Downtown celebrated last glory days

Hustle and bustle
Hustle and bustle
The corner of Wayne and Calhoun streets, site of the Grand Leader Department Store, was filled with shoppers during the 1958 Christmas season. By the end of the decade, new shopping centers were luring away those same shoppers.
By Connie Haas Zuber of The News-Sentinel

The 1950s were the time when people who had grown up riding buses downtown to meet friends started taking their own children to see Wolf & Dessauer Department Store's Christmas window displays.

At the same time, there were ominous hints that downtown Fort Wayne was changing.

Not only were W&D's Christmas windows a must-do family trip every holiday season, but downtown was where everyone went because everything anyone needed, from sporting goods to clothing and jewelry, to movie theaters and elegant restaurants, was there.

"I do remember taking my son downtown," said Elaine Fremion, whose family moved to Aboite Township in 1957. "I took my little boy, who was 3 or 4. I wanted him to see what downtown was like.

"I drove to the car barn, where they parked all the buses, and then we parked the car so I didn't have to park downtown.

"When we moved suburban, our kids never knew what a bus was or what downtown was."

Women, especially, remember the joys of shopping on the stretch of South Calhoun Street from Berry Street to Washington Boulevard.

The big names on that stretch included W&D's, Grand Leader, Stillman's, Fishman's Women's Apparel, Hutner's Paris, and Nobbson's, plus five smaller women's clothing stores, three jewelry stores, another department store, three hat shops, a hosiery shop and eight shoe stores, according to the 1955 City Directory. Walgreen's, G.C. Murphy and Meyer's Drugs, with its popular lunch counter, were there, too.

"Everything you needed was within four blocks," Fremion said. "You just walked downtown and you had everything. You could just go in one store and out the other."

The Murphy's store was new, having opened on the northeast corner of Wayne and Calhoun in 1950, the same year construction began on the U.S. 30 bypass, now called Coliseum Boulevard.

But by 1953, Sears and Roebuck had left downtown, when its new store at Rudisill Boulevard and South Clinton Street opened, and Southgate Plaza opened in 1955 with 40 stores on 40 acres with plenty of easy parking at Pettit Avenue and Calhoun.

The decade ended with a flourish for downtown with the opening of Wolf & Dessauer's new store on the northeast corner of Wayne and Clinton. CBS TV news correspondent Robert S. Trout was the guest speaker at the dedication ceremonies Feb. 2, declaring "it is good news to find that the people of an American city have faith in that city."

But developments in other parts of the city kept nibbling away at downtown's vitality. The Nickel Plate Railroad tracks across the north side of downtown were elevated in 1955, opening up vastly easier automobile access to the north side. The Barr Street Market, a downtown fixture for more than a century, closed in 1958, the same year Northcrest Shopping Center opened on the newly accessible U.S. 30 Bypass.

And downtown would never be the same again.

"I wish it was still in the '50s," said Lorraine Hetrick, who grew up on South Calhoun Street and worked at the downtown Sears store before she was married. "It was so nice to go downtown because there were the stores -- Hutner's Paris and Fishman's and Patterson-Fletcher, Murphy's and a lot of other ones. We used to go up on the second floor Meyer's drug store and have Cokes after school.

"Every time we go downtown with some of my friends, we say: 'Don't we wish it was like it was.' "

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