A Curiosity in Architecture: The Legacy of Stanley Marcus

A Curiosity in Architecture: The Legacy of Stanley Marcus

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James Adams
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A Curiosity in Architecture: The Legacy of Stanley Marcus

Engraved in a bronze plaque set into the sidewalk at the intersection of Ervay and Main streets is a simple message: “Stanley Marcus: Commitment to Quality.” Plaques on the other corners read “Prospective of Truth,” “Legacy of Wisdom,” and “Spirit of the Arts.” A smaller faded note on the streetlight post above says “Marcus Square.” This is where the Neiman Marcus flagship store has resided for over a century.

Neiman Marcus’ revolutionary approach to retail outpaced local competitors Sanger-Harris and Titche-Goettinger, offering ready-to-wear clothing and a customer-friendly return policy; but it was Stanley Marcus, Hon. AIA, the son of co-founder Herbert Marcus, who forged an indelible international legacy for “The Store.” During his 50-year tenure, Stanley was hailed by the press as “America’s Merchant Prince,” a title gained through his showmanship, discipline, and innovative techniques.

Stanley’s efforts to capitalize on the momentum of his forebearers combined with his own business acumen enabled Dallas to host nobility, dignitaries, and celebrities from all over the world. He sought the best in all ventures he undertook, and commissioned designers to collaborate and generate meaningful spaces and experiences in his stores. Stanley commissioned some of the many notable architects of the 20th century, both in his professional capacity at Neiman Marcus and as a recognized champion for design on numerous civic boards.

Even as the future of brick and mortar stores across the country continues to wane, Stanley Marcus’ approach to retail still influences fashion merchants and customers. His legacy serves as a reminder of the value that thoughtful design affords the shopping experience. Architecturally, he remains the most influential agent for change in Dallas outside of our elected officials.

An Education Beyond Harvard

Neiman Marcus first opened in 1907 on Elm Street, a beautiful four-story shop on a corner that today is the site of the skyscraper One Main Place. After being destroyed in a fire in 1913, the flagship store was relocated to its current location on Main Street the following year. The business was growing and, in 1926, Stanley graduated from Harvard Business School and began to jockey for a position of influence before completion of the store’s first expansion.

As Stanley stated in his 1974 autobiography Minding the Store: “If this was going to happen, I thought, I’d better get down there and enter the store before the new organization jelled.” As part of the design process, Herbert took Stanley, along with architect George Dahl, FAIA, on a trip across the Midwest to visit comparable retailers’ stores. This experience first exposed Stanley to the relationship between architect and patron as Dahl sketched details of architectural features in other shops which Herbert admired during their journey.

Equally influential in Stanley’s design education was his college graduation present—a 1926 trip to Paris with his father. There, he observed the Art Deco style at the “Exhibition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes.” This was a critical point in his development. In a conversation with Barbara Koerble for her 1996 article in CITE magazine, Stanley said, “I had been suspecting that there was a revolution going on in architecture, but I didn’t know a damn thing about architecture. That exhibition was like a bombshell coming at a time when I was very impressionable and tending toward contemporary design, and that sealed it. Gradually, I educated my father that contemporary design was here to stay and that it was a much better backbone for [merchandise display].”

The 1927 expansion took the store which fronted on Main Street and expanded it to also have a presence on Commerce Street, the next block to the south. The addition mimicked the existing store on the exterior with Italian Renaissance Revival splendor. The interiors began their metamorphosis, shaping modern retail concepts even though their detailing was rooted heavy-handedly in various revival-styled features and finishes. Most notable was the desire to create an open airy facility where circulation space delivered a pleasant experience for shoppers—a hallmark of all future Neiman Marcus stores.

Scaffolding for the 1927 addition to Neiman Marcus prominently depicts fashion and the architect’s practice at Commerce and Ervay streets. / Photo from the Jim Foster Collection

Influencing Fair Park

Stanley’s involvement with Fair Park demonstrated his design influence on Dallas beyond his normal business ventures. Prior to his involvement—actually the year after he was born—the formal creation of Fair Park happened in 1906. Spurred by the City Beautiful Movement, designs for modest park grounds on the east edge of Dallas grew with the influence of Dallas city planner George Kessler. Thirty years later, Fair Park gained national acclaim when Dallas hosted a World’s Fair exhibition for the Texas Centennial in 1936. Dahl, by then a principal with the design firm Herbert M. Greene, LaRoche, and Dahl, was tasked with orchestrating the architectural design of 50 structures for the six-month-long event.

One particularly significant structure within the complex, the Magnolia Lounge, was funded by Magnolia Petroleum Company. Fred Lege Jr., the firm’s vice president of marketing and Stanley’s good friend, requested the young merchant’s guidance in selecting an architect for their sponsored structure. Said Virginia McAlester, Hon. AIA, in the October 1989 issue of Texas Monthly, “Young retailer Stanley Marcus was dispatched to New York City by Dallas-based Magnolia Petroleum to find the most up-to-date architect of the United States for their Centennial pavilion. Marcus chose William Lescaze, AIA, who had just designed the first International Style skyscraper in the United States.”

