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NOLA History: When Canal Street was “The Mall”

Canal Street, one of New Orleans’ main thoroughfares and business districts has seen a lot of change since it once was lined with major department stores.

Imagine for a moment, a world without shopping malls, “big box” stores and e-commerce. In New Orleans 50 years ago, going Christmas shopping meant going down to Canal Street. With the Christmas shopping season officially upon us, you’ll often hear older folks reflect with some sadness on what it meant to go shopping on Canal Street. From big department stores to small shops, Canal Street in what we now call the Central Business District was the “mall.”

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Canal Street in 1897 (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

The first retail outlets in New Orleans were in the French Quarter. Starting with the riverfront and Decatur Street, to Chartres, Royal, and Bourbon Streets, merchants, traders, and various professionals opened up single-purpose shops and offices to service the growing population. After the United States took possession of New Orleans in 1803, more opportunities opened up, as the English-speaking, (mostly) non-Catholic Americans began to settle into the city on the up-river side of the Vieux Carré. The boundary between old and new, American and Creole, was Canal Street: 140 feet wide, separating the two communities.

Jewish merchants in particular took advantage of Canal Street’s geographic position, and began to open shops that catered to both communities. Jews had been coming to New Orleans, along with many other German immigrants, throughout the beginning of the 19th Century. By the 1830s, many families had established themselves and saved enough money to open their own shops. The Jewish community began to dominate Canal Street by the 1840s, but they weren’t alone. Daniel Henry Holmes opened his dry goods store in the 700 block in 1842.

Retail space developed on Canal Street similar to other cities, where merchants constructed three- and four-story buildings on either side of the street. The first floor, and maybe the second as well, were used for retail, with the higher floors used as office space and residential apartments. Ambitious retailers purchased multiple adjacent buildings, knocking down the walls between them and opening even larger stores as the city grew. In the late 1840s, Judah Touro convinced the then-growing chapter of Christ Church (Episcopal) to give up their building on Canal and Bourbon Streets. The congregation moved up the street, to Dauphine, and Touro demolished the block of Canal between Bourbon and Royal. He constructed 12 four-story buildings with a common facade on the block. The “Touro Buildings” became one of the most popular shopping areas on Canal. Eleven of 12 of the Touro Buildings were destroyed by fire in 1892.

In the block between Royal and Chartres Streets, Leon Godchaux operated the Leon Godchaux Clothing Company. He used profits from the store to build the largest sugar refining mill in the U.S., in Reserve, Louisiana. As his empire grew, Godchaux built a magnificent multi-story building that housed both his store and the offices for the sugar business.

On the “Uptown” side of Canal Street, Abraham Shwartz built a large dry-goods store in the 700 block. Other merchants set up shop as well on the Faubourg Ste. Marie side of the street in the latter half of the 19th Century.

In the 1880s, the Christ Church congregation once again decided to move, this time to St. Charles Avenue in the Garden District (the old City of Lafayette). The church building at Canal and Dauphine Streets was sold at auction, demolished, and noted architect William Freret built the Mercier Building. A. Shwartz and Son Dry Goods suffered a devastating fire in 1892, along with the death of Abraham, the family patriarch. His son, Simon, then struck out on his own, leasing the Mercier Building, and opening S. J. Shwartz and Company. Five years later, Shwartz expanded his dry goods business, turning the Mercier Building into Maison Blanche, New Orleans’ first true department store. D. H. Holmes followed Shwartz’s lead, expanding their product line as well. Department stores did so well on Canal Street that Shwartz tore down the Mercier Building in 1907, replacing it with the 13-story building that is now the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

The first half of the 20th Century was the heyday of the department store. Godchaux’s, D. H. Holmes, Marks Isaacs, and Maison Blanche anchored Canal Street. Specialty stores, such as Gus Mayer, Rubenstein’s, Labiche’s, and others popped up around the larger establishments. “Dime” stores, such as F. W. Woolworth and S. H. Kress thrived on Canal as well.

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Canal Street in 1963. Notice the overhead wire for trolley buses and streetcars. (Courtesy Chuck Battles)

Then came the malls. The trend actually began right after World War II, when “strip malls” began to be developed away from the CBD. Maison Blanche opened their Carrollton Avenue and Gentilly stores in 1948. Movement to the suburbs continued steadily after that, and exploded in the 1960s and 1970s with the large malls such as Lakeside and Clearview in Metairie, Oakwood on the West Bank, and The Plaza in New Orleans East. The malls were followed by the “big box” retailers, and that addition to the mix sounded the death knell for the Canal Street stores. Maison Blanche closed their Canal Street flagship. D. H. Holmes was acquired by Dillard’s, and that chain closed the downtown store as well. Without the big anchor stores, the smaller stores fell upon hard times, many of them closing.

The 2000s breathed new life into the giant department-store buildings on Canal, as developers converted them into hotels. Restaurants and other businesses took over the smaller stores, and Canal Street, while no longer the city’s “mall,” is still vibrant and exciting, especially with the revitalization of the Saenger Theater and Joy Theater.

Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, and Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. His latest book, Legendary Locals of New Orleans, is available at bookstores and online. He is owner of Yatmedia LLC (Social Media for Social Justice), and is @Yatpundit on Twitter.

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