What remains of the Stern’s store on 23rd Street

When the Stern Brothers opened their new Dry Goods Store at 32-36 West 23rd Street in October 1878, New York’s growing consumer class was floored.

The three Stern brothers from Buffalo had outgrown their previous shop on West 23rd Street as well as their first New York City store, established in 1867, around the corner at 367 Sixth Avenue). So a new cathedral of commerce was needed, and it featured a stunning cast-iron facade and five stories of selling space.

Stern’s was now the city’s biggest department store—one that catered to both aspirational middle-class shoppers and the wealthy carriage trade. These elite shoppers entered a separate door on 22nd Street, so as not to rub shoulders with the riffraff.

But everyone who came to Stern’s left feeling like a million bucks.

”When the customer entered the store, he was welcomed personally by one of the Stern brothers, all of whom wore gray-striped trousers and cutaway tailcoats,” wrote the New York Times in 2001, quoting Larry Stone, who started at Stern’s in 1948 as a trainee and retired as chief executive in 1993. ”Pageboys escorted the customer to the department in which they wished to shop, and purchases were sent out in elegant horse-drawn carriages and delivered by liveried footmen.”

Stern’s was such a popular spot on 23rd Street—the northern border of what became known as the Ladies Mile Shopping District, where women were free to browse and buy without having to be escorted by their husbands or fathers—this dry goods emporium was enlarged in 1892.

The store was always a stop for tourists, too. “We got off [the Broadway car] at 23rd Street and Josie took us to the Stern Brothers, one of the large and select dry goods houses where we saw the latest fashions,” wrote 12-year-old Naomi King, who kept a travel diary of her visit to the city with her parents from Indiana in 1899.

King wrote that she saw “all the new spring styles [and] the new spring color: amethyst, purple, or violet in all shades [and] stripes extending to gentlemen’s cravats in Roman colors.”

But Stern’s reign as one of the most popular shops on Ladies Mile wouldn’t last—mainly because Ladies Mile didn’t last. Macy’s was the first store to relocate uptown, from 14th Street and Sixth Avenue to Herald Square, in 1903.

Other big-name department stores followed. Stern’s made the jump to 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue in 1913, leaving their old building behind, according to a 1967 New York Times article marking the store’s centennial. For most of the 20th century, the palatial building on 23rd Street was used for light industry and commercial concerns.

That 42nd Street flagship store would ultimately close in 1970, wrote Gerard R. Wolfe in New York: A Guide to the Metropolis. By 2001, Stern’s shut down all of its stores and went out of business.

Since 2000s, Home Depot has occupied the old Stern’s dry goods palace, and it seems as if every trace of Stern’s has long been striped from the building.

Except on the facade. If you look up above the Home Depot Sign, you can see the initials “SB,” a permanent reminder of this magnificent building’s original triumphant owners.

[Top three images: NYPL Digital Collection]

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10 Responses to “What remains of the Stern’s store on 23rd Street”

  1. Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

    In the 1990s I worked in that building setting up temporary exhibits that the Toy Center, around the block on 5th Ave, was trying out, either accepting them or discarding. They rented out the entire Stern’s building to test them out. When I worked there took a lot of the unacceptable ones home, they were tossed out later. I wonder what they were? Oh well…

  2. countrypaul Says:

    It’s amazing the speed at which we Americans build things up, use them up, and tear them down or completely transmogrify them. At least this retail building is still being used for retail.

    My thoughts turn to a French village we visited a few years ago, where the outlying buildings of a cathedral had been built in 1150 and were still being used for their original purpose: residences. Of course, things had been modified: a peek inside a window revealed a laptop on the kitchen table!

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I think you’re talking about what Walt Whitman called New York’s “tear down and build up all over again” spirit…I may be bungling the quote a bit but I always found it to be so fitting.

  3. Greg Says:

    Too bad they buggered the top two floors on the left side.

  4. Vickierenzo Says:

    interesting story about Home Depot bldg

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  5. Kevin Says:

    Im curious what the floors above the Home Depot are used for? Offices? Condos? Its such a huge building and in such a great location.

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