Department stores
Industry Retail
Fate Converted to other department stores
Successor Dillard's (1992-)
Hecht's (1993–2006)
Proffitt's (1993–2006)
Kaufmann's (1994–2006)
The Bon-Ton (1994-)
Founded 1897 (as Hess Brothers)
Defunct 1996
Headquarters Allentown, PA
Products Clothing, footwear, bedding, furniture, jewelry, beauty products, electronics and housewares

Hess's was a department store chain based in Allentown, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania in the United States. The company started in 1897 with one store, originally known as Hess Brothers, and had grown to nearly 80 stores at its peak in the late 1980s. The chain's stores were eventually closed or sold off in a series of deals in the early to mid-1990s.



The department store known as Hess Brothers was founded on February 19, 1897, by Charles and Max Hess.[1] According to the history of the store, it began when Max Hess, Sr., a German-Jewish immigrant from Perth Amboy, New Jersey, visited Allentown during the summer of 1896. At the time, Ninth and Hamilton Streets was about two blocks west of Allentown's retail shopping district, having only the Grand Central Hotel, a few homes, and several lumberyards. He returned to Perth Amboy and told his brother Charles, that Allentown was virgin territory, and was a major business opportunity.[2]

Advertisement for the Grand Central Hotel, about 1890

Both Max and his brother Charles grew up in Germany. He was well aware that the Germans in Pennsylvania had limited access to quality dry goods, and if he opened a store that offered quality products, they would be loyal customers. the brothers moved to Allentown in 1897 and leased space inside the Grand Central Hotel, a building erected in 1868 as the Black Bear Hotel at 835 Hamilton Street. In 1890 it was renamed as the Grand Central.[2] On February 19th, 1897, the Allentown Band was playing in front of the new Hess Brothers store to entertain the shoppers. Hess also bought a significant amount of advertising space in the local Allentown newspapers to inform people about his store.[2][3]

What made Max and Charles Hess different from Henry Leh, the other major dry goods store retailer at the time was that they came from a retail background, while Leh was from a largely rural background. At the turn of the Nineteenth Century, Allentown was in the middle of the Industrial Revolution and was beginning to see itself as a city. Mack Trucks, Lehigh Valley Steel, the Lehigh Valley Railroad and other manufacturing plants were industrializing the area, and people were earning more money with the industrial jobs. The Hess Brothers understood this from their New York City background and brought goods into Allentown to cater to the desires of people for higher quality goods. The Hess Brother's dry goods business became more and more successful and in 1901, the Hess store expanded to take over the entire Grand Central Hotel.[2]

Hess Brothers store about 1915

Perhaps the best example of the early Hess Brothers store was Hess's French Room. Created by Charles Hess, he filled it with fashions primarily from France. Charles Hess made frequent trips to Paris, and in Allentown newspaper articles, he wrote what the fashionable woman in the French capitol were wearing for social engagements or to the Paris Opera. However, the real core of the Hess brothers early success was the ability to offer the public quality goods at affordable prices. Also the store's bargain sales were successful from the start.[2]

In 1910, Max Hess Sr. married Florence Rice and on March 23, 1911, Florence (Rice) Hess gave birth to a son, Max Hess Jr. The family lived in a large Victorian home at 1244 Hamilton Street in Allentown, a few blocks from the store.[4] On 6 March 1913, the store was expanded by acquiring neighboring properties and adding a soda fountain and restaurant that seated 400 patrons, filling almost a city block.[5] By 1915, the store had expanded to nearly a city block and dominated the northeast corner of Ninth and Hamilton. In 1922 Max Sr. died at the age of 58 and for the next several years the store was run by his brother Charles.[4] In 1927, an eight-story annex was added to the store that containing new departments that also added a shipping and delivery area.[5]

Golden era

Charles Hess died in 1929, and in 1932, Max Hess Jr. left Muhlenberg College on his 21st birthday to join the family business as part of their management team, eventually becoming its president. It was under his leadership that Hess Brothers Department Store became a shopping mecca known around the world for its quality merchandise. [3]

