May 11, 2009

As I said in the previous post, I only vaguely remember Hess's. I remember Santa and colored sugar and the circular kinds of clothing racks that were easy to hide inside. That last bit really drove my mom up the walls when we were in there. Since I was the kind of kid who behaved AWFULLY in stores, I didn't really get to go to Hess's much in the first place.

Last night's talk on Hess's department store let me in on the incredible history of an institution that holds a special place in the collective memory of Allentown residents. The speakers, Frank Whelen and Kurt Zwikl have published a book on Hess's heyday and shared their experience with about 30 locals in the basement of The Episcopal Church of the Mediator. The evening started with a potluck and quickly turned over to Mr. Whelen's lecture on how Hess's came to be. Apparently one of the Hess brothers took the TRAIN from Easton to Bethlehem to Allentown and decided to put his store in Allentown almost immediately after walking up Hamilton street from the train station. From the start, the store had character. The grand opening ceremony in 1897 featured the Allentown band, something no other Allentown dry goods store ever thought reasonable or feasible. The store continued to undergo massive expansion, annexing all the other buildings on its block. Mr. Whelen asked those of us who had visited the store before it closed "remember how you would have to take a couple steps up and down throughout the store? You were walking between all the different bulidings the store acquired and converted."

Kurt Zwikl then took over and spoke of his personal experience growing up in Allentown during Hess's "Hollywood on Hamilton" days. He listed names of celebrities that were clearly before my time and types of events I've never experienced. I can't imagine a department that doubles as a source of community pride – all I know are the monolith big boxes that land in asphalt strips like space ships. The portrait Zwikl painted of Max Hess Jr. reminded me, in a way, of Citizen Kane.

In the question and answer session, an attendee said something of interest. “Can you imagine what people would have said if they were told that Hess’s wouldn’t exist in thirty years? I don’t think anyone would believe it.”

“It’s just proof that things DO change,” said Zwikl.

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