Remembering the Downtown J.C. Penney's

Friday, March 7, 2014 - by Harmon Jolley
Market Street view from 1955 showing J.C. Penney's in the foreground
Market Street view from 1955 showing J.C. Penney's in the foreground

Earlier this year, The reported the imminent closing of one of the few remaining original stores at Northgate Mall.   J.C. Penney of Northgate is expected to close during the second quarter of 2014.  Here are links to previous articles about the history of the Hixson store, and the shuttering news:

Things which have an ending also have a beginning.  In this article, we take a look back at the first J.C. Penney’s in downtown Chattanooga .

The April 13, 1937 Chattanooga News-Free Press reported that the J.C. Penney Company of New York would open a store in Chattanooga around September 1.  An existing multi-level building on the southeast corner of Sixth and Market streets was being remodeled.  The building’s previous occupant was the locally-based Effron’s Department Store, which was moving to a remodeled building diagonally across from its old location. 

Insurance companies often invest in real estate, and that was the case with the new Penney’s property.  The J.C. Penney Company signed a long-term lease with the building’s owner, Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company.  Penney’s announced that the remodeled store would be the finest in the south. 

By 1937, the economy of the United States had mostly recovered from the Great Depression.   Expansion by a major retailer was a positive sign for the local economy.  Seventy-five employees, most local residents, were hired for the new store.

J.C. Penney’s carried a variety of clothing and household items.  The store’s management, led by C.L. Buchanan, emphasized the local adherence to the Golden Rule of founder James Cash Penney.  Customer satisfaction was a key to the company’s success.  Store overhead was kept to a minimum in order to pass savings to the customer.

Chattanooga’s downtown retail district stretched from Fourth Street south.  Penney’s was one of several large department stores; others included Loveman’s, Miller Brothers, and Sears.  Across Sixth Street from Penney’s were the headquarters of the privately-owned Tennessee Electric Power Company.  By 1939, TEPCO would be bought by the Tennessee Valley Authority. 

The Electric Power Board then moved into the former TEPCO building, and became a neighbor to J.C. Penney.  Both companies displayed Christmas scenes in their first-floor storefront windows.  Penney’s converted a third floor stock room to a toy department during the Christmas shopping season.  Shoppers might precede or cap off their trip to Penney’s with a Christmas movie at the nearby State Theater (later called the Martin).  Maybe they saw “The Bishop’s Wife” or “Lemon Drop Kid,” two of my favorite Christmas movies.

The downtown Penney’s was expanded and remodeled twice by the 1950’s.  However, my memory of Penney’s is that, compared to the other large downtown stores, its decor was very conservative. 

The beginning of the end of the downtown J.C. Penney came in the late 1950’s with the construction of the suburban Brainerd Village.  Penney’s opened a store there, and then moved to Eastgate Mall in 1964.  Northgate Mall included a Penney’s in its line-up when the shopping center opened in 1972.  Despite increased parking and remodeled storefronts, downtown continued to lose retail business.

On May 12, 1982 the Chattanooga Times announced that the downtown J.C. Penney’s would close in August.  Herb and Ival Goldstein, owners of The Leader retail stores and Goldstein Brothers Investment Corporation, purchased the Market Street building.  Plans were to convert the four-story edifice into offices. 

The Penney’s building and The Martin were later demolished to make way for a city/county courts building.

If you have memories of the downtown J.C. Penney’s, please send me an e-mail at  I’ll update this article with some of your memories.

Memories from Readers

I remember the downtown store from going there with my mother in the early 50's. What I remember the most is that they didn't have cash registers where you paid for your purchase. The salesperson made out a slip and put it in a cylinder with your money and the cylinder was hooked on a cord and pulley system, went off somewhere upstairs and in a few minutes it came back with your change. This always fascinated me as a kid watching those cords and pulleys running around.





Grand opening advertisement from 1937
Grand opening advertisement from 1937

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