In 1940 Hess moved his family to 2643 West Livingston Street in Allentown, which became known locally as the "Hess Mansion" and where the family lived in until his death. Hess Jr. transformed the property into an image of the "grand houses of Beverly Hills." It reflected his personality, included three fireplaces, an elevator, formal dining room, guest quarters, fully furnished basement with nightclub, and a pool house with a sauna. Celebrities were brought in on a regular basis to attract customers and enhance the image of the store.[4] Hess gave lavish parties, which Hollywood stars such as Bob Hope and Zsa Zsa Gabor were invited, or often paid, to attend. Hess gatherings became the stuff of legends. For one party, Hess is said to have transformed the home into a jungle that included live alligators in the swimming pool. And in 1967, a small helicopter crashed outside Hess's home after dropping off some party guests. No one died.[4]

Hess Jr. was seen as a leader in retailing. In the 1953 B.C. Forbes & Sons book, America’s Twelve Master Salesmen, Hess is listed as the second master salesman. According to this book, Hess’s principle was, “Strive for a specific goal.” Under the store motto, "be best, be first, be entertaining", Hess Brothers became known for more than just their merchandise. Hess, Jr. made Hess Brothers a shopping destination.[4] Flamboyance and excitement were cornerstones of the store. The Patio, the store’s restaurant, was renowned with shoppers for its strawberry pie and sundaes and its 150 item menu was soon to follow. As people dined, models would walk the floor wearing the latest fashions, but it was the famous strawberry pie that kept people returning. The restaurant lost close to $20,000 a year but it was an enormous success in achieving its primary purpose of keeping customers in the store..[3] While the exterior of the store still appeared as separate buildings, the inside was renovated to look as one large building.[3] Magnificent crystal chandeliers graced the main hall of Hess Brothers, and many windows allowed natural light to fill the store. These and other displays enabled the Hess brothers to succeed at making their store look like a "big city department store."[3] By 1939 they began a complete makeover of the outside of the store. The facade of the store was updated in 1947 using the Art Moderne style.[3] The store eventually had five floors and over 400,000 square feet of retail space. It was also the first store in the world to have automatic talking elevators, telling its passengers what items were available on each floor.[6][7]

One of the landmarks of Allentown was the large Hess Brothers sign along Hamilton Street. The Hess sign was the biggest of its type outside New York City, weighing 8 tons and was 45 feet tall and the letters, made of porcelain enamel, being 7 feet high each. It was built to resist wind pressure of 40 pounds per square foot. The sign was three-sided to make it visible to both eastbound and westbound traffic. It had 2,250 light bulbs and neon tubing. The 378 circuits were operated by a clock inside the sign, and it had eight light cycles timed to spell out the name H E S S one letter at a time. It was turned on for the first time on 23 December 1947 during the Christmas holiday season. For 25 years the Hess sign reigned supreme on Hamilton Street. When construction began on the Allentown Hamilton Mall project in late 1971, it was clear there would be no place for the sign. On June 30, 1972 it was removed along with all the other outdoor retail signage in the Central Business District.[8]

With offices in London, Paris, and Rome, Hess Brothers Department Store was always at the forefront in selling the latest fashions. Children delighted at the giant toy soldiers Hess’s used as Christmas decorations in addition to "Pip the Mouse" in a puppet show at the flagship store. The annual May flower show was another innovative attraction for a department store and a flower show special aired on Philadelphia television annually. Other television shows that became annual events were the imported fashions show and the toy show. Hess brought celebrities to appear at the store, including by Johnny Carson, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Barbara Walters, Rosalynn Carter, Burt Ward (Robin in the "Batman" TV series), Gina Lollobrigida and Rock Hudson.[4] Significant in its retail "firsts" was the over-the-counter sale of pure gold in 1974 when bullion sale was legalized, as well as the introduction of the Rudi Gernreich topless bathing suit (Hess's was one of only a handful of stores in the entire country to carry the suits, notably failing to sell a single one). Biannual sales events at Hess's were often semi-disastrous as shoppers who waited outside for the store to open in the morning would proceed to trample each other and store employees to get to discounted merchandise, leaving the shelves and racks completely stripped bare afterwards.

