Architectural Siblings? Jackson, MS and St. Louis, MO J.C. Penney Department Stores

If you’ve ever read the MissPres post The Beauty of Modernist Storefronts, you’ve seen some HABS images of Jackson’s long gone, international style, J.C. Penney department store. This unique building was taken away before it had the opportunity to be appreciated.  J.C. Penney Department Stores were founded by Missourian James Cash Penney (very cool name).  Penney stepped down from his chairman of the board position in 1946, so the construction of this one of a kind looking store in 1948 might have been related to a push for expansion by the new board chairman.

J.C. Penney Department Store Building. Jackson, Hinds County.  Photo By Gil Ford, 1979 From HABS

J.C. Penney Department Store Building. Jackson, Mississippi. Photo By Gil Ford, July 1979 From HABS

So imagine my surprise when reading the St. Louis, Missouri based B.E.L.T. STL (Built Environment in Laymen’s Terms) blog and I saw the below photograph of the J. C. Penney department store in the Wellston area of St. Louis.  An image of the below building is also featured on that websites header.  The buildings -heavily inflenced by Edward Durell Stone’s 1937 New York City Museum of Modern Art building– seem to have both been built in 1948 by J.C. Penney, then abandoned in 1976, with the Jackson building being demolished in 1979.

Historic Photo, Wellston J.C. Penney Building, St. Louis, MO. from www.beltstl.com accessed 02-19-2013

Historic Photo, Wellston J.C. Penney Building, St. Louis, MO. from http://www.beltstl.com accessed 02-19-2013

I’ve always had the impression that Mississippi and St. Louis have had a connection similar to Mississippi’s connection to Memphis and New Orleans.  I am not sure where my impression came from but it might be related to the river connection the city and our state share or to the work of St. Louis based architect Theodore Link.  The MDAH HRI database doesn’t list an architect for the Jackson Penney’s building, but the St. Louis building was known to be designed by the local St. Louis father and son architecture team of William & Bernard McMahon.  The St. Louis JCP building was listed on the National Register in 2008.  A copy of the nomination can been found on the website of the St. Louis Mid Century Modern organization Modern STL.  The exterior description from the National Register Nomination could be for either building.

Jackson, MS to St. Louis, MO via I55

Jackson, MS to St. Louis, MO via I55

…(the) J.C. Penney typifies the International Style of Modernism through its rejection of ornamentation, incorporation of horizontal ribbon windows with cantilevered surrounds and dependence on regularity to organize the primary façade rather than axial symmetry. On the street level, a plate glass display window (now boarded) with granite base and two cylindrical granite-faced columns divide the primary façade into four bays.  A narrow section of stucco wall with incised grid and granite base frames the easternmost corner of the display window, while a smooth stucco wall with granite base punctuated by a boarded over opening frames the western corner of the first floor. The inset primary entrance with two sets of double doors (now missing), a black terrazzo floor and angled display windows atop granite bases fill three bays west of the large display window.

The second and third levels of the primary façade are identical. On each level, a horizontal ribbon of metal sash windows with projecting surrounds punctuates the wall above the inset entrance. Metal sash windows of two widths comprise the glazed band; two mullions frame a hinged panel above a horizontal bar in each window. Stucco on the façade’s westernmost bay is smooth, while an incised rectangular grid divides the three easternmost bays into panels. Cantilevered window surrounds on the horizontal band of ribbon windows begin flat against the smooth stucco wall on the west and gradually project outward from west to east, echoing the site that slopes upward from west to east.  Inoperable lights in the horizontal window bands frame the primary façade’s two columns, which continue upward from the ground level on the interior of the building as they continue to divide the primary façade into four bays. Above the roofline, these columns support a reinforced concrete canopy that serves as a partial cornice that floats above the western half of the building; cutouts with rounded edges frame views of the sky over the two westernmost bays. The canopy attaches to a stair tower that projects above the roofline on the west. A square window with cantilevered surrounds punctuates the paneled wall to the east of the horizontal window band. Other features on the primary façade include a metal flagpole that projects above the roofline and attaches with brackets to the primary façade over these square windows…

The biggest physical differences are the heights and widths of the buildings.  The St. Louis building has three floors while the Jackson building had four.  While in the images the St. Louis Penney’s looks wider the Sanborn maps tell a different story.  The Jackson Penney’s was wider façade at 52′ compared to a 44′ facade for the St. Louis structure.  But the most noticeable difference might be the round verses square accent windows on the left hand side of the structures.  The concrete canopy above the roof for the STL building aids in its horizontal appearance, while the JAX building’s canopy aids in a vertical appearance.

