Sunday, October 12, 1997
Lazarus store has long, rich lineage
Many remember retailer as Shillito's

The Cincinnati Enquirer

It might be Lazarus to you, but to many of the older generations, it will always be Shillito's.

Cincinnati's first and oldest department store was founded by John Shillito, who came to Cincinnati in 1817 from Greensburg, Pa. He worked as a clerk for Cincinnati's leading dry-goods merchants, Blanchly and Simpson at 55 Main St., on the east side of the street between Columbia and Pearl streets. In 1832, Mr. Shillito joined with William McLaughlin to buy the business and merged it with Mr. McLaughlin's store to start McLaughlin & Shillito, offering ''an assortment of goods not inferior to any in the market.''

The partnership did not last. Within a year, Mr. Shillito joined with Robert W. Burnet and James Pullen to form Shillito, Burnet and Pullen, on the west side of Main Street between Fourth and Fifth streets. In 1837, Mr. Shillito bought his partners' interests and started John Shillito and Co., building a four-story, 14,400-square-foot building on the north side of Fourth Street between Main and Sycamore. It was billed as the most commodious dry-goods store west of the Alleghenies.

Shillito's built a new store in 1857, on the south side of Fourth Street between Vine and Race. Designed by architect James McLaughlin the new store, three and a half times larger than the old store, was billed as a department store - Cincinnati's first - with a department for carpets in the basement, retail goods on the first and second floors and its upper floors devoted to the wholesale trade. The building, still standing, became McAlpin's department store when Shillito's moved to Seventh and Race streets in August 1878.

The new store was a milestone. Again, the architect was James McLaughlin, who also designed other landmark Cincinnati buildings, including the Cincinnati Art Museum. Modeled after Le Bon Marche, a famous Paris department store, the new building's steel skeleton was a new innovation that inspired the Chicago style of modern commercial architecture, according to John Clubbe, in Cincinnati Observed: Architecture and History.

The interior was spectacular, with a six-story atrium flanked with elaborate Victorian iron railings, with a grand staircase and topped with a 60-foot-diameter hexagonal glass dome, which, though covered, still tops the building.

''By this move Race Street was made what it is today and Seventh Street is destined to be, the east and west street for high-class retail business,'' a Shillito advertisement said in 1906 when Shillito's was the largest department store in the Midwest.

The city's retail center did not move to Seventh as Shillito's hoped, and competition slowed the store's growth until 1930 when the the company was absorbed by the F.& R. Lazarus Co. of Columbus. A year later, Lazarus joined with Filene's of Boston and Abraham & Strauss in Brooklyn to create Federated Department Stores, which moved its headquarters to Cincinnati in 1945.

The store's dramatic atrium was doomed in the 1930s when the Cincinnati Fire Department asked the store to cover it. Shillito's decided to renovate the store and add an extension. Faced with the task of covering up an architectural landmark, Architects George Marshall Martin and George Roth of the firm Potter, Tyler, Martin & Roth added a dramatic new Pre-Columbian shell in granite, marble and limestone that is one of the city's distinctive buildings.

''It's good to live in a city that deserves a store like this,'' a 1938 advertisement boasted. ''You think of the new Union Terminal, the new Post Office, the Columbia Avenue Viaduct. Yes, Cincinnati is getting the fine things it has earned a right to.''

Federated merged Shillito's with Rikes of Dayton in 1982, changing the name to Shillito-Rikes. Four years later, the chain merged with Lazarus in Columbus, and the Shillito name was dropped. In the 1980s, the downtown store's chief competition came from the company's own stores in shopping malls.

Now, after 120 years of trying to lure the main shopping area of the city from Fourth and Fifth streets to Seventh Street, Lazarus is moving back, in a new store on Fountain Place. But new or old, there will still be lots of customers who insist on calling it Shillito's.