In 1968, Max Hess, Jr. contacted Philip Berman, who had operated a local trucking business for many years with his brother and offered to sell the store. After some negotiations, Berman paid Hess $16 million. Several months later Max Hess, Jr. died, never being able to enojy a retirement. Under Phillip Berman, the store name was officially changed from Hess Brothers to Hess's. Berman also brought in Max Rosey, a New York and Broadway press agent to promote the store. Rosey and Berman worked hard to keep the Hess name in both the local and also national media. They brought in celebrities and notable national politicians to visit the store and promote Hess's nationally.[9] Also Berman began to expand the store, opening new stores in suburban Pennsylvania shopping malls. Berman noted the success of the new Whitehall Mall, with the Allentown Sears and Zollinger and Harned department stores in suburban Allentown. He wanted Hess's to be part of the wave of mall construction during the 1970s, and to be anchor stores in them.[1] The first non-Allentown branch store was opened at the Nittany Mall in State College in 1968. Additional stores were established in Lancaster and Easton in 1971; Bethlehem in 1973, two in suburban Allentown shopping centers in 1974, and others in eastern and central Pennsylvania by 1979.[6]

Chain operations

In October 1979, Crown American, a developer and owner of hotels and shopping malls, purchased the Hess’s chain, then 17 stores large, as a wholly owned subsidiary.[1] Under Crown American’s leadership, Hess’s enjoyed the booming retail market of the 1980s and expanded to 76 stores by 1990. However, a number of cost-cutting measures had been made following the transfer of the chain to Berman and Crown American, including abandoning most of Hess's previous practices such as the flower/fashion shows and celebrity appearances. The store's outside windows in the main Allentown store were covered up after their annual holiday window decoration displays were ended, along with the regular store window dressing displays of merchandise.[10]

In addition to opening stores in available locations, Hess’s purchased other department store chains and converted them to the Hess’s nameplate, such as Penn Traffic Department Stores, based in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1981, and Rices Nachmans, based in Virginia Beach, Virginia, in 1985.[11] Hess's also acquired the Knoxville, Tennessee based Miller's Department Store chain from Allied Stores by hostile takeover in 1987.[12] In September 1987 Hess's agreed to acquire Snyder's, Inc., a privately held Louisville, Kentucky department store, as well as five L. S. Ayres stores in Kentucky that Snyder's had agreed to buy (L. S. Ayres having assumed them from Stewart Dry Goods and Pogue's only a few years earlier). This new division was briefly operated under the Snyder's name, but in November 1987 Hess's announced that it would phase out the Millers and Snyder's names in favor of its own moniker in February 1988.

In a few years, however, Hess’s suffered under increased retail competition and a national recession, so it sold or shuttered 43 of its stores, especially in the South, including the Knoxville stores to Dillard's and 18 sold to Proffitt's in two deals in 1992[13] and 1993. The remaining 30 stores were sold off including the main Allentown store in 1994, ending the Hess's 97-year enterprise; May Department Stores purchased 10 locations, and The Bon-Ton bought 20.[14][15]

Closure and Redevelopment

In 1995 Crown American sold the store to Bon-Ton Stores, Inc., a regional department store company based in York, Pennsylvania. However, downtown Allentown had been declining for years starting in the 1970s and continued operation was not profitable. On 9 November 1995 Bon-Ton Stores announced that the Downtown Allentown store was closing, and it shuttered its doors for good on 15 January 1996.[16]

The closed Bon Ton/Hess's store in 1996

With the closure of the store in Allentown, Bon Ton placed the property for sale and received inquiries from several developers, one of which being Mark Mendleson. Mendleson had purchased several properties in Allentown beginning with the Americus Hotel in 1985. However, by 1996, Mendleson had developed a poor reputation with his property management in Allentown, and he was involved in a series of disputes with the City of Allentown with regards to non-payment of taxes, and the properties he owned being in an extremely poor state of repair. It was also feared by the City that the property would be left vacant until property values improved or it would be used for a large flea market, tattoo parlors or adult movie theaters.[17]

Allentown Mayor William L. Heydt began a campaign for the City to purchase the property and redevelop the building. In October 1998, the city purchased the store from Bon Ton, Inc. for $1.8 million. In addition to the department store building, the adjacent closed H.L. Green property, which was operated for decades as part of the McCrory Stores five and ten store chain, was purchased.[17] However, with the purchase by the City, a survey of the property revealed that the 9th and Hamilton Street building was in relatively poor condition and considered unsuitable for any other use. The property consisted of a maze of old buildings, that were cobbled together by Hess to accommodate the growing retail business. Over the years it had a number of inconsistent renovations, and it lacked even a central heating system (the light fixtures were used for warmth), and portions of the McCrory building could be dated to the old Black Bear Hotel of the 1880s. The site was considered not worth preserving, and plans were made for its demolition. The seven-story parking deck at 814 Linden Street. and the employee parking deck at 826 Turner Street, built in 1970, were retained and transferred to the Allentown Parking Authority.[18]

The remains of the former Hess Brothers Department Store after being torn down in October 2000.

