Immigrating to Baltimore in 1860, the Lansburgh brothers, Gustave, Mark, and James, all contributed to the future success of what would become one of DC’s oldest dry goods retailers. First, however, Gustave Lansburgh began his business journey as a clerk for an already-existing retailer before saving enough money to open his own business. Gustave and Mark were the first two to settle in the United States, and soon moved to DC to try their hand in a new market.
Upon arriving in DC, the brothers set up their new shop at Center Market (at approximately Pennsylvania Avenue and 8th Street NW, now the location of the National Archives), but were quick to realize their model was not maximizing exposure or profit. To drum up more business, Mark stood at their market stall while Gustave traveled on foot with a large bag filled with their products - buttons, pins, and other small items - across the city to go directly to potential buyers.
In quick succession, the brothers, with James now joining them, were able to expand operations from their market stall to two smaller rental spaces to one large storefront at 7th and D Streets NW. While Mark left the business shortly after the expansions, Gustave and James trudged ahead and continued to grow the company. Their start as a fabrics and dry goods retailer evolved to department store status as other companies moved to the expanding shopping district along 7th Street NW. Lansburgh’s was the third major store to operate in the area, right behind future department store giant Woodward & Lothrop.
Perhaps what accelerated their fame most was their response and actions in the aftermath of President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. The brothers knew that local businesses and the federal government would need black drapery in mourning, so they bought all the black fabric they could find in Baltimore and gave it away for free. These acts stuck with many residents through the decades, and Lansburgh’s continued to operate with a well-liked reputation.
Over the years, like other downtown department stores, Lansburgh expanded across the block. Their original store at 7th and D Street grew to include property acquisitions across 8th Street and E Street as well. From 1916 to 1941 the company built and renovated the 8th Street location to accommodate more merchandise and shopper’s needs. While the 8th Street exterior maintained its original look throughout the store’s lifetime, the 7th Street facade underwent renovation to give it a modernistic design in the 1940s. The store, just as it had when it first opened, matched other retailers’ downtown growth during this time.
Despite customers’ affinity for the store, this did not protect it from its struggles to expand outside the city. Lansburgh’s suffered from slow expansion in suburban shopping malls, despite the brand’s best efforts. The company was purchased by City Stores Corporation in 1951, with their local ownership tied into the buyout. However, the company would again take a financial hit during the 1968 riots that tore through much of downtown, and would not recover.
Lansburgh’s announced their stores’ closures in April 1973, with reports indicating that other retailers would take over some existing locations, while plans were not confirmed for others. The flagship store, at 8th and E streets NW, would be transformed into a mixed-use building with apartments, retail space, and the Lansburgh Theater. The Shakespeare Theater Company would claim the theater space, which still operates today.
Within Downtown Historic District.This site is a stop on the "Finding Style in DC: Navigating DC’s Shopping Scene" tour.