Many longtime Columbus residents have fond memories of Lazarus, the department store that was a fixture of the city for more than 150 years.
For me, Lazarus meant going to the Colonial Room and the Chintz Room, where five menu items became some of my most favorite dishes. I still hanker for Lazarus’s celery dressing, broccoli and mushroom chowder, chicken salad, “Mexican beef” sandwiches on toasted cheese bread, and vanilla ice cream balls rolled in pecans and covered in hot fudge.
Lazarus was also home to the decorated Christmas windows my family went to see every year (these pictures show Uncle Steve, my cousin Mary, and me looking at them on Thanksgiving in 1977). I steered clear of the Talking Tree on the sixth floor, but I loved shopping in the Liberty of London department on the Front Street Level. Thirty years later, I still have most of the special English imports that I bought there. Lazarus was also the place where I went to buy the Bonne Bell Lip Smackers that my third-grade classmates and I wore around our necks (I chose “Sugar Plum”) and Lancome’s “Helsinki Pink” nail polish, my first real cosmetics purchase.
Last night, David and Beverly Meyers and their daughter, Elise Meyers Walker, came to the Grandview Heights Public Library to share details about the history of Lazarus that they uncovered while writing their recently published book, Look to Lazarus: The Big Store.
Mr. Meyers began with an interesting description of the development of the ready-to-wear garment industry. It started in 1800, when Napoleon needed uniforms for his army and found women willing to sew them. Next, he described “slop shops,” where sailors bought clothes when they came into port. Although the garments were made out of “shoddy cloth,” were of poor quality, and didn’t fit well, merchants didn’t care because they didn’t expect these customers to return. In fact, Elise added, Charles Dickens had his character, David Copperfield, visit a slop shop. By the 1830s, the ready-to-wear industry took a revolutionary turn, when a Rochester, New York merchant created his own menswear patterns, made to sizes that he established. The arrival of Singer sewing machines in the 1840s helped the industry grow, but the Civil War made it flourish. The United States government published soldiers’ measurements, so manufacturers had access to them. This gave the garment industry something to work from in creating standardized sizes for men.
Setting the scene with this helpful background, Mr. Meyers shared how Rabbi Simon Lazarus and his wife, Amelia, arrived in Columbus with $3,000. Lazarus invested in his half-brother’s store, later taking it over when he moved on to other pursuits. In 1851, Lazarus established the store that would become such an important part of Columbus history.
After the Civil War, Lazarus had a spectacular brainstorm. Soldiers returning to civilian life were eager to buy new clothes, so he drove a wagon to Rochester and brought home 200 suits to sell in his store. These ex-servicemen came into the store, bought a new suit, left their old uniform at the store, and walked out wearing their new clothes.
Alas, Simon was a good man, but he was no merchant. Other than his brainstorm, he didn’t do much to advance the store. When Fred and Ralph Lazarus took over the family business — still a men’s store — they added a department that featured shoes for the entire family. Fred Lazarus, Jr. introduced a number of things that contributed to the store’s development. In 1891, the Niagara Soda Fountain allowed customers to take a break from shopping and enjoy refreshments. 1895 saw the construction of a power plant to provide electricity for the store. The accounts receivable concept was introduced at Lazarus in 1904. In 1905, Jessie Ross became the first woman to work at Lazarus. Starting as a switchboard operator, she later became an officer in the company.
In 1909, Lazarus built a six-story building at Town and High Streets. Although there was only enough merchandise to fill the first three floors, the store had room for growth. The construction of this new building signaled that Lazarus wanted to be competitive in everything. The modern era of retailing had arrived in Columbus.
Lazarus initiated other noteworthy developments. Mirrors were set up so that store management could monitor salespeople and ensure that they were delivering good customer service. A former Harvey Girl managed the Lazarus tea room. An escalator arrived at Lazarus in 1913, but customers were too scared to ride it at first.
The Lazarus family believed that a department store should be like a big circus, with 50 to 100 special events going on in the store each day. Therefore, going to Lazarus was an event, and shoppers could participate in the excitement. Entertainers performed throughout the store. Puppet shows and a resident alligator in the basement kept children amused while their mothers shopped. A Peruvian art exhibit educated customers. A Lazarus associate even modeled Miss America’s robe for shoppers to see. During the Christmas season, Lazarus enticed shoppers with memorable window decorations, a train display on the sixth floor, the collectible Lazzie Bear and Lazzie Dog, the Talking Tree, and, of course, Santa. In fact, Santa arrived toward the end of last night’s program, dressed in an original Lazarus Santa suit.
In 1929, Fred Lazarus, Jr. and other retailers like Boston’s William Filene, the Bloomingdale brothers of New York City, and Abraham and Strauss in Brooklyn pooled their resources so they could purchase goods at a greater discount and offset the country’s troubled economy. That led to the creation of Federated Department Stores.
Celebrating its centennial in 1951, Lazarus started the “Look to Lazarus” television show and created dioramas that illustrated famous incidents in the history of Columbus and Ohio.
Throughout its history, Lazarus provided for its associates, helping to improve their quality of life and building the sense of family for which the store was so well-known, Mr. Meyers said. For example, the Lazarus bowling league was established in 1902. In the 1940s, Lazarus established an in-house clinic for its associates, opened a cafeteria that served nutritious food at reasonable prices, and even designated a room where associates could take a nap during breaks. Red “apples” to wear on name badges were awarded to employees who received positive comments from customers about their customer service.
During the program at the library, several people in the audience shared personal stories about Lazarus. One lady shared that her father had designed the lights that cascaded from the Lazarus water tower to form a Christmas tree. Another woman talked about how she liked to visit Lazarus at Eastertime to see the new spring fashion colors and admire the cages of canaries throughout the store. A man who was a Lazarus buyer shared a story about how a 3,000-pound wheel of Wisconsin cheese fulfilled the Lazarus wish to create excitement among shoppers. Another Lazarus associate shared how she had to learn to play the piano and the organ in order to sell those instruments in the store.
Although Lazarus’ main store closed on August 14, 2004, its building was saved and renovated. As part of its revitalization, a team of local business leaders, developers, contractors and architects incorporated many sustainable enhancements into the building’s renovation, such as energy and water efficiency, improvements in indoor environmental quality, and the use of sustainable, recycled and reused materials. Today, the Lazarus building not only is recognized as an outstanding example of energy-efficient and environmentally sensitive design, but also houses over 2,500 employees.
As he concluded the program, Mr. Meyers observed that Lazarus was the store that everyone else admired because it controlled the Columbus market in such a memorable way.
Look to Lazarus: The Big Store is the Meyers team’s fourth book. Other titles they’ve written include Columbus: The Musical Crossroads; Central Ohio’s Historic Prisons; and Historic Columbus Crimes: Mama’s in the Furnace, The Thing & More. Their next book will cover historic jazz in Ohio.