So did the McMahons design the Jackson J. C. Penney’s?  I haven’t been able to find out, but I am continuing the search.  While the St. Louis Penney’s is handsome, I like the Jackson one myself as I think the design was taken a little bit further.  It can be hard to believe that at one time a department store was making bold statements with its architecture.  Currently the St. Louis building is vacant, but has an owner that wants to see it restored.  Hopefully this great building can overcome its hurdles and avoid the fate that befell its Jackson sibling.

 1948 Jackson City Directory advertising

1948 Jackson, Miss. City Directory advertising



Categories: Cool Old Places, Demolition/Abandonment, Historic Preservation, Jackson, Lost Mississippi, Modernism, National Register

59 replies

  1. Great post!!! Really cool buildings! Enjoyed reading about them.

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  2. Love the St. Louis building–in the fully-functional version, of course.The Penney’s sign design just seems to whoosh right up to blend into the canopy, lending it an image of movement.

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    • The sign is great. I wonder if the St. Louis design came first and the installation of the sign influanced the design of the Jackson building to integrated the sign into the fabric of the building, as can be seen in the 1948 advert? I wonder if the Jackson building ever had a flag pole?

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  3. Where was the JC Penney in Jackson?

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    • It was on south side of Capitol St. just east of the Elite Restaurant. Do you see that store named THE BARGAIN… to the right of the JCP building? Next to that is the Elite. JCP building was where the Landmark Center is now but not all the way to the corner. Super D Drug Store was on the corner (in 1977 when I moved here). JCP had already moved to the Jackson Mall but the building was still there and was being used for THE FIRE SALE STORE (salvage merchandise liquidation).

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      • And JCP building had an entrance on Lamar St. too so the building was L-shaped. I think the picture to the left above is the Lamar St. entrance to the JCP building?

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      • Wow you can remember all that? I cannot remember what I had for lunch last week, let alone what stores were where 35 years ago. :)

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      • Of course you are correct. Going back a bit further the drug store on the corner was for many years a Walgreens complete with a long soda fountain and with booth seating in front of the fountain. ‘A coffe shop before there were coffee shops’. Near the exit to the front door was a very large magazine and paper section. The door to the left in the picture opened to the stairs going up to the Twentieth Century Pool Hall, a very popular spot for many years prior to moving around the corner to Pear Street. Next to that was I believe a Thom McAnn (sp?) shoe store. I have a lot of notes about early Jackson (such as Bob’s Tobacco House and other popular spots) if there are any other areas you need help with let me know I grew up just off Capital St. in the 1940’s. Ed

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      • Before Super D it was a Walgreens. In a new novel (I wrote) that came out Dec 2014 (A Mississippi Whisper)the old J.C. Penneys has a prominent scene (story is in 1953). I had a typo and spelled Penneys as Pennys. The editors failed to pick it up. Anyway the story takes place mostly in and around Jackson, circa 1953. I was born and raised there. Also look for the Mayflower, Bob’s Tobacca House, the Pix and some other bygone landmarks.
        Paul Yarbrough

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    • The old address was 157 E. Capitol Street

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  4. The Old J.C. Penny store in downtown Greenville has been purchased by an investor and plans to convert it to condo’s/apartments. Downtown Greenville is slowly but surely coming back.

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    • That’s great news. Thanks for the heads up. I hope they take advantage of restoration tax incentives.

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    • I visited Greenville this last weekend. A lady in a nearby church parking lot told me that it was the former Sears building (517 Washington Ave.) that has been purchased. Formerly, Fine Vines Inc., a manufacturer of blue jeans, occupied the building. A developer wants to convert the structure into condominiums.

