In my view, a classic downtown should have a classic department store, and that was Wolf & Dessauer in Fort Wayne. Sam Wolf and Myron Dessauer opened their first mercantile, a humble dry goods store, in a two-story building on Calhoun Street in 1896. But by 1918, the store had become so popular that they were forced to build a new, six-story building at the corner of South Calhoun and East Washington, just off the square where the Indiana Michigan Power Center sits today. At some point during the early 1920s, the two entrepreneurs sold their shares in the business to their general manager, Irving Latz1.
Under Latz’s leadership, the company initiated a major expansion by opening a new store twenty miles south in Huntington, piloting the Fort Wayne locations’ gargantuan Christmas displays (which he was said to have designed himself), and building out the department store concept to offer customers new amenities and conveniences like personal shoppers, in-store models, and escalators that were revolutionary for the day. But it wasn’t just the flashy bling that attracted residents- citizens of the Summit City went downtown to W&D to buy clothing, appliances, car parts, sporting goods, and nearly anything else they needed. While there, they could also check a book out at the store’s library or eat at one of two restaurants- a tea room, and a cafeteria2. If it was Christmastime, they could stare in awe at the luminous wreath and Santa displays hanging on the building’s exterior walls, each containing more than 40,000 lights. They could even meet Santa himself, along with a notorious helper elf named WanD! In many ways, Wolf & Dessauer was a mall before malls existed.
But Latz died in 19473, and it wasn’t long before malls did exist. They brought a period of swift and speedy change- by the 1950s, commercial development was moving to the north side of Fort Wayne along the city’s new “circumurban” highway, now known as Coliseum Boulevard. In the face of the all that suburban development, the old store at Calhoun and Washington was showing its age. But despite economic pressure to relocate, the company came from a proud German heritage and knew that downtown was still where a department store belonged4. So that’s where the new store was built- rising four stories and taking up half a city block. W&D’s new downtown showcase was finished in 1959, just as the 250,000-square-foot Northcrest Shopping Center opened up four miles north along the bypass.
Nevertheless, business remained brisk at Wolf & Dessauer’s new location downtown. But a historic blaze that old-timers still vividly recall consumed the old store at Washington and Calhoun in 1962, and it threatened the health of the entire company. Though the building hadn’t housed the department store for several years, it retained space for the company’s offices and storage. The fire was estimated to cost the company millions of dollars, and had been inadvertently abetted by confused firefighters who showed up at the new store a block to the northeast.
Wolf & Dessauer was still reeling four years later when they got a call from Landau & Heyman, a Chicago developer putting together the final touches to the new Glenbrook Center Mall across the road from the aforementioned Northcrest. The mall was intended to dominate the existing retail landscape, and its organizers offered W&D an anchor slot. But the company demurred, unable to commit to the significant expense5 after the fire. As an omen of things to come, Indianapolis-based L.S. Ayres took the opening in the mall’s northeast side, and W&D stayed downtown. Later the same year, W&D sold out to the Delaware-based City Stores holding company, and after only three years of ownership, City Stores sold the chain to Ayres.
Ayres brought significant changes to the area’s retail landscape immediately, promptly shutting down the store in Huntington6 and converting a new W&D at Mel Simon’s Southtown Mall to its own department store brand. The iconic downtown location was rebranded as Ayres, inadvertently positioned as a direct competitor to the gargantuan store at Glenbrook Center- the same location that W&D had refused to consider just over a decade earlier. Despite continued development along Coliseum Boulevard, Ayres kept up the downtown store at least through 1977 when it was finally shuttered. For thousands of residents, downtown would never be the same.
But the sell-out of Wolf & Dessauer wasn’t the only major contemporary change in Fort Wayne’s city center. By the late 1960s, Allen County was in the throes of an industrial and population boom like many communities across the state. But as Indiana’s second-largest city, the effects were magnified. The majestic county courthouse –designed in 1903 to anticipate the community’s needs for at least a century7– was suddenly too small to handle business effectively, nearly forty years ahead of schedule! To replace it, city and county governments joined forces to build a consolidated governmental center to the north of the venerable structure in 1969- the same year that W&D sold out for the final time. Designed in the brutalist mode of architecture and completed in 1971, the 10-story City-County Building housed the combined functions of area government for forty years after its completion.
