Remembering Famous-Barr

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Inside the September issue of Vanity Fair (whose cover asks “Carla Bruni: The New Jackie O?” to the sound of a million eyes rolling) is a special advertising section called St. Louis Luxury Living. Within this section is an ad for Ivey-Selkirk Auctioneers, featuring the photo shown above.

Gorgeous photo (wish there was a photo credit) of a gorgeous building that started life as the first Famous-Barr in St. Louis County, from 1948 to 1991. It’s heartening to see a good building continually appreciated by being continually occupied and loved by its occupants.

I worked in the downtown Famous-Barr advertising department from 1988 to 2001. The building and its history always enchanted me, from grade-school adventures to see the Christmas windows to my tenure inside as an employee. Famous-Barr sold to Macy’s and then Macy’s shut down the advertising department (along with the headquarters a few floors up), with the last advertising troopers turning off the lights as they left at the beginning of July 2008.

It saddens me to think of that advertising department – which was there since the 1920s – gone for good. But at least the building is still there.

This week, the Suburban Journals ran a piece recounting the day the Southtown Famous-Barr opened in 1951. Jim Merkel’s “This Week in South Side History” is a regular feature, and he deserves a large round of applause for his consistent coverage of the South Side built environment.

The only thing missing from the article is photos of the Southtown Famous. So I dug out some photos I took on Christmas Day 1994, during the demolition of the building (shown above and below). That massive lot sat vacant for so long that I lost sense memory of the building, but the photos brought it all back. It really gave the Kingshighway/Chippewa intersection a “here’s where it’s all happening” feeling one only experiences in densely packed and deeply loved urban neighborhoods.

One interesting thing in the Journal article is the sickening sense of deja vu.

“I believe this beautiful structure signifies the confidence held by business leaders throughout the nation in the people of St. Louis. Here we have an outstanding example of the company’s recognition of the economic possibilities to be developed in St. Louis.”
– Mayor Joseph Darst

These quotes are from 1951, a year after a peak population of 856,796 in St. Louis City. Yet it still reeks of the exact same low-self esteem statements made by our current Mayor & Co. to this very day. Meaning, even when this city was top of the heap it felt bottom of the barrel?

From where and why does this city have such chronic low self-esteem issues? It works like negative manifesting and is, frankly, unattractive and undeserved. Is there a clandestine and long-standing political plan to keep this city in a meek and groveling state of mind? Is it a certain generational mindset passed on down? Is it an unforeseen backfiring of St. Louis humility and gentility?

If anyone has any plausible theories on St. Louis Self Esteem origins, I’d love to hear them.

16 thoughts on “Remembering Famous-Barr

  1. > Matt on 09/02/2019 at 1:13 AM said:
    >> Jesse on 05/10/2013 at 1:42 PM said:
    >> YES! Foley’s used the “this is where it all starts this is where it gets good”
    >> campaign too and I’m obsessed with finding it! Let me know if you have any luck.

    > Jesse – I found a couple of clips on YouTube:
    > https://youtu.be/HC985VhyGKQ
    > https://youtu.be/tiNW6Imksss

    Here are a few more:
    https://youtu.be/wQn9ymrqHa4?t=203
    https://youtu.be/v9JEdzGlFBU
    https://youtu.be/dE-5_IE1epo

  2. Trying to find out about the automated dolls in the Christmas Window. Mom has one.from when they auctioned the window off. Any.ideas of who made them or what their value might be now?

  3. No Jesse, I still haven’t found the jingle from that campaign. Hard to believe that was 15 years ago.

    “This is where smiles are made, and dreams are understood…”

