While department stores had originated in fashion-forward cities like Paris, the United States did not lag far behind in adapting and creating their own retail hubs across the country. In DC, this commercial hub sprouted around 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, but quickly expanded because of new stores opening and expanding their physical footprint within downtown. Among these new stores, Julius Garfinckel saw an opportunity: he planned to bring Washingtonians a luxurious, high-class shopping experience like no other.
First opening in 1905 at 1226 F Street NW, Garfinckel (original spelling: Garfinckle) was no stranger to retail, and had worked in the industry for years prior to opening his own store. Even with the small store he originally opened, the store was an instant success, with shoppers excited to see the luxury goods that Garfinckel brought to the DC market. With his upper-class customer base continually expanding and anxious for new products, the store quickly moved to accommodate the larger inventory.
By 1928, Garfinckel’s had become one of the city’s largest department stores, with clientele ranging from upper-class families to congressmen and presidents. The constant attention paid to bringing new fashions straight from Europe to the United States gave Garfincfkel’s a unique edge against their competition, but the store also remained the only large luxury retailer in the area. Garfinckel also employed stiff business practices; if Garfinckel found any other store carrying the same merchandise as him, he would quickly have employees dispose of it to maintain their level of exclusivity.
In its final iteration, Garfinckel’s occupied a newly-constructed building at the corner of 14th and F streets NW (600 14th Street NW). Designed by the New York architect firm Starrett & Van Veck, the Stripped Classical style building matched the high-end aesthetic that Garfinckel’s had curated over the previous decades. By the time of its completion in 1929, department store architecture and design had become a valuable subfield, and the New York architects specialized in creating beautiful department stores. The store also stood out against others in the area because of its unified design. As other stores expanded, they simply bought the surrounding properties and incorporated the existing building. These stores lacked a streamlined exterior facade; Garfinckel’s turned heads because the building consisted of one, impressive unit.
The interior of the store matched the exterior, and even introduced new technology to keep up with the luxury shopping experience. Garfinckel’s introduced air conditioning, cold storage for furs, elevators with top-to-bottom service, and even used a pneumatic tube system for communication across departments. The store was also constructed with the intention of future expansion in order to keep the unified look for as long as possible. They would have to expand again in 1946, but maintained the store’s aesthetic.
Like other department stores, such as Woodward & Lothrop, Garfinckel’s hosted its own in-store restaurant, the Greenbriar Garden Restaurant, which opened in 1940. Located on the fifth floor, the menu consisted of small plates and salads, but notably did not serve alcohol. When the restaurant applied for a liquor license, some guests protested the decision because they did not want to see other patrons drinking and possibly becoming unruly. The restaurant did get their license, though, and no notable instances of an unruly patron seems to have occurred.
With the exclusive and high-end experience that Garfinckel’s offered, however, came multiple limitations for people of color and ethnic communities. Garfinckel refused to hire or service people of color and Jewish people, with Garfinckel even changing the spelling of his name to “remove” himself from any connection to the Jewish community. Also, the store only catered to upper-class customers because of its merchandise, excluding anyone who could not afford the store’s products.
Garfinckel’s continued to expand throughout the mid-20th century, and was even the first to open a branch store in Spring Valley (Northwest Washington) in 1942. The branch stores offered similar services to the flagship store, but the branches made high-end products more convenient for customers living in the upper-class suburban neighborhoods. At their height, Garfinckel’s operated eight stores throughout the metropolitan area. Garfinckel’s would buy out other stores and absorb them into their fold as well, including brands like Brooks Brothers and Ann Taylor.
Unfortunately for Garfinckel’s, they would fall victim to the same fate as other department stores throughout DC and the country. After a series of mergers and acquisitions, Garfinckel’s had lost its local ownership. Despite the local attachment to Garfinckel’s, the company that owned it, Raleigh’s Stores Incorporation, decided to close their doors for good in 1990. The company had been bought out and then quickly sold to finance its takeover by another corporation, effectively ending the possibility of its survival. The department store market had also shifted to favor national chains over local chains.
The building on 14th Street would remain unoccupied for a number of years, but eventually became a mixed use office and retail building called Hamilton Square. A Borders bookstore occupied the ground floor until 2010. After the store’s closure, the space was transformed into a restaurant called The Hamilton.
DC Inventory: February 17, 1988
National Register: April 4, 1995
This site is a stop on the “Finding Style in DC: Navigating DC’s Shopping Scene” tour.