Long-term, the new courthouse didn’t help the hope of a continued upward trajectory. That was all shot by 1983, when prolonged periods of malaise, combined with the closure of the city’s enormous International Harvester truck plant, left as many as 10,000 workers out of a job8. Fort Wayne stagnated, as did the abandoned Wolf & Dessauer storefront. But over time, things gradually got better as new manufacturers opened up and the city began the slow transition to a contemporary economy. W&D’s Christmas light displays slowly made their way back to the walls of two new skyscrapers –The PNC Center and the previously-mentioned Indiana Michigan Power Center- and jobs started to trickle back. After stints housing a mortgage company, an insurance firm, an Abraham Lincoln museum, and the county library, the old department store was purchased by local officials. They substantially renovated it9, spending millions of dollars to ensure that the structure would be up to the task of replacing the City-County Building, which was planned to serve as the new home for Fort Wayne’s police and fire departments. The renovation was finally completed, and officials put the name of the new courthouse up to a vote. But Citizens Square, the name of the renovated storefront, was not even close to being the winner of the contest.
Intended to reflect the spirit of the community and the structure’s new, civic purpose10, the building’s name was based on “Citizens Plaza”, a suggestion from Fort Wayne’s official online forum. But that moniker was outvoted nearly fifty-five to one by an alternative submission that called to name the building after a former mayor of the city. His name? Harry Baals. And yes, you read that right- no “Bales” or “Baales” about it.
A Republican, Baals was notable for consolidating city departments, lowering taxes, and creating Fort Wayne’s modern sewage system over the course of his four terms in office. But the cheeky proposal to name the new courthouse in his honor gained more than 23,000 votes -more than ten times the amount garnered by the second-place finalist, no doubt due to the pronunciation of his name and not his accomplishments. What suggestion won second place? Thunder Dome. I love this city!
I’d imagine that officials were a little teste after seeing the outcome of the naming contest, and they decided to vote against the results11. But even if the results drove them nuts, I’m glad that the Wolf & Dessauer building is still in prominent use as Citizens Square so many years after its original tenant packed up shop and I’m selfishly content to see it tie two of my historic interests together. Although Wolf & Dessauer’s influence might be lost on a new generation of citizens going to pay their taxes or see their date in court, it’s still apparent to the countless thousands who venture downtown to see the old store’s gargantuan light displays that still light up Fort Wayne at Christmastime, albeit from new buildings. Those lights are still a sight to behold after nearly eighty years, thanks to the foresight of Wolf, Dessauer, and Latz.
I know it’s nearly sacrilege to start a historic courthouse post about Fort Wayne without featuring its landmark old courthouse –the greatest in all of Indiana, and probably the entire Midwest-, but we’ll get there soon enough. In the meantime, let’s acknowledge the 1971 City-County Building for its existence, and let’s appreciate the 1959 Wolf & Dessauer store for its resilience, adaptability, and history. As a courthouse, albeit a modern one, it remains relevant nearly sixty years after its construction as the last of a dying breed of downtown department stores.
Editor’s Note: Thanks again to JPCavanaugh for his insight into the second iteration of this post.
Allen County (pop.363,014, 3/92)
Fort Wayne (pop. 256,496).
Built: 1959; Renovated in 2011
Architect: Elevatus Architecture (2011)
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: Four stories
Current use: Courts; city and county offices
Photographed: 4/14/18 and 9/10/18.
1 “Wolf & Dessauer – Department Store History” christmaslights. WikiSpaces. Tangient, LLC. 2018. Web. Retrieved from http://christmaslights.wikispaces.com.
2 “Wolf & Dessauer offers a poignant glimpse of a bygone era” The Fort Wayne Reader [Fort Wayne]. December 6, 2014. Web. Retrieved 4/19/18.
3 “G. Irving Latz” “Business Hall of Fame,” Junior Achievement of Northern Indiana. 2016 Web. Retrieved 4/19/18.
4 “Raised by Germans” J.P. Cavanaugh’s Blog: November 6, 2015. Web. Retrieved 4/19/18.
5 JPCAVANAUGH (2018, April 20). Re: Allen County- Fort Wayne (2011) [Blog comment]. Web. Retrieved 4/19/18.
6 “Demolition crew to take much more than bricks and mortar when downtown building taken down” The Huntington County TAB [Huntington] March 5, 2015. Web. Retrieved 4/19/18.
7 “Designed with an eye on the future” Allen County Courthouse Preservation Trust. 2007 – 2015 Allen County Courthouse Preservation Trust, Inc. Web. Retrieved 4/19/18.
8 “Throwback Thursday: July 15, 1983 – Last truck rolls off line at Harvester plant” The Journal Gazette [Fort Wayne]. June 29, 2017. Web. Retrieved 4/19/18.
9 “Citizens Square Officially Open” Latest News. The City of Fort Wayne. June 27, 2011. Web. Retrieved 4/19/18.
10 “Citizens Square New Name for 200 E. Berry Street” Latest News. The City of Fort Wayne. June 27, 2011. Web. Retrieved 4/19/18.
11 “Indiana Government Building Might Be Named ‘Harry Baals’” Curbed. Vox Media: February 9, 2011. Web. Retrieved 4/19/18.