Remembering the Downtown J.C. Penney's

Friday, March 07, 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 Chattanoogan.com 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:

http://www.chattanoogan.com/2014/1/18/267700/The-History-Of-The-Northgate-JCPenney.aspx

http://www.chattanoogan.com/2014/1/15/267484/JCPenney-At-Northgate-Mall-Is-Closing.aspx

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 jolleyh@bellsouth.net.  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

Five Tennessee Sites Added to the National Register of Historic Places

The Tennessee Historical Commission has announced five Tennessee sites have been added to the National Register of Historic Places. The National Register of Historic Places is the nation’s official list of cultural resources worthy of preservation. It is part of a nationwide program that coordinates and supports efforts to identify, evaluate and protect historic resources. The ... (click for more)

Information on African-American Race Track of the 1940's

A reader asked if anyone had information on an African-American race track in the 1940's in Chattanooga.  http://www.chattanoogan.com/2014/7/13/280255/Reader-Seeks-Information-on.aspx. Local racing historian Robert F. Richey responded with the following information.  If you would like to correspond with Mr. Richey about this or any other local racing topic, you may ... (click for more)

Boy, 16, To Face Murder Charges In Criminal Court On Triple Lookout Valley Slayings

A Lookout Valley youth who was 15 at the time of his alleged involvement in a massacre in the valley will stand trial as an adult. Jacob Allison, who is now 16, was taken by the sheriff's office to the Hamilton County Jail after a transfer hearing in Juvenile Court on Friday morning. Juvenile Court Judge Rob Philyaw said under state law he has jurisdiction over rehabilitation ... (click for more)

Justin Wilkins Selected As Deputy Chief Of Staff For Mayor Berke

Native Chattanoogan Justin Wilkins will serve as Mayor Andy Berke's deputy chief of staff, it was announced Friday. Mr. Wilkins has spent the last several years serving as the Tennessee state director for multiple advocacy and electoral organizations, including Organizing for America and Organizing for Action. Prior to that, he worked as project manager at Profit Plans LLC ... (click for more)

Black Creek TIF Decision-Who Guards The Hen House? - And Response

Citizens of Chattanooga were invited to give public comment before their own Industrial Development Board Aug. 15. They arrived to find foxes guarding their hen house.  Many thought the meeting was their opportunity to seek redress in the ill-conceived Black Creek Tax Increment Financing plan. However, they learned it was a sham orchestrated by both the past and present ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: Let’s ‘Pay It Forward’

At 7 a.m. on Wednesday morning, this at a Starbucks coffee store located at 2186 Tyrone Blvd. in St. Petersburg, Fla.,  an unidentified woman who was first in line at the drive-through window, politely told the drive-through window clerk she would like to “pay it forward.” The clerk checked the next order – it was a caramel macchiato – and the first customer paid for both her ... (click for more)