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.
My 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.
The 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.
Floor 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 decor 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.
That 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.
Fortunately, 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.
About the Author: Thomas H. Alton