Marble Palace—the First Department Store in the Nation

A.T. Stewart, an Irish immigrant with a genius for commerce, is credited with the invention of modern day shopping. He came up with such groundbreaking concepts as ready-to-wear clothes, garment displays in store windows, and clearly marked price-tags. He was the first to offer his customers fixed prices, eliminating the undignified process of bargaining. He encouraged browsing by removing intimidating clerks and allowing shoppers to view and touch the merchandise. A.T. Stewart organized his merchandise into departments, thus creating what we now call a department store.

New York City procession passing Stewart’s Marble Palace, 1851

The A.T. Stewart Dry Goods Store—the first department store in the nation—was located on Broadway and clad in marble. It was referred to as “Marble Palace.”

To understand why A.T. Stewart’s ideas were nothing less than revolutionary, one has to consider the reality of shopping in the 19th century. It was neither a social nor a pleasurable activity and the shops occupied small, unremarkable buildings. Buying clothes involved custom tailoring and tiresome price negotiating. After going the traditional route and opening a couple of small shops, A.T. Stewart decided to build a shopping emporium. But it was more than just that—his grand new store changed the way people shop forever.

This new store was housed in a palatial structure and became known as the “Marble Palace.” It was designed in the Italianate style—the first commercial building in the nation to display such an extravagance—and covered with Tuckahoe marble—the first store to use such an expensive material.

For its location A.T. Stewart chose 280 Broadway, a block north of the City Hall—away of the city’s bustling shopping district. Stewart’s architects, Trench & Snook, cleverly designed the building in modular units. This feature allowed Steward to start with a smaller building that was eventually expanded over most of the city block down to the Chambers Street corner. The Anglo-Italianate design was not only fashionable, but also allowed for expansion without compromising the integrity of the facade.

The bright appearance of the marble gave the building its unique identity, while its location away from the crowded shopping area along the southern portion of Broadway allowed for fashionable shoppers to arrive in style by carriage. Even though the east side of Broadway (where the store was located) was considered “unfashionable,” the Marble Palace became a landmark and a destination in no time.

The interior, aside from being beautifully decorated, offered space for a leisurely stroll—a vitally important Victorian era activity. In the way of attracting customers, Stewart placed cases full of merchandise along the sidewalk in front of the store. He understood that crowds and fuss in front of his store would serve as the best kind of advertisement. There were women’s “fashion shows” for ladies (yet another novelty) and full-length mirrors which allowed the ladies to gaze at themselves from all angles. Stewart hired young, good-looking, very attentive clerks to attract female clientele.

From its opening day in 1846 to its closure in 1884, the Marble Palace was a shopping destination of elegance and luxury and a model for many other department stores in the city. After the store closed, the building was used for office space until 1917, when it was bought by the New York Sun newspaper and renamed the Sun Building.

Despite many changes, the Marble Palace still stands on Broadway, retaining its unique identity through its marble facade and palatial Italianate architecture.

Architect: John B. Snook
Date: 1845-1846
Style: Italianate style
Location: 280 Broadway

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