Chris Sawyer has not had a vacation in five years. For his day job, he travels up and down the east coast and Chicago to design the store windows for over twenty Ralph Lauren stores. For the past five years, he has returned to Worcester during his precious vacation time to donate his energy to beautifying the store windows of the Denholm building downtown at 484 Main Street. He does whatever it takes to maintain the beauty he remembered during his youth, anything from washing the windows to creating intricate design stories for all to see on Main Street.
Until the 1970s, the Denholm and McKay Company operated as the premiere department store in Central Massachusetts, drawing people from locally and all over New England. As a boy, Chris fell in love with the glamour of the store and the beauty of the windows that inspired his career as a window designer. Some of you may be sad by his words. He details the end of the era of family owned department stores now bought out by national chains such as Macy’s as well as the demise of his own profession as retailers cut costs on “visual merchandizing”. I actually feel inspired by Chris – his generosity, his dedication to the Denholm building and downtown Worcester, his altruism and humility. What can you say about a man who comes back here to wash and beautify the windows of a building, pro bono? Chris now has the largest collection of Denholm memorabilia that will someday be donated to the Worcester Historical Museum. He has channeled his passion into a blog and a co-authored 2011 book, Denholms: The Story of Worcester’s Premiere Department Store.
The love affair with Denholms started early
"I grew up in Princeton. My grandmother always worked here at Denholms for almost thirty years. I used to come down with her every Saturday, shadow her and see what she did for work and walk around….I was four years old and I remember being taken up to the 6th floor that at the time was the beauty salon and display department. The display people would take and walk me around throughout the store. I remember it clearly. It was so beautiful. I remember coming back in 1983 when they were turning it all into offices. I went with my grandmother. There was construction going on and she said, “I used to work here. Could I just go in and see it one more time?” I was thirteen and my jaw dropped. I have all the polaroids I took that day. I just couldn’t believe the level of beauty… I mean it was New York level of beauty that was here in this building. I remember lying and telling them I had a term paper so the owner of the building would let me in and walk around. I studied every square inch of this building before it was fully converted. I knew where every single thing was - the finish on the walls, the lettering. The building is almost like a part of me. People joke that my ashes are going to be scattered on the roof!"
Remembering Worcester and Denholms in its heyday
" This downtown was booming in the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s. In the 70s, that’s when the downtown here and across the country started fading off. People were going to suburbia. The idea of new malls was enticing to them. It was a different generation coming into the shopping market so a lot of downtowns fell apart. That’s the story of Worcester."
Denholms as inspiration for a career in visual merchandising
"When I was young, my grandmother had a big book on the building given to her as a going away gift when she left. I would analyze every single photo, every single window display. That’s how I got involved in this field, inspired by Denholms and seeing what they did at the time. The 60s and 70s were the height of window display. All your budget was thrown towards windows. They were elaborate and custom. I started analyzing the photos and thought, “I want to do this!” It’s bittersweet because I’m ready for the next phase in life but it’s sad to see your industry go. It would be like seeing the theater close down everywhere. I think you will see bust forms instead of mannequins, one prop instead of a whole story, I think retailers are going to go real streamline so that they can get their image across at a cheaper price. So, now I have to come up with phase two in life and I don’t know what phase two is."
The Real Reason Why Denholms Closed
"This store had one bad year after the mall opened up and then it was fine. The mall was not the reason why this store closed. The gentleman who bought the company from the family, had a lot of other companies in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. He owned Shepard’s Department Store in Rhode Island, a knitwear factory in Lawrence, all failing. Denholms paid for everything. He siphoned the equity out of this company to fuel his other companies and then made this go bankrupt. I don’t think the mall helped. In one year after the mall opened, revenue dropped almost 5%. It may have survived maybe another five more years but it probably would have been bought up at some point. Now, these kind of local department stores are almost gone. Companies like Macy’s just bought all these stores and renamed them Macy’s. It wouldn’t have been Denholms anymore at this point."
On Denholm’s now, 2016:
"This is just a shell of what it was. It makes me horribly sad. I know it could never exist anymore, the way retail is but it makes me sad to see the condition the building is in right now. The architecture is called “streamlined moderne” right after the art deco period before the 1950s kitschy atomic era. This was the era of Glenn Miller and big band music. That’s what the exterior looked like and the interior followed suit. Denholms was a building that has been here for over 100 years and it was constantly being maintained and upgraded. It was the most modernized department store outside of Boston."
"It’s sad to see but it is a sign of the city. This city used to be stunning. There was industry here. It was kind of like our Detroit. You can see the glory in some of the structures like the art museum, Federal Square, the Auditorium, Notre Dame which is so important. They want to take that building down which is a shame. You don’t tear that down. You just don’t. It could never be replaced again. I don’t know why in the city, they will easily tear down its architecture that makes this city amazing."
"It’s so different down here. There were so many department stores. Six of them at one time. It was very prosperous and safe. I’d walk around here late at night because I got my first apartment right around the corner. It was so safe. I never, never felt threatened. When I came back five years ago, I was, “Oh my God! What happened!!??” That’s how I got interested in the building again because I couldn’t believe how bad it had gotten."
On being a store window designer
"I was lucky to grow up in retail when retail was great. My first job was at Jordan Marsh in Worcester center. In 1993, I got the job at Neiman’s. I took it because I needed to refine my eye and work with better product and styling. That’s where I learned lighting design on the job, exhibit design, proper styling of mannequins. It was a time when people were still doing windows and interior mannequins and fresh floral. Now, it’s all been removed because of budgets. No one wants to do “realistics”, like this mannequin here that looks real. No one in the younger generation knows how to style them. They were never taught. I’m from the generation where stores were full of them to present the product. It was a cost cutting. Every window in Neiman’s used to be custom built."
"I don’t have a desk job where I sit down. I like constant change and every day is different. One day, I can be doing a women’s runway window. The next day, I might be doing men’s clothing, just always changing. I did a window when I first started with Ralph Loren. It was the theme of Dr. Zhivago based on a Russian collection we had done. It looked like the inside of a stately manor where the ceiling fell down and it was pouring snow. It was so beautiful with all the drifting and the fresh floral that had been captured in first frost. That was my favorite window."
"You can’t really learn the basics of what this job takes. Half of the job is really creative and half is operational in nature. When you are dealing with creative people, you manage them differently. You are wearing so many different hats but I like that. You can’t teach that. You can give an idea of composition and lighting but until you are in a window with real theater lighting, working off color, shadows, intensity of light, everything to make the whole window pop and tell a story, you learn that on the job. Each of us has a role to play in life. There are things you can do, I can’t do. This is something I can do that not everyone can do. It’s about finding our place in the puzzle."
Returning every vacation to update the windows
"Everyone knows me in the building. When I come here, people say hi and I find that very comforting. Everyone’s very down to earth and appreciative. I want to take it further but it’s cost prohibitive. Five years ago, I contacted the rep from the management company. Then, she went to the trustees of the building to tell them I wanted to help. It’s a sacrifice but not when you love something. There are times I walk out of here and I’m covered in dirt head- to- toe with the biggest smile on my face. It’s tiny baby steps but in the right direction. It’s hard when you are dealing with a building of non-profits. You know they don’t have the money. It’s not that anyone wants the building to look like this, but no one has the capital. There are leaks here. The building is old, built in 1882. It needs love. Thousands of dollars just has to go into infrastructure – the air conditioning, the escalators, the boilers, the electric, the roof. You never get to the point where you can deal with the cosmetic. That’s always last because you need your infrastructure and then, if you get ahead, you can work on aesthetics."