The Magnolia Lounge became the first International Style building in Texas, and Stanley had successfully fulfilled his first civic role in leveraging architecture for the betterment of Dallas. Today, the Magnolia Lounge houses the Friends of Fair Park, founded by McAlester. The building stands out among its neighboring Art Deco-styled structures and has had a lasting impression on millions of visitors.

Credit: State Fair of Texas

Incidentally, the idea for a lounge concept and the suggestion for Stanley to interview Lescaze originated with another friend of Stanley’s: industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss. A decade later, when Dreyfuss collaborated with future AIA Gold Medalist Edward Larrabee Barnes, FAIA for the design of a pre-fab home in Los Angeles, Stanley requested the plans from Barnes. In the spirit of his passion for fashion, Stanley had the plans applied to a felt skirt for Dreyfuss’ wife, Doris, to wear during the open house celebration.

Inspiration in Interior Design

Around the same time, Stanley met interior designer Eleanor Le Maire, a graduate of Parsons School of Design who gained critical acclaim for her design of the Bullocks Wilshire Avenue store. Interiors magazine called it “a revolutionary interior in its openness, airiness, accessibility to daylight, unification with the landscape, and its clear and vivid colors—colors then unknown in commercial interiors.”

Le Maire not only solidified Stanley’s impression of the value of early modern architecture, but set him on a course to commission talented architects to create unique and appropriate stores as Neiman Marcus began to evaluate expansion. Said Marcus later, “I made a decision, encouraged by her, not to produce a prototype store and reproduce it all over. She thought this was an opportunity to capitalize on diversity instead of standardization.”

The ideas for the customer experience championed by Herbert and embraced by his son were met with similar passion by Le Maire. Her designs leveraged the architecture to draw focus on the merchandise, and she recognized the importance of bright lighting to create an environment that encouraged shoppers.

Stanley became Le Maire’s greatest patron and together they collaborated for over three decades until her death in 1970. John Carl Warnecke, FAIA, who designed many Neiman Marcus stores during the company’s great expansion period of the 1970s, absorbed Le Maire’s practice at Stanley’s behest.

The Mermaid Bar at NorthPark Center Neiman Marcus, 1965. / Photo: the DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University

An Education from Frank Lloyd Wright

The most well-known story about Stanley in his dealings with architecture is the design of his home in East Dallas on Nonesuch Road. Stanley and his wife, Billie, met with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin in late 1934. Recalled Stanley, again from Minding the Store, “…I was a confirmed ‘modernist’ in architecture, and had converted my ‘colonial’ wife to my way of thinking. We started our search for an architect in the East, since modern architecture had not been discovered in Dallas up to that time. We interviewed Lescaze in New York, considered Neutra in California, and finally ended up visiting the great Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin. We described what we wanted and solicited his advice about which of the modern architects he would recommend. ‘Son,’ he said, ‘Why take the imitation while you can still get the original? I’ll do your house.’ That was the beginning of an interesting episode in our lives, and a rich—though sometimes painful and expensive—education in modern architecture.”

Records of Wright’s and Stanley’s correspondence at the DeGolyer Library at Southern Methodist University expose a steady deterioration of their working relationship as the design proved to be insensitive to Texas weather and the cost exceeded Stanley’s budget. Eventually the pricing came in at roughly $150,000—six times the original budget and equivalent to $2.7 million in today’s dollars.

Stanley’s request of architect Roscoe DeWitt, FAIA to serve as a local representative for the Marcus home insulted Wright well before the famous architect was dismissed. Said Stanley: “We were a big disappointment to him because we lacked the fundamental faith necessary for a Frank Lloyd Wright client. We emerged from the experience with a Frank Lloyd Wright education, which proved to be a great help with the house we eventually built. We turned to Roscoe DeWitt, for whom we had great respect, to design our house in the same location. His house bore no resemblance to the Wright original. It was a highly controversial, though not a historical, piece of architecture; and it proved to be a home which met our living requirements better than the Wright house would have done.”

Today, the first International Style home in Dallas remains intact nearly 80 years after its completion. In 2010, the home was designated a Dallas Landmark after a thoughtful restoration and renovation.

Shaping the Next Marcus Generation

Richard and Wendy Marcus, Stanley and Billie Marcus’ twin children, were born in 1938, the year they moved into their new home. Jerrie, the oldest daughter, was two years old. In speaking with her for this article, she fondly recalled the influence Stanley exerted on her starting at a young age: “The real value that my father left me, and all my children, is his sense of curiosity. I believe that trait is what propelled him. He never stopped looking and he never stopped asking questions. He would listen and he would remember and he would file it away. You had to be careful about being accurate when you talked to him.”

This inquisitive nature at the root of Stanley’s outlook on life was evidenced by those close to him. Jerrie’s youngest daughter, Allison Smith, shared a similar sentiment. Late in his life, Stanley spent much time with her. Said Allison, in recalling his interