Historical sketches recall Christmases spent at Wanamaker


Last year, his Wanamaker design portfolio appeared at auction at Freeman’s in Philadelphia, with around three dozen concept sketches and pastels he made for the Great Court, such as The Ballet of Fragrance, The Magic of Glass. and Santa’s Candy Castle.

William Valerio, director and CEO of the Woodmere Museum in Chestnut Hill, captured them all. About a dozen are now framed and hanging in the museum.

“What is so wonderful about these drawings is that they are documents of creative installations involving music, dance, visual display,” said Valerio, who had never heard of sketches before. “It’s part of the history of Philadelphia. Wanamaker’s has been a pioneer in many aspects of modern retail. One of them was the holiday celebration.

Woodmere Director and CEO William Valerio. (Peter Crimmins / WHYY)

The store has always put its finger on the holidays all year round and even played a part in mother’s day invention. The Wanamaker Department Store, which is now Macy’s at 13th and Market Street in Center City, was designed as part of the American Renaissance architectural movement, bringing the ambition and grandeur of Roman classicism to modern urban cities.

With an interior space as huge as its large central courtyard, the store needed an artistic vision to live up to. He found it in John Winters.

Originally from Omaha, Nebraska, Winters studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and then became an administrator of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). He eventually moved to Philadelphia and got a job in the display department at Wanamaker, designing retail pieces and window decorations for decades.

“First Air Trip to America” by John Winter. (Woodmere Museum)

For his Grand Court designs, Winters has created themed exhibits using elements of fashion, performance and architecture that allude to Greek mythology, Japanese gardens and European court galas. His designs show a three-dimensional sensibility, deeply filling the space with rows of sets and performers, while drawing the eye upwards with ostentatious vertical pieces, like a full-size hot air balloon draped in plunging canopies.

Drawings include notes explaining kinetic engineering (“color moving overhead”) and design nuances (“glass is flexible”).


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