Woodward & Lothrop Service Warehouse

A symbol of one of DC’s most important retailers, the Woodward & Lothrop Service Warehouse also exemplifies an industrially-inspired variant of Art Deco.

From the 1880s into the 20th century, the department store Woodward & Lothrop drove retailing practices and tactics in DC and beyond. This service warehouse represented another strategic shift toward improving the store’s operations and maximizing its capacity.

Founded in Massachusetts in 1873 by Samuel Woodward and Alvin Lothrop, Woodward & Lothrop met with immediate success upon moving to DC in 1880. The marketing innovations that Woodward & Lothrop embraced, such as offering exchange privileges and cash refunds, earned favor and loyalty among customers. The store’s owners’ willingness to change established practices and do business differently than their peers frequently paid off. For instance, when Woodward & Lothrop moved from their storefront on Pennsylvania Avenue to a larger one on F Street, NW, outside of the established commercial district, the commercial district expanded anew to encompass their new location.

The construction of this warehouse between 1937 and 1939 represented another shift in operations. Building offsite warehouses was becoming a trend among major retailers because of the benefits warehouses offered. With the additional storage space, retailers could buy goods in larger quantities at lower prices, which allowed them to lower their own prices in turn. Furthermore, warehouse space meant that retailers could move all of their non-income producing activities (such as repairs and delivery services) out of stores, increasing the amount of retail space available. Positioning warehouses by rail and road transportation, as Woodward & Lothrop did, also allowed for easier shipment and delivery.

Designed by Abbott, Merkt & Company, an architecture firm known for their warehouse work, the Woodward & Lothrop Service Warehouse is notable for the Streamline Moderne style it models. Derived from Art Deco, Streamline Moderne stripped away some of Art Deco’s more decorative elements, opting instead for sleekness and modernity inspired by aerodynamic design. The long vertical lines on the warehouse are typical of this style.

Shortly before designing the Woodward & Lothrop Service Warehouse, Abbott, Merkt & Company had designed the nearby Hecht Company Warehouse, another Streamline Moderne-style building. Although the warehouses are stylistically compatible, Woodward & Lothrop needed a building that looked distinct enough from their competitor’s that no one would view it as a copy. The rounded corners and horizontal design of the Hecht Company Warehouse contrast with the Woodward & Lothrop Service Warehouse’s square corners and vertical lines.

Built to be fireproof, the six-story building’s reinforced concrete structure is clad in two-toned beige brick with limestone accents. Several sections of circular columns contribute to the linear design of the building. Since Woodward & Lothrop’s liquidation in 1995, the warehouse’s interior has been converted to office space, but the distinctive, three-story neon sign bearing the company’s name remains a visible reminder of its original purpose.

DC Inventory: January 27, 1993
National Register: February 15, 2005

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131 M Street, NE