  4. I worked at Famous Barr Northland Center for 2 years at the age of 16. I started as Christmas help and when to full time in the summer and part time during the school year. My mother Patricia got a job 1 month before me. She worked in the men’s clothing and the 1st floor and I worked in Budget Juniors in the lower level below 1st floor. The main Juniors more up line clothing was on the 2nd floor. Every year there was a junior representative to present the new clothing lines during the different seasons. There was a contest and I had the privilege to be the last of 3 to compete. There was only 1 winner. I did not get the top spot but a great program for teen girls. It was the pride of Famous-Barr. My mother passed in 1981 2 years after our mother daughter entrance to Famous-Barr. Famous-Barr was so wonderful in their support for our family. In 1983, my father met and married another Famous-Barr alumni. She, Lydia, had worked in the downtown store for many years and now worked at Northwest store. She retired later after 30 years of service. I married the same year and after moving to Springfield, MO in October 1982 to open and train on the new electronic cash registers in the new store in the Battlefield Mall. I returned in Feb 1983 to St. Louis for my 3rd store location at Northwest Plaza, not knowing my future step-mother worked one floor below me. So with this long story I have shared, Famous-Barr put food on on table with 3 families. I have pleasant memories of how Famous-Barr was a family and very big extended family.
    I married a military man and have been all over the country moving. After returning to Missouri after 30 years, I was sad to hear the store had closed. However, fond memories. 🙂

  5. YES! Foley’s used the “this is where it all starts this is where it gets good” campaign too and I’m obsessed with finding it! Let me know if you have any luck.

  6. Famous Barr always had the best jingles. I loved the “This is where it all starts, this is where it gets good” campaign. Wish that was on YouTube, that song still goes through my head.

  7. DELORES, MY GRANDFATHER MET MY GRANDMOTHER AT THE FAMOUS-BARR FARM IN BECKWOODS,MO,,,MY GRANDFATHER’S NAME WAS GEORGE DREXLER AND HE SOLD MEN’S SUITS DOWNTOWN FAMOUS-BARR FOR 55 YEARS….THEY USED TO PUT ON STAGE PLAYS ON THE FARM PROPERTY AND HE MET MY GRANDMOTHER WHEN THEY WERE BOTH ON STAGE,,,YOU TOOK A STREET CAR TO GET TO THE PROPERTY.

    BOB DREXLER

  8. Overated department store…I say out with the old and in with the new….hello Marshalls and T.J Maxx…no need for department stores anymore…move on …let it go

  9. Southdown famous is where I bought my first Walkman in the 80’s. I worked downtown for many years and always loved the display windows, especially around Christmas. Had lots of friends who worked in the adv dept.

  10. Im looking for anyone who remembers the Famous Barr clubhouse in Beckwoods,Mo. a beautiful place overlooking the Meramec River.

  11. Is anyone interested in writing a brief history of the Famous Barr department store? I work for The History Press–a traditional, full-serive press that focuses exclusively on publishing works of local and regional history. We are looking to publish department store histories as they are often an important part of communities. If you would like more information, visit our website, http://www.historypress.net, where you can view our published titles and get a better sense for what we do. Feel free to e-mail me for more information or discuss potential ideas.

  12. Somewhere in a vindictive ex’s house there is a video of this building with the whole back half gone. I was as far up as i could climb past the broken escalators and on one of the concrete pillars was an old sale advertisement that must have been covered up in the sixties sometime. I waited for the bus everyday of highschool next to it and would occasionally steal watches from the Swatch counter. Tsk-Tsk.

  13. that was supposed to read “people who somehow DO think positively”.

    sorry.

  14. “St. Louis Self Esteem”

    (sorry for the length) I’ve given this a lot of thought and my conclusions ramble so I won’t go into depth).

    closest I can come is Tennessee William’s mother character in Glass Menagerie – but that’s too simple.

    resignation, modesty, and a weird combination of pessism and optimism.

    “the grass is greener over there ’cause it’s all crap here, but it’ll turn to crap over there soon enough, so why stop looking for the next place”

    ok that’s simplistic and reductive (and a little snotty too)

    fortunately there are (if one bases opinion on blogs like this and your links and all the links on those sites) a lot of people who somehow don’t think positively.

    originally a frontier town never sure of its identity (North, South, East, West? Crossroads or Backwater?) maybe never getting enough props to think ‘who cares’ and say in the immortal words of JHVH-1 and Popeye: I am what I am.

    if I think about it, the most successful people (in STL and out, financially or emotionally) don’t give a $%#^ and just move forward.

    sadly most people don’t or can’t live their life that way.

    and BTW I love your photos of overlooked places.

  15. I’m so with you – I don’t get it either. Seems like the most counter-productive attitude imaginable.

    maybe most folks are just too lazy to frame St. Louis in a positive light. I don’t know, doesn’t that that much energy to do!

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