In 1895, located on Sixth Avenue and 18th Street, New York City, saw the official opening of Paul Bonwit’s department store, Bonwit Teller & Co. It was the first of what later became a chain of luxury department stores. After Edmund D. Teller partnered with Bonwit in 1897, the store’s first location moved east along Sixth Avenue to 23rd Street. The niche in women’s apparel, catering to the high-end clientele and was noted for the quality level of its product line as well as salaries that were paid higher than the norm to buyers and executives. Ten years later, Bonwit Teller & Co. was incorporated before relocating yet again to the corner of Fifth Avenue and 38th Street, joining the growing collection of upscale department stores. This historical luxury department store brand is as important to New York’s rich history as the infamous Fifth Avenue itself as it contributed so much to the city’s culture and heritage.
In the Beginning
Starting in 1880, Paul Bonwit opened up a little millinery shop on Sixth Avenue and 18th Street, right in the heart of Manhattan’s shopping district known as Ladies’ Mile. However, the actual founding of Bonwit as a name didn’t officially begin until 1895 when he opened up another store a few blocks down. In 1898, after buying out his partner from his failed original business, Bonwi teamed up with Edmund D. Teller 1898 and the two opened up a new store on Sixth Avenue’s 23rd Street. When 1907 rolled around, the department store was officially incorporated as Bonwit Teller & Company. In 1911, the store relocated yet again, this time at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 38th Street. While other companies in the industry were looking into diversifying their product lines, Bonwit Teller focused more on specializing in a niche catering to an upper class of women shoppers.
On October 16, 1929, when the flagship of Bonwit Teller sprung up on Fifth Avenue and 56th Street, as a member of the luxury retail district, Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of what would soon be America’s four-term president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was present at the opening. In the press, Bonwit Teller’s new location met with rave reviews as the redesign of Stewart & Company’s old shop managed to maintain the building’s original character while giving it the clear distinction this is a luxury brand department store that catered to women.
In 1930, as the trends within New York City changed, Bonwit Teller & Co. kept up by once again relocating its store to Fifth Avenue. The company took over the Stewart & Company building, establishing its presence there as the official flagship of Bonwit Teller & Co. for nearly half a century. Warren and Wetmore were the original designers of this building in 1929 before it was stripped down and redesigned in 1930 by Ely Jacques Kahn. During an era that saw the Great Depression place a financial chokehold on the American people, a fortunate Floyd Odlum managed to cash in his stock holdings before the infamous Black Friday crash in 1929. This resulted in Odlm’s Atlas Corporation partnering up with Bonwit Teller & Co. as the department store company was in need of capital in order to stay in business as a luxury brand competitor.
Hortense Odlum, wife of Floyd Odlum went from being a consultant of Bonwit Teller to its president in 1938 while the son of Paul Bonwit, Walter, served as vice president and general store manager. For Mrs. Odlum, she became the woman who served as president of a major department store in the United States of America. In 1938, there were two more floors added to this flagship store, followed by a twelve-story add-on frontage in 1939.
In 1935, Bonwit Teller opened a season store location in Palm Beach, Florida, followed by a 1941 opening year-round store in White Plains, New York. This is the same one that relocated to Scarsdale, New York that sat right next door to Lord & Taylor approximately two decades later. The 1980s saw the upscale Bonwit Teller Department Store located in the prestigious communities located in Bal Harbour, Beverly Hills, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, Columbia (South Carolina), Kansas City, Miami, and Philadelphia. During this time frame, Bonwit Teller & Co. was in direct competition with Saks Fifth Avenue and served as the starting point for Calvin Klein, the very same designer who continues to dominate the fashion industry to this day.
In the Movies
With Bonwit Teller Department Stores making such an impact on New York City’s Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue locations while in its prime, it stands to reason Hollywood wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to at least make it as one of the stars of their shows. In the 1958 movie, Home Before Dark, there is a scene where a shopper tries on and purchases a dress at the Boston, Massachusetts location during the Christmas season. Fans of Audrey Hepburn may remember a scene from 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s where the easily identifiable flag belonging to Bonwit Teller is seen from its storefront on Fifth Avenue.
