Preservation Alliance: On The Front Lines Of Preserving Philadelphia's Heritage

Article by Eric Toll, GPA Ambassador

This past Saturday, with another layer of snow freshly on the ground and winter in the air, a small group of around thirty Philadelphians undertook an expedition covering ‘Philadelphia’s Golden Age of Retail.’ This tour was presented by the Preservation Alliance, an organization which focuses on cataloguing and preserving some of Philly’s finest architecture and other monuments of Philadelphia’s heritage.

This tour focused on a changing period of American consumerism, namely the rise of the department store. It was at this period, roughly before the turn into the 20th century, when successful businessmen understood that it was necessary to have a visually-appealing building in order to succeed in the dry goods industry.  

As a result, a handful of beautiful buildings were erected in various monumental styles. The tour began outside of the Wanamaker Building, and continued through to some of the most prominent retail stores in Philadelphia, including Strawbridge & Clothier, Lit Brothers, The Blum Store, and the Gimbel Brothers.

The tour guide was friendly, knowledgeable, and even recommended a very interesting book about the subject titled ‘The Middle-Class City: Transforming Space and Time in Philadelphia, 1876-1926)’ by John H Hepp. Moreover, her knowledge was not simply limited to modern style; at each building we were informed of the history of the people behind the building, how the culture of shopping has changed to include a greater sense of experience, and at times we were even allowed access to the buildings.

Moving into today’s era, one can see how department stores have firmly been influenced by our earlier age. Walking through the main hall inside of the Macy’s at the Wanamaker Building, there is still the tradition of having a grandiosity which has not faded; whether it is the 3,300 pound bronze eagle statue, the world’s largest organ played twice a day, or the countless slabs of marble decorating  every open space.

The Preservation Alliance has more than 30 different tours around Philadelphia. For more information, please visit: