A Boyhood Visit to G. Fox & Company

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A few weeks ago, I visited the Connecticut Historical Society in
Hartford to listen to the oral histories of people who had worked at the G. Fox
& Company department store in Hartford. 
The workers, ranging from a member of the store’s maintenance team to
that of the store’s executive training squad, enjoyed working at G. Fox.  Their stories awakened my own memories of
that great department store.  To this
day, I have my vivid memories of that institution. 

 

I was brought up in Bolton, Connecticut, a small rural town
located about fourteen miles east of Hartford. 
My parents were chiropractors who began their joint practice in nearby
Manchester but, after my birth, moved their offices to our family home in
Bolton.  G. Fox & Company, based in
Connecticut’s capital city, was truly the center of Connecticut living. 

image001.jpgMy parents used witch hazel for their work
and they always bought  Foxco Witch
Hazel.  ‘Foxco’ was G. Fox’s private
label for items made exclusively for that store.  Every few days, a delivery van from G. Fox,
whose navy blue exterior I remember to this day, arrived at my family home with
a package containing bottles of witch hazel. 
But there were plenty of occasions when it was best that my family went
to Hartford to visit the G. Fox store and to get special items there. 

 

By the early 1960s, G. Fox & Company was still Hartford’s
largest and most prestigious department store. 
It rivaled other stores along Hartford’s Main Street, including Sage-Allen,
Brown Thomson, and Korvette’s, which had replaced Wise Smith.  Beatrice Auerbach, the store’s president,
predicted that people would want to continue to shop at G. Fox in Hartford.  The store added another vast addition, which
ran to Market Street.  A new level, the
Market Street floor, was created and an entrance to Market Street was provided
for the convenience of customers who parked at the G. Fox parking garage.  Constitution Plaza, a complex of office
buildings, a hotel, and branches of New York stores, was being built; it
bordered on Market Street and it was thought that shoppers who visited
Constitution Plaza would use Fox’s new Market Street entrance.  But Auerbach’s prediction was shortsighted.  While G. Fox & Company had no suburban
branches, other big stores such as Sage-Allen, Boston’s Jordan Marsh,
Philadelphia’s John Wanamaker, and Detroit’s J.L. Hudson began to open suburban
branches.  Suburban shopping centers,
with their Sears and W.T. Grant stores, drew shoppers from large city department
stores.  Manchester, the town adjacent to
Bolton, had its own shopping center, the Parkade.  Yet G. Fox & Company was still the place
to go for products of good quality and for personalized service.  Not until the development of indoor shopping
galleries or ‘malls’ would G. Fox begin its decline. 

 

My mother liked to shop at G. Fox in Hartford or at the Lord and
Taylor store in West Hartford.  I knew
which store we would go by the way she drove into Hartford.  If she continued on to Asylum Street in
Hartford, it meant that we were heading to West Hartford and Lord and
Taylor.  But, if she took the exit, which
led to Main Street, then we would be heading to G . Fox.  A visit to G. Fox began when my mother left
our family’s blue Ford Falcon station wagon at the Brown Thomson Parking
Garage, which was located next to the back of G. Fox.  The garage had two floors; I enjoyed watching
the attendant drive the car up a ramp and make it ‘disappear’ as it was brought
to the upper floor.  After my mother left
the car at BT’s, we walked to either the entrance, which led to the store’s
basement floor or to another back entrance, which, after a short flight of
stairs, led to the main floor.

 

G. Fox  was known for its
excellent service.  Beatrice Auerbach
considered good customer service as essential for her store’s business
success.  I remember the many salesclerks
who were available and ready to receive inquiries on available
merchandise.  This level of service was
available throughout the store, including the basement or ‘budget’ store where
most of our visits began.  My mother
liked to get some odds and ends in the basement before we headed to the upper
floors.  She was seldom disappointed.  Then it was time to head upstairs. 

