Shillito’s, Abandoned and Otherwise

Last Friday evening Diamondqueen and I attended a fundraising event called the Shillito’s Abandoned Tour, a guided exploration of the background ruins of the beloved old Shillito’s department store. The old building was closed up in 1998 and converted into trendy, expensive lofts. I always assumed that any evidence of the former store had been gutted or transformed, but I was surprised how much of the original retail space is still there. Rather spooky, and I don’t know how comfortable I’d feel living in one of those lofts knowing what lies behind the walls.

What also surprised me was how many salvageable architectural treasures still exist, from parquet flooring to tiles to the memorable art deco brushed chrome-like bannisters. Because of broken stone and plaster, piles of renovation debris, and walls of vintage wallpaper or plain painted Sheetrock  marred by gouges and extracted electrical wire, most of Abandoned Shillito’s has a post-apocalyptic appearance, especially when viewed in the dark with nothing but small pocket flashlights (provided by the tour).

Certainly Shillito’s was a beloved shopping destination for Mom, Diamondqueen, and me. We regularly lunched on Saturdays at their tasteful yet un-stuffy restaurant. (I still crave their turkey poulet, and ice cream balls encrusted with pecans and drenched in hot fudge; they had a terrific, truly gourmet salad bar as well.) Into the ’80s and ’90s I’d drive downtown just to go to Shillito’s during their evening hours. Sometimes it was a practical shopping trip, sometimes just a chance to browse their jewelry counters or decorative housewares. I’ve lost track of all the gifts I purchased there over the years.

A photo of Grandma (on the left) and her co-worker Lou busy creating signs. Note the chair against the wall between them with "Sign Shop" written on the back.

A photo of Grandma (on the left) and her co-worker Lou busy creating signs. Note the chair against the wall between them with “Sign Shop” written on the back.

However, Shillito’s was something more to my family. Mom’s mother, my Grandma Martha, worked in their sign shop for over 20 years, beginning the year before I was born. (I blogged here about the sign shop with a reminiscence poem.) I doubted the sign shop still existed as it had been when Grandma was there, but I wondered about the yellow-tiled stairway we took to reach the labyrinth of narrow hallways that led to that dim workspace.

I was hoping to see a portion of that stairway, plus whatever physical evidence that might bring back memories. Diamondqueen was focused on the old Santaland, which was supposed to be standing, although in a dilapidated condition.

Me in the old yellow stairwell, just as I remembered it, although maybe a little dustier.

Me in the old yellow stairwell, just as I remembered it, although maybe a little dustier.

We both found things we were looking for. Not long after we were herded into a creaky freight elevator and led through shadowy halls, I found myself in that yellow-tiled stairwell, just as I remembered it from 40 years ago. For all I know we were in the sign shop area at some point, since we wound through all kinds of mazes. Until we got to Santaland, though, I had trouble connecting with the rest of the shadowy rubble we saw.

In abandoned Santaland, reliving the past--another of my connections to Shililto's is I worked as a Santaland elf in 1978. Oh, the war wounds...

In abandoned Santaland, reliving the past–another of my connections to Shililto’s is I worked as a Santaland elf in 1978. Oh, the war wounds…

The tour provided cocktails at the counter where parents had once purchased Santa photos of their children. From there we inched along the narrow path that passed all the staging areas for the various elf tableaus, most still with the original paint or wallpaper. It was a skeleton of its former self, of course, but for many in our tour group it was an exciting “archeological” find.

One of my favorite Shillito’s memories centers on something I experienced pretty much alone during adolescence–the annual World’s Fair promotion the store put on each year. It was an elaborate production that had been presented for years before I attended my first one in 1965. (Hard to believe I’d go downtown on the bus by myself at age 11, but I did.) More about my love of the Shillito’s Worlds Fairs in a future post.

I don't know how good the wine was; I was also interested in little bottles of Bailey's and champagne.

I don’t know how good the wine was; I was more interested in little bottles of Bailey’s and champagne. Note the fake garlic in the upper right corner of the photo.

I didn’t see anything specifically related to the World’s Fairs, although Santaland opened from the same area in which the various marketplaces were created over the years. And I was stunned to see the wall of the Wine Shop intact; in fact, there was still a garland of plastic garlic hanging on the faux brick wall. I think the Wine Shop originated in that first World’s Fair I attended, although under another name; later, I’d shop there for little gourmet treats and small bottles of Bailey’s that I gave for “12 days” gifts.

Diamondqueen and I were both very pleased with our “abandoned Shillito’s” experience. I didn’t sense echoes of the store’s former glamor, as some of the news stories had hinted. However, I did see some spots I thought were long gone. That was interesting (and a little haunting) enough just in itself.



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2 Responses to Shillito’s, Abandoned and Otherwise

  1. Scott says:

    SEE INSIDE SHILLITO BLDG TODAY. We created a “listening room” music series in the historic Shillito bldg. Club Room in downtown Cincy. We bring in out-of-town folk, pop and acoustic rock artists who normally don’t play Cincy. And pair them with emerging local acts. Plus, present them in a quiet and cozy spot with a true “listening room” vibe where you can really hear the artists. Come see the old bldg and enjoy some new music.

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