You could see it from miles away, even from the west side where I-270 meets I-70, shining like the star that guided the Magi in the Christmas story: The Tree of Lights, rising 200 feet from the roof of the downtown Lazarus store, was erected every holiday season by stringing thousands of lights from the store’s water tower. And shoppers followed that star to the downtown Columbus retailer’s massive flagship location from 1963 to 1990 at Christmastime, when the store was a wonderland for the Christmas spirit.
The iconic American downtown department store is now a memory–not just in Columbus but everywhere, as development of the suburban shopping mall (now itself in eclipse) ended the idea of downtown as the the premier shopping destination in all but the very largest cities (and even they have lost some of their stores). But the memory of the massive department store as a Christmas mecca survives in movies like Miracle on 34th Street and A Christmas Story. When the latter was released in the mid-80s, these downtown stories were in their final eclipse.
Lazarus was Columbus’ own homegrown store. As Look to Lazarus: The Big Store relates, its roots stretched back to 1851 as a small men’s tailoring business. It gradually grew to dominate over 57 acres and several city blocks (if you count the annexes and parking garages) at the heart of downtown Columbus. Because the store grew organically, adding on additional space over the years to the main building, there were interesting quirks in the store, such as escalators that did not go to every floor, walkways connecting different sections, and the fact that you could go “up” to the Basement.
I can remember numerous trips downtown at Christmastime before my family moved from the west side, particularly those involving taking the bus–such an adventure. The sixth floor, where the toy department was located, was always partially taken over by an extensive Santaland, with animatronic displays and Santa at the end in his tiny cottage. (As Look to Lazarus reveals, there were actually as many as nine Santas on duty at one time, but clever use of the lineups meant kids never caught on). You could also visit Mr. Tree (a huge talking tree) or the Secret Gift Shop, where kids could buy gifts for their family out of sight of their prying eyes. (I purchased my mom a set of Un-Candles one year- glasses you could fill with coloured water with a layer of cooking oil on top, on which floated a plastic disc with a wick. We used those for years).
Here’s a video to give you a taste….
But the highlight was always the store itself. It seemingly went on forever. There were restaurants and snack bars, several different women’s and men’s departments, enormous jewelry and cosmetics displays. There were carpets and furniture, china and stationery, book and record departments, fabrics and sewing machines, and all kinds of appliances. There was a discount store in the Annex. There was even a supply store for Scouts and Campfire Girls. It went on forever, and the quirky escalators I mentioned earlier added to the feeling of being caught in a labyrinth of commerce. There were plenty of branch locations for everyday needs, but going downtown was special.
Gradually, however, as in so many US cities, the downtown declined as a shopping destination. The smaller stores that had once lined High St. and the surrounding area closed, leaving Lazarus somewhat isolated. In 1989, the city responded by opening a shiny new downtown shopping center, known as Columbus City Center, and Lazarus was connected to it via a walkway. For about ten years, City Center was Columbus’ premier shopping mall. It had attracted stores that were new to the Columbus market, including Marshall Fields, a Metropolitan Museum of Art store, a store that just sold music boxes, and Abercrombie and Fitch (when it was a sort of fuddy-duddy preppie store). I moved to Toronto the year after it opened, but I visited it every year on trips home. My favourite store opened for a couple of years in the mid-90s close to the Lazarus walkway and sold all kinds of goods from the Soviet Union, not long after that country ceased to exist.
But in the late 90s City Center began to lose ground to the new Polaris mall. One of the anchors closed, and then Marshall Fields was subsumed by Kaufmann’s before itself closing in 2007. I moved back to Columbus for a few years in 1999 and gradually stopped going to the mall as it gained an increasingly seedy reputation. It finally closed on March 5, 2009, and was torn down later that year.
Lazarus (the chain and the big store) is now gone. It merged with Macy’s in 2003, and all of the stores took the Macy’s name in 2005. The big store on High St. closed in 2004 as City Center entered its final decline. In 2009 its iconic sign was taken down. But unlike City Center, its building remains. It’s now been restored to LEED Gold standards for offices and shops. Doing so meant opening up the windows that were originally part of the building but that were closed up as electricity became the main means of lighting. There’s also now a green roof garden–apropos given that the Ohio EPA is headquartered there. The architects who restored the building have an image gallery here.
I drove by the Lazarus building this past weekend on my visit to Columbus. Across the street, condos rise in place of the old City Center Mall. Devoid of its context and branding, the Lazarus store is now just another building. I am glad it was preserved to live another day, but I also mourn. I miss those strange escalators and the gleaming Tree of Lights.
If you want to read more on the history of Lazarus, I highly recommend Look to Lazarus: The Big Store, by David & Beverly Meyers and Elise Meyers Walker.