 

image008.jpgThe Elevators: Although G. Fox & Company had escalators, which, by the
early 1960s, served all floors (from Market Street to the eleventh floor), my
mother preferred to take elevators to and from the upper floors.  The store had three passenger elevator banks.  Two of the banks, each located on the north
and south sides of the older section of the store, had five manned cars per
bank.  The new addition had a bank of
three cars, which were automated.  As we
approached an elevator bank, my mother would show me the pointed directional
lanterns above each entrance.  A green
light meant that an arriving elevator was going up.  A red light meant that the car was going
down.  After a short wait, a car arrived
and the uniformed operator then pulled aside the brass interior gate and parted
the glass ‘French door’ style exterior doors. 
After we stepped in, the operator closed the doors and the gate and, by
moving the control handle, the elevator rose to the main floor.  The exterior elevator doors for the main
floor were solid; they had no glass windows. 
There was always an air of anticipation when we stopped on the first
floor and the operator was on the verge to part those solid doors.  Depending on the time of the year, those
doors opened to a busy floor that was beautifully decorated and swarming with
shoppers. 

 

image009.jpgFloor by Floor:The main floor of G. Fox & Company was a busy floor; it was
the store’s heartbeat.  During the late
1930s, Auerbach undertook a major renovation of the store, which included a
complete makeover of the main floor.  The
results, nearly a quarter of a century later, remained stunning.  The floor featured unpolished marble
flooring, display cabinets that had beautiful inlaid woodwork, and fancy
display windows that were strategically located next to the escalators.  The elevator banks and the panels, which
decorated the mezzanine, were of dark marble that were cut and then filled with
lines of nickel and brass.  Each of the
two Main Street entrances had revolving doors, which always caught my
attention, and large rectangular blocks of glass above those sites.  Auerbach made certain that the floor had the
finest of decorations for the Christmas and Easter holidays.  While that floor’s d
ecor was meant to impress
first-time or occasional shoppers, it was the floor’s merchandise and service
that kept those shoppers coming.  Items
on that floor included fine jewelry, the latest in cosmetics, an excellent
stationery department, and a pharmacy. 
Like other large department stores, the main floor at G. Fox had a
balcony or ‘mezzanine’ level.  The
mezzanine featured a watch repair shop, a camera shop, and a superb book
department.  One could reach the
mezzanine via an escalator or a fancily decorated staircase located near the
elevator bank on the north side.  As I
grew older and was allowed to roam the store alone, I would follow generations
of young people who reunited with their parents at the mezzanine
staircase.  After a leisurely walk about
the festive main floor, it was time to go upstairs.  If we used an elevator, a floor captain would
direct us to an available car and tell the operator that it was time to close
the doors and gate and to go up. 

 

A meal at G. Fox & Company was always included during my
boyhood trips to that store.  G. Fox had
two dining rooms on second floor of that store. 
One was a cafeteria-style facility with its customary counters that
featured wooden swivel chairs.  The other
dining room, the Connecticut Room, was more formal and had tables and
chairs. 

image007.jpgThat room, roughly circular in
shape, had beautiful murals that depicted scenes of Connecticut’s history.  Mom always preferred meals at the Connecticut
Room.  I remember the restaurant’s
children’s menu with its customary red crayon. 
As to what the Connecticut Room had to offer,  I did enjoy the delicious Fox’s chicken pot
pie.  Many of the dairy offerings at the
Connecticut Room were made at the Auerbach Farm in nearby Bloomfield.  In addition to the dining rooms, the store’s
second floor had a bakery as well as departments that served the needs  of working women.  The second floor was known as the ‘careers’
floor.  To a young boy, the second floor
was the floor of restaurants and treats, not of boring departments for women!

 

Beatrice Auerbach, who was our nation’s only female president of
a major department store when she assumed her position after her father’s
death, was a champion of women’s causes. 
It would be no surprise that her store’s second, third, fourth, and
fifth floors would be devoted to the mostly women shoppers who came to downtown
Hartford on weekdays.  The third floor
featured dresses for young women (‘juniors’) who were in college (Auerbach was
a major advocate of higher education for women).  The fourth floor had items for older women,
such as hats (millinery department) and ‘domestics’ (towels, bedding supplies
such as sheets and blankets).  The animal
rights brouhaha did not yet affect G. Fox & Company during my childhood;
thus the store’s fifth floor featured an elegantly decorated fur salon. 

