Thursday, January 11, 2007

1933 J.C. Penney 1933 fire leads to huge sale

by Mo Palmer

Call me Inspector Gadget. I've solved a mystery we've been pondering for 20 years. OK, I was looking for something else, but never mind that.

There are photographs in the Albuquerque Museum Photoarchive of a trashed out, semi-gutted store. We history nerds have speculated: Was it a flood, a fire, a remodel or some disaster? Now we know and we can give those images an exact date. Here's what happened from the very beginning - plus a weird follow-up.

James Cash Penney (his real name) was the son of a poor Missouri farmer, who was also an unpaid Baptist minister. James learned the value of a buck at the age of 8, when his father insisted he buy his own clothing - a parental decision that changed the course of American commercial history. Of course, Penney went on to open dry goods stores - initially called the Golden Rule for his philosophical and religious beliefs. He changed the name to J.C. Penney in the teens, and in no time at all had a national chain.

Albuquerque's opened in 1916, at 410 West Central Avenue. For newcomers, what's on that site today is the Gizmo Store, which has its own past, but that's another story. Penney's set up shop in the basement and first floor of this lovely little building, which had a recessed entrance of shining show windows so ladies could admire the latest fashions. Later, the store would also occupy the upper floor.

Charles Melini constructed the Melini Building for Penney's, after P.F. McCanna and W.B. Hicks selected the site. Hicks managed the store until 1933. To the west is the Albuquerque Gas and Light Company, which had thousands of incandescent bulbs in the cornice that lit up like the Fourth of July at night. Beyond that is the Garcia-Bliss Building at Fifth and Central, in which "tire vulcanizing" was magically performed. The edifice is still there. Go see it. Car dealers, services and rentals were all over Downtown. The auto was in overdrive, and every other store catered to its incessant demands and accessories.

Charles Melini was a wholesale liquor and cigar man and a member of our large Italian community. He lived where the Downtown library is today, on Copper Avenue between Fifth and Sixth streets. Note the Italian flag flying above the building in the photograph. Melini might also have been the Italian consul. By 1933, he had returned to Italy.

On June 5, 1933, his legacy went up in flames. Employees were in Penney's, working on stock, while painters touched up remodeling upstairs. Folks did have to work Sundays back then - smashing my notion that Sundays used to be sacred. Maybe it was because the Great Depression was in town. The manager grabbed a fire extinguisher and started for the stockroom, from which smoke billowed. As the conflagration grew, all but one fire truck responded, assisted by the Santa Fe Railway Fire Department.

Eventually, 12 hoses were attached to nearly every Downtown hydrant. Only three men had smoke masks; the remainder relied upon wet handkerchiefs held across noses and mouths - and we complain today about inadequate equipment. Four were overcome and carried out by their fellows. Now that's dedication. Good thing we finally recognize these guys as heroes.

The "ooh-ah squad" responded, as well. Drawn by the sirens and whistles, thousands filled the streets to watch the entertainment. "Desperate Housewives" wasn't on TV, probably because there was no TV. Police cordoned off traffic to get the lookieloos out of the way and keep them safe. Some stuff never changes.

Eventually the blaze was brought under control. A total of $100,000 in goods was damaged - considerably more than the building, which was valued at only $38,000. No one was injured, and only the basement and first floor suffered damage. Smoke and water did invade Kress next door.

Then came the marketing coups. Seven different insurance agencies invested in a large ad, imploring people to get up to snuff on their fire insurance. By June 11th, Penney's announced the "greatest fire sale ever in New Mexico." The company moved into four spaces, 516, 517, 519, and 522 West Central Avenue. Those are on different sides of the street. Old Sanborn maps show empty storefronts except for 517 and 519 - which contained a "golf course" under a hotel. That demands research, and I'll let you know.

Assuring the public that no acids or chemicals were used to put out the fire and that this was undamaged merchandise, the four Penney stores sold tennis and childrens' shoes for 50 cents, women's crepe dresses for $2.77, "clever new hats" with wide brims and turbans in white and pastels for but a buck or two. No gender bias, here, for working men could select from 5,000 pairs of overalls for a half dollar - with matching shirt for 60 cents and shoes for $2. Not too shabby for people in the grip of unemployment and sacrifice. Not only did Penney provide pittance prices, it managed to give "hundreds" of unemployed young men temporary jobs.

There is another set of photos at the archive, with cars and people just jamming the streets down around Fifth Street. Betcha it was opening day at the fire sale.

Penney recovered and moved back into its remodeled store, but later pulled off another marketing miracle. While a brand new, three story building was constructed in the late 1940s, the department store moved lock, stock and barrel into the 1908 National Guard Armory at Fifth Street and Silver Avenue and went right on retailing. Penney's is persistent.

This serendipitous story has it all: J.C. Penney coming up from poverty, fire, heroes, respite from the Great Depression and American ingenuity. Karma or what?

Originally published in The Albuquerque Tribune, January 11, 2007.
The Tribune articles are used with the permission of Scripps Howard.

The Missing Photos:
(Courtesy of The Albuquerque Museum)

This 1916 photo shows the J.C. Penney store on Central Avenue. The building burned in 1933, forcing the store to hold the "greatest fire sale ever in New Mexico," in four separate storefronts along Central. The stores sold tennis and childrens' shoes for 50 cents.

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