, like many other department stores, would also adapt to the indoor shopping malls that began popping up in the suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s. The branch stores offered the same low prices for shoppers who could not make it to the downtown store, or wanted a more convenient option in the suburbs.
In the 1980s, due to Metro construction, Hecht’s flagship store would move one final time to a new building on G Street NW between 12th and 13th streets.. The new store reflected the evolution that department stores had undergone in architecture, layout, and interior design. By this time, though, Hecht’s was no longer a locally-owned company; the store had been absorbed into the May Company in the 1950s. After operating under the May Company for decades, Hecht’s stores were eventually replaced by Macy’s.
The move saddened and shocked DC shoppers because of Hecht’s ability to outlive its local competitors. Hecht’s marked the end of the DC department store, shutting its last locations in 2006. Their closures continued the trend of national retailers taking the place of local stores that had started the department store trend in Washington a century before.
The former Hecht building at 575 7th Street NW was transformed into its current namesake, Terrell Place, in 2003. The building was renamed after Mary Church Terrell, one of the organizers of the 1951 protests that desegregated the store’s facilities. The ground floor operates as commercial space, with the rest of the building functioning as office space.
Within Downtown Historic District.
This site is a stop on the "Finding Style in DC: Navigating DC’s Shopping Scene" tour.