 

The sixth floor at G. Fox & Company was the floor where I
spent most of my visits.  It was the
floor devoted to children and teenagers. 
It was called the ‘Young Connecticut’ floor.  I remember the usual ritual of meeting with
the salesperson/tailor, a Mr. O’Brian, who fitted me with new dress pants and
suits.  I always liked to watch him chalk
the portions of my new pants where the hems would be sewn.  He was a friendly man who had spent many
years at G. Fox.  After I was fitted with
the new dress clothes that my mother had picked out, I liked to head to the set
of windows that faced Main Street.  I
always admired the street scene below and the architecture of nearby Christ
Church Cathedral.  During the 1960s,
teenagers who attended private and parochial schools dressed more
formally.  I remember the signs for
uniforms and other gear required of those schools.  Although my visits to the sixth floor could
be boring at times, I learned not to get mad or lose my cool.  That would cost me a visit to floors above
the sixth!  Happily, that grim scenario
seldom occurred and, after my brother and I were finally fitted with new dress
clothes, it was time to go upstairs. 

 

The word that best described G. Fox’s seventh floor was
‘housewares’.  Appliances, ‘small
electrics’, dinnerware, and fine china were the stars of that floor.  My mother, who was the ‘cook’ of our
household, liked to see what was new on that floor.  It was a fairly noisy floor; there was little
carpeting and there was the customary clanging of new dishes and
silverware.  Perhaps it was time to head
for the ‘quieter floors’. 

 

The eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of G. Fox & Company
featured home furnishings.  The eighth
floor had departments that sold rugs and carpeting.  Window treatments such as shades, curtains,
drapes and blinds were sold there as well. 
The ninth floor could be best described as the home furniture and
entertainment floor.  That floor had the
latest (and finest) of furniture such as living room, dining room, and bedroom
sets.  The ninth floor also had a superb
record department as well as the newest stereo systems and television
sets.  The floor had, perhaps, the
store’s quietest ‘department’.  The
Connecticut House was a faithful mockup of a New England Cape Cod style
suburban house.  After passing through
the house’s ‘porch’, the house featured rooms outfitted with the best
furnishing for those rooms.  It was
always hard not to get sleepy in the house’s master bedroom!  The Connecticut House was the ultimate place
to ‘chill out.’  The tenth floor had
smaller furnishings and a department for lamps and their accessories
(lampshades, etc.).  ‘Discounted’
furniture could also be had on that floor as well.  Now the time of my childhood dreams was close
at hand.

 

The Eleventh Floor- Toys!New York and London had, respectively,  FAO Schwarz and Hamley’s toy stores.  G. Fox & Company had its eleventh floor,
the store’s top floor.  It was also the
store’s toy floor and top destination for the children who lived in central
Connecticut.  The store’s toy department
was stocked with the latest (and coolest) of toys.  It was a very busy floor during
Christmastime.  The store’s assembly
hall, Centennial Hall, became an enchanting ‘Santa Land’ during the holidays.  Yet while G. Fox & Company’s toys could
be the coolest, they could also be pricy as well.  As would be the case of Schwarz and Hamley’s,
a toy bought at G. Fox was a very special treat, one of which I remember to
this day.

 

During my childhood, most toys and games were made by Mattel,
Ideal, Kenner, and Milton Bradley.  When
I was six years old (in 1964), the Ideal Toy Company began to sell a toy car
system called ‘Torture Track’.  It
featured easy-to-assemble slotted ‘road’ tracks, special tracks that featured a
hazard or ‘test’, and battery-operated cars whose bodies could be changed.  The cars were accurate scale models of the
latest automobiles of that year.  For
young boys like me, a Torture Track system was the coolest toy.  And G. Fox & Company was among the first
stores to market that product.  Needless
to say, I spotted and coveted a Torture Track system that was on display on the
eleventh floor.  I must have been very
well behaved on that day.  Victory!  My mother went ahead and purchased a starter
Torture Track system.  Yes, the starter
set had the fewest and most basic ‘tests’. 
But that did not matter; I was thrilled to get a Motorific Torture track
system.  Shortly after my ‘victory’, it
was time to head back downstairs with my new acquisition.  Thus would end a happy boyhood visit to G.
Fox & Company in Hartford.

