In 1870, Samuel Walter Woodward and Alvin Mason Lothrop met and began a decades-long partnership that resulted in one of the country’s first and leading department store ventures. After working together at another retailer that wouldn’t implement their marketing strategy, they opened their own store, Woodward & Lothrop, in Massachusetts in 1873. The store had noted success, but the business partners felt that they could do even better in a different city. After considering multiple places to move operations, the duo decided on Washington, DC, the nation’s capital, and a growing city in the years following the Civil War.
Upon the move, the Woodward & Lothrop store - lovingly known by shoppers as Woodie’s - found the success they had hoped for; so much so that the company had to move twice to house their expanding staff and merchandise. In 1886, they made their final move to 11th and F streets NW, where their flagship store would remain for the remainder of its lifetime. Previously known as the Carlisle Building, the new store boasted hundreds of employees, numerous products, service departments, and still experimental technology meant to make the store the most cutting-edge in the city. The building’s Beaux-Arts style made it stand out downtown, and its location on the corner attracted attention from passersby. The store’s grand opening on April 2, 1887 was a main event for DC socialites, with both gas-powered lamps and electric lights illuminating the store throughout the evening.
Woodward & Lothrop built their department store through new and mesmerizing marketing, including extravagant window displays to showcase the wide range of products the store held. The merchandise came from both domestic and international retailers alike, including fashion-forward Paris. Additionally, the store epitomized the terms “full-service” and “one-stop shop” by offering clients anything and everything they needed in one building. Shoppers could find clothing, furniture, travel expertise, styling, and much more throughout the store. The store expanded its square footage across the block multiple times, buying out other businesses in order to increase the store’s footprint.
Woodward & Lothrop’s flagship store helped create a new commercial center within DC, in addition to changing how Americans shopped and what they expected from the newly developed department store. Its extravagant displays and the variety of goods sold made shopping more convenient than ever. Its policy of hiring and promoting women within its stores expanded their opportunities to work outside of the home. On the shopper’s side, women increasingly visited department stores and developed a unique relationship with purchasing goods and services, establishing themselves as a consumer market.
This doesn’t mean that Woodward & Lothrop was perfect, however. Like most stores and businesses within the United States in the early 20th century, the store held discriminatory practices against people of color. This included separate entrances and exits, reduced or zero services offered to people of color, and other segregationist policies common during this time. While the store thrived and expanded, it also excluded a large population of DC residents from being able to experience the store in the same way as its white customers.
DC’s civil rights activists, however, would soon challenge the segregationist policies held within the city. Led by Mary Church Terrell and Annie Stein, a team of activists built a case surrounding “lost laws” of the DC legislature that had never been repealed. On June 8, 1953, the Supreme Court case of District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Inc. upheld the 1873 legislative act that barred racial discrimination within DC. The decision required desegregation in public spaces within the city (specifically restaurants), and marked a major milestone for the civil rights movement.
At the same time as these major civil rights milestones, Woodward & Lothrop continued to grow and expand. In 1950, they opened their first branch store in Friendship Heights (only a short walk from the Lord and Taylor branch store in the area), and expanded beyond DC’s borders to accommodate shoppers who’d moved to suburban communities in Maryland and Northern Virginia. Their flagship store also underwent renovations in order to keep up with changing design trends and to introduce new, innovative features. However, in 1985, Woodward & Lothrop would face one of its greatest changes yet: national corporate ownership under Taubman Centers.
The store’s loss in family ownership resulted from a major shift in department store businesses, which saw multiple takeovers by national brands. At this point, Woodward & Lothrop’s success had dwindled in the aftermath of the 1968 riots that tore through downtown. In only ten years, Woodward & Lothrop would permanently close its doors. Other national chains had replaced the local favorite and its takeover meant favoring economic success over local loyalty. Many DC shoppers were sad to see the company’s closure, but held onto over a century of memories.
DC Inventory: November 8, 1964 (Joint Committee on Landmarks)
Within Downtown Historic District.
This site is a stop on the “Finding Style in DC: Navigating DC’s Shopping Scene” tour.