      I think the former JC Penny store was just to the west in the 400 block, and is now occupied by a ministry (I did not write down the name). In the past, the Greenville karate club used the JC Penny store as their dojo. The karate club has been active since the late 1960s and and has always been fully integrated for any and all students.

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  5. Chris:
    It was located on the south side of Capitol Street, between Walgreens on the corner of Lamar St and the Heidelburg Hotel in mid block. JCP may have had the first escalator in Jackson. I remember it as having wood slat treadles!
    RPA

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  6. Interestingly (to me) is the signage jutting out from the St. Louis building that says “Penney’s”. The J. C. Penney company never (or seldom) used the term “Penney’s” officially as far as I know. Of course, that’s what everyone calls it so I think they should have adopted the name “Penney’s”.

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    • Im not sure about the name. At the end of the post Ive attached an advertisement that Malvaney found in a 1948 Jackson city directory. The building is twice labeled “J.C.Penney Co.” but the print name refers to “Penney’s”

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  7. There is another Mississippi / St. Louis architectural connection. Architect Samuel Marx, born in Natchez in 1885, designed the modernist Famous Barr Department Store in the St. Louis suburb Clayton. Marx’s fascinating story is the subject of “Ultramodern: Samuel Marx, Architect, Designer, Art Collector” by Liz O’Brien, published in 2007.

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  8. BR:
    It was a Wallgreens (no apostrophe) on the first floor with a the “Twentieth Century Recoration (sic, as I remember) Parlor on the second floor. It was a pool hall of bad repute.

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  9. Why was the Jackson store demolished? In the 1979 photographs, it looks a bit seedy but intact and sound.

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    • As far as I know it was just a victim of being old and in the way, coming down with the last bid of urban renewal in Jackson.

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    • That whole block, on both north and south sides of Capitol was demolished during Urban Renewal. This is where the high-rise 1980s buildings are, such as the Landmark Center that has been in the news regarding possible new Dept. of Revenue offices. I wonder if this area was affected in the 1979 Flood, since this middle section of downtown is prone to flooding along Town Creek.

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      • Looking at a 1955 topo map of Jackson, a creek runs right under the building’s block. By 1972 the creek must have been culverted as it is show as stopping south of Pascagoula street and doesn’t appear again until its on the north side of Amite street.

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        • That would be Town Creek. The creek branches off the Pearl River just north of highway 80 and passes under South State St. Originally the Creek meandered its way to the North West across the city for nearly a mile in a deep bed surrounded on each side by trees. Today, for the most part, it is only visible from the bridges on Rankin,, South West, South and Court Streets. From the Court Street Bridge one can look to the south and see the creek in its natural state below the high banks on each side. On a warm spring day upwards of a few dozen turtles and a few snakes can be seen sunning on the banks and driftwood along the creek bank only 4 blocks from Capital Street. On the north side of the bridge the creek dives under the City into the concrete confines created during the Town Creek rechanneling project of the 1960s. It then follows this enclosure under the center of the city surfacing half mile away at Amite Street. From there it is uncovered and visible but has been channeled between rock and concrete banks looking more like a drainage canal than a creek.

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          • That is great wealth of information thank you for sharing it. Do you know if Town Creek ever flooded?

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            • Downtown Jackson and particularly Capital St. flooded regularly in the early years of 20th century. There are many pictures and accounts in the Jackson history books. My favorite shows a number of kids standing in water on Capital at the entrance to the Majestic Theater. Grady Howell’s book, “Chimneyville” mentions work done in 1924 that must have solved the problem

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            • Hmm very interesting. From your explanation the flooding in the area was corrected long before it could have been the reason to demolish the block in the late 1970’s.

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            • Flooding was not a factor at all. The area in question was the heart of retail shopping in the downtown area. Many factors contributed to its end. Among these were the general migration of people into the suburbs and the resulting new shopping centers in the outlying areas, two new malls, and dozens of strip malls. Also of significance was traffic gridlock and insufficient parking in the inner city. As a result most of the viable stores followed the customers leaving empty buildings. A good example is the J. C Penny store which moved to Jackson’s original Mall and years later moved from the Mall and now has two stores in the area. As a small boy and young adult, the downtown area was the center of my universe, and it was depressing to watch it being chipped away. Although there are some dedicated and hard working individuals trying to bring the inner city back, they are faced with a City Council that makes our nation’s Congress seem astute and highly functional.