The news of the demolition of the building affected the people of Allentown, as Hess's was a symbol of pride for the city over the decades, and much sentiment was attached to the building. A considerable remediation effort was begun to rid the old building of hazardous materials.[18] In January, 2000, when the last of the materials safely out of the way, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection gave its go-ahead for demolition work to commence.[19] The demolition was completed by October, 2000 and the site was graded with gravel and a fence erected.

During this time, a series of redevelopment options, including the building of a hockey arena, was reviewed by the City. Eventually the former Hess's property was sold to Pennsylvania Power and Light, which expanded its office complex onto the site with The Plaza at PPL Center, a new office building that opened in July 2003 at the former Hess's flagship store site. The Plaza at PPL Center boasts a long list of environmental features, including a vegetative roof and innovative energy and water-saving devices. The building includes one floor of leased office space, and the plaza level of the building includes retail storefronts.[20]

See also

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Hess Brothers Department Store.


  1. 1 2 3 "The Philip I. and Muriel M. Berman Papers: Collection I, Series II.". Retrieved 2006-12-20.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Hellerich, Mahlon H, and Pennsylvania) Lehigh County Historical Society Allentown. Allentown, 17621987: a 225-year history. Allentown, Pennsylvania: Lehigh County Historical Society, 1987
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Sontag, Samantha (December 2006). "The Hess Experience". Lifestyles over 50. 1 (9): 12–14.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Max Hess, Jr. at Find-a-Grave
  5. 1 2 Allentown Morning Call, The History of a Store, November 10, 1995, Frank Whelan
  6. 1 2 Hesses, the Department Store Museum
  7. Whelan, Frank (2005-07-27). "Hess Sign in Allentown Was a Giant in Its Day". The Morning Call. Retrieved 2006-12-21.
  8. The Morning Call, Hess sign in Allentown was a giant in its day, 27 July 2005
  9. Allentown, 1762–1987, a 225 Year history, Volume II, 1921–1987, Lehigh County Historical Society, 1987.
  10. "Court Blocks Developer's Bid for Gee Bee - Bankruptcy Court Halts Crown American Corp.'s Bid for Discount Store Chain.". Discount Store News. 1990-02-26. Retrieved 2006-12-20.
  11. "Phillips-VanHusen Corporation". Funding Universe. Retrieved 2012-02-02.
  12. Rothchild, John (1991). Going for Broke: How Robert Campeau Bankrupted America's Retail Giants. New York: Penguin. p. 124.
  13. Fashion Forward: Assessing the Future of Apparel Manufacturing in Los Angeles County (PDF). Los Angeles County Workforce Preparation and Economic Development Collaborative. February 2002. p. 194. Retrieved 2006-12-21.
  14. "Hess's to Sell Its Last 30 Stores". The New York Times. NYTimes.com. 2 August 1994. Retrieved 2012-02-02.
  15. "ClarificationHess's Department Stores Inc., the...". Baltimore Sun. 2 August 1994. Retrieved 2013-04-07.
  16. Allentown Morning Call, Bon Ton Closing, November 9, 1995
  17. 1 2 The Morning Call, Council Oks Bon-ton Purchase Allentown Approves Mayor's Plan To Buy Empty Store That Is Called Key To Downtown Revitalization. 22 October 1998
  18. 1 2 The Morning Call, Allentown To Demolish Former Hess's To Make Way For Unnamed Developer * Landmark Closed As Bon-ton In 1996. It Could Be Torn Down This Year., September 25th, 1999
  19. The Morning Call, A Smashing Ending For Hess's As Demolition Gets Under Way * Allentown's Green Building Meets The Wrecking Ball, Clearing The Way For New Business Venture., 5 January 2000
  20. The Plaza at PPL Center
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