Whether as actors or as actual customers, stars like Candice Bergen and Sylvester Stallone have been just a few among many Hollywood celebrities that have either performed a role that witnessed Bonwit Teller Department Stores as part of the scene or have personally shopped there for themselves.
In 1946, Floyd and Hortense Odlum sold their share of Bonwit Teller to the Hovington Corporation. Its owner and CEO, Walter Hoving, managed to establish himself as a solid player in the luxury retail industry on Fifth Avenue as he not only brought Bonwit Teller to the height of its success but the infamous Tiffany & Co. as well. During this time frame, artists such as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg would design innovative window displays that brought the inspired customers in from the street. The artwork involved was top-notch and has also served as part of New York City’s heritage as one of the world’s greatest cities to live in and visit.
When Bonwit Teller & Co. changed hands again in 1956, it was acquired by Genesco, a very large corporation specializing in the operation of several retail outlets, catering to buyers of various class levels. Bonwit Teller joined the ranks of Henri Bendel as part of Genesco’s impressive portfolio. Fans of Christian Dior may or may not know his signature label got its big start with Bonwit Teller as a young designer when Genesco recruited first recruited him. The boom of the 1960s fashion trends owes Genesco and New York City for having the insight of bringing onboard artists such as Andy Warhol and designers like Christian Dior that still has their influence fuel some of the new fashion trends we see today.
In 1979, the fate of Bonwit Teller changed hands again, this time to Allied Stores Corporation. The plan was to rebuild the Fifth Avenue flagship store as the center of the then-new Trump Tower and its indoor mall. As of April 1981, the new location of Bonwit Teller Department Store saw fifth Avenue and 56th Street as its new flagship location. It would be during this time the controversial Donald Trump would find himself in a dispute against New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art over Bonwit Teller’s signature limestone relief panels that depicted scantily clad women dancing at the top of its previous Fifth Avenue location.
After he purchased this building and had it scheduled for demolition in 1980, he wanted to donate the limestone reliefs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art but the limestone was jackhammered down, causing Trump to fail to make good on his promise. To this day, there are still disputes about whether or not this act was accidental or deliberate. In addition to the destroyed limestone, the infamous art deco nickel grillwork over the entrance of the flagship store that was also promised to the museum also went into obscurity.
Maybe to Donald Trump and his people at the time Bonwit Teller was nothing more than an old building with little artistic value but to the people of New York City, the architecture of this magnificent building was indeed a work of art. Watching all that destroyed before their eyes were heartbreaking, a sin that many still haven’t forgotten, nor forgiven. What happened here marked the beginning of the end of an era that tried to hold on but fate seemed to have other ideas as time wore on.
Less than a decade later, the Australian-based Hooker Corporation bought Bonwit Teller from Allied Stores Corporation for over one hundred million dollars in 1987. The company expanded the number of store locations from five to sixteen, only to be shrunk down to five again after a 1990 Chapter 11 bankruptcy claim was made. The eleven new locations were put on the auction block and sold off.
It would be at this time The Pyramid Company would purchase Bonwit Teller from Hooker in a strategy that would keep the luxury department store company alive and running. Shortly afterward, a store was opened at the newly developed Carousel Center, located in Syracuse, New York. As ambitious as The Pyramid Company was to do Bonwit Teller Department Stores justice, the financials proved as of the year 2000 that it was a futile attempt. As a result, Chapter 11 was filed yet again, putting an end to a shopping era.
Just as one would think Bonwit Teller is no more, a Chicago-based company known as River West Brands made a 2005 announcement it planned to revitalize Bonwit Teller as Avenue Brands LLC. As of 2008, it was announced there would be as many as twenty locations opening up but the recession that gripped America put that noble cause on pause. However, not one to give up on a dream, there was a spring 2020 announcement by NBT Holdings who managed to acquire Bonwit Teller with intentions to revive the department store chain with a series of brick and mortar locations as well as online. It hasn’t been since 1980 when Trump Tower bulldozed the beautiful 1929 design of Bonwit Teller has this New York City icon received the level of attention it deserves.