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  10. That roof area under the canopy would have made a great open-air dining spot.

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  11. sorry. dumb-double-post.

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  12. What an amazing post! But even more I find myself lamenting the loss of the glamour of a shopping trip. I miss the beautiful displays in the big windows (don’t retailers know that is a great method of advertising?) and the special feeling of walking into a store. Those days are gone, just like the JCP building.

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  13. The JCPenney store in Jackson did have an entrance on Lamar right behind the Walgreens. Mother and I “as a child” often ate at Walgreens” “lunchonette” and then shopped at JC Penneys. Often we took in a movie at Lamar Theatre in next block north of Capital.

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  14. The newest Arkansas Historical Quarterly (Winter 2012) includes “‘It pays to Shop at Penney’s’: A National Department Store on the Main Streets of Arkansas” by David Kruger. It reprints several images of early JC Penney stores including the 1958 Little Rock Store. It’s not quite as bold as the St. Louis or Jackson stores, but similar. The author does not discuss architects, but says “the modern store” had “over 60,000 square feet of selling space on four merchandising floors,…escalators, elevators, and an office penthouse that faced the Capitol” (370-371). It’s been altered a bit, but this is what it looks like today — https://ssl.panoramio.com/photo_explorer#view=photo&position=15&with_photo_id=39401906&order=date_desc&user=4829916

    All the photos in the article come from the J C Penney Personal Papers at Southern Methodist University
    http://www.lib.utexas.edu/taro/smu/00012/smu-00012.html
    The description of the collection doesn’t list geographic location, but says there are 950 photos. I bet there are answers to questions about the architects of these modernist department stores in the collection as well.

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    • The Little Rock store has had some post modern elements tacked on to it, but you can still see some of the mid-century elements gleaming through. Looking at the list of SMU they do not state having any architectural plans or building contracts, but do have correspondence that might include the topic of store construction.
      Thank you for the links.

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      • The SMU finding aid is a bit vague; the author of the article cites store histories from the collection, which seems to be pretty detailed, plus there are the photos of the stores themselves. I bet there is some architectural info in the collection. The author of the article is a librarian at the Univ. of Wyoming, other than SMU staff, he’d be the person to ask about architectural references that might be in the collection.

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        • David Kruger has written about J.C. Penney stores in many mid-west states. Maybe Mississippi could be next? I wonder if the company kept an architect on retainer or if they hired out each project to a local firm?

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  15. Great post. My Mom was a saleslady and model at J.C. Penney’s in the late 1940s and ’50s. So much history that made Jackson unique is gone.

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  16. The JC Penney building in Jackson, MS was definitely a great looking building. Too bad it was demolished. I am committed to ensuring that the JC Penney building in St Louis is preserved and hopefully one day restored to its prominence. My office is 500 feet from the building. As a Alderman, I have a vested interest in ensuring that our community is revived with as much nostalgia as possible. email: boydj@stlouis-mo.gov “Jeffrey L Boyd, Alderman, 22nd Ward, City of St. Louis” Leadership is not about doing what’s popular; it’s about doing what’s right……..

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    • Alderman Boyd, I wish you the best of luck in the preservaiton and restoration of the Wellston J.C. Penney building. If there is anything we might be able to do to aid in the preservation of the building, please let us know. Maybe the fact that the post about these J.C. Penney buildings was the most commented Misspreservation.com article in 2013 might help in proving public appreciation for the structure, and to show the lament of citizens who have lost such a tresure place.

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  17. Does anyone know how to access these Sanborn maps? Or any Sanborn maps for that matter?

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  18. I think Thomas Rosell is correct. I got online access to the maps a few years back. I think I started by contacting the Mississippi Library Commission and signing up and getting a password. It is a very interesting and I use it frequently in researching early Jackson.

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