 

The sale of G. Fox & Company:In 1965, G. Fox & Company became a member of the May
Department Stores chain.  Beatrice
Auerbach continued to serve as the CEO of G. Fox after its sale to May for
another year.  She died in 1968.  During the late 1960s, G. Fox & Company
underwent some changes.  The elevators on
the south side of the store were eliminated. 
The elevators on the north side of the store were modernized and
automated.  While the main floor still
retained its Art Deco decor, its ceiling no longer featured rows of
rectangular-shaped lights with their rounded sides.  A new dropped ceiling with recessed lights
was constructed for that floor.  Perhaps
to save energy, the windows of glass blocks above the Main Street entrances
were blocked.  The original Connecticut
Room and cafeteria were closed.  A new
cafeteria and Connecticut Room were built on the second floor in the Market
Street addition.  The bakery would remain
on that floor.  The new Connecticut Room
would still feature the famous Fox’s Pot Pie on its lunch menu.  G. Fox & Company finally began to open
branch stores in Connecticut.  The first
branch store was located at the Naugatuck Valley Mall near Waterbury.  Another branch store opened at the Westfarms
Mall in Farmington.  But until the early
1990s, G. Fox did not have a branch store east of the Connecticut River.  Thus a trip to G. Fox still meant a trip to
the store’s flagship store in Hartford. 
It remained the place to go for special items, notably for suits, a good
record department, and, for my mother, a superb wig shop located on the first
floor of the former Brown Thomson store building.  But the winds of change soon came upon G. Fox
& Company.

 

By the 1980s, G. Fox & Company, now overextended with too
many branch stores and dealing with a flagship store that was now located in a
declining city, began to cut back its operations in Hartford.  The company closed its upper floors and
rented them out to offices.  By 1988, the
third floor was the highest shopping floor at G. Fox’s flagship store.  Like most old department stores, G. Fox &
Company sold only ‘soft goods’ such as clothes, small appliances, and
cosmetics.  Discount toy stores such as
Toys R Us and the now-closed Kaybee toy company meant the end of Fox’s toy
department.  Books could be had at chain
stores such as Barnes & Noble.  The
consolidation and closures of Hartford’s traditional companies, coupled with
the city’s declining social conditions, spelled the end of Hartford as a major
shopping destination.  By 1990, G. Fox
& Company’s flagship store was to be the only remaining store among Main
Street’s original group of stores. 

 

In 1993, G. Fox’s suburban stores became branches of Filene’s, a
well-known Boston store.  Sadly, G. Fox
& Company flagship store in Hartford did not survive the new consolidation
and was closed.  A beloved Hartford
institution was now gone.  Also gone was
an important part of my childhood and adolescence. 

 

image006.jpgFortunately, the old G. Fox & Company building did not
suffer the fate of other now-closed department store building elsewhere in our
nation.  It was not torn down or imploded
(which was the case of the J. L. Hudson building in Detroit).  It became a new space for a new generation of
Hartford’s youth and young adults.  It is
now home of Capital Community College, which is now crammed with students who
want to get ahead in this new and challenging economy.   Had Beatrice Auerbach, who was a major
advocate of education,  been alive today,
she would have been pleased by the new use of her former store. 

 


 


 

G. Fox & Company postcard from Wikipedia.com

Photograph of the Main Floor  courtesy of Marquee Events & Catering, 960 Main St., Hartford, CT (http://www.marquee-ct.com) – event and services planners at the former G. Fox building.

Other photographs courtesy of Connecticut Historical Society presenting the online exhibit “Remembering G. Fox & Co.” @ http://www.chs.org/finding_aides/fox/welcome.html.

Go the “About the Author: Thomas H. Alton”

Return to the Wethersfield Historical Society home page.





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