While the business originated in Baltimore in the 1860s, where the Kanns had settled after immigrating to the United States from Germany, Solomon Kann (with his three sons, Louis, Simon, and Sigmund) found new opportunities in the nation’s capital. By 1893 they had opened a new store at 8th Street and Market Place NW. The business would remain at this location for its entire lifetime, absorbing the surrounding buildings over time and adapting their floor plans. Their most notable expansion came from acquiring the next-door neighbor, A. Saks & Co., in 1932.
Kann’s described itself as a popular bargain store that matched similar business practices – such as their one-price policy – similar to stores like Woodward & Lothrop. However, Kann’s went further than other stores by not creating a credit system. While other stores often allowed customers to open charge accounts, Kann’s required customers to pay at the time of purchase. Even in their expansion, Kann’s kept their company under strict budgets. Their only branch store, in Arlington, opened in 1952 under the pretense of offering equal services and products to the Virginian suburb.
Their lack of expansion ultimately contributed to the brand’s failure, with the company falling behind its competitors that aggressively moved to the suburbs as new neighborhoods and subdivisions popped up. Because they only had one suburban branch, the downtown store suffered as more people left downtown DC in favor of the new development outside the city. When store leadership attempted to modernize the flagship store’s exterior facade in 1959, they placed aluminum paneling around the entire exterior, giving the store the look of a giant metal box. Unfortunately for the building, this covered the 19th century facades.
While the company placed blame on the construction of Metro during the 1970s on their dismal performance, a multitude of factors contributed to their closing. Kann’s was purchased by L.S. Good in 1971 in an attempt to save the company, but closed four years later in 1975.
Kann’s story does not end at its closure, though. After the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation (PADC) took ownership of the building, the organization’s leadership slated the building for demolition, despite the building’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places. While city government officials, preservationists, and PADC fought over the building’s future, everything would come crashing down in 1979. One night, the Kann’s building caught fire and was completely destroyed, in part due to the aluminum sheet exterior that had been placed on it in the 1950s. The metal box prevented firefighters from safely accessing the building and kept the flames going much longer than expected. After the smoke cleared, the building was demolished and slated for redevelopment due to the extensive damage.
Within Downtown Historic District.
This site is a stop on the "Finding Style in DC: Navigating DC’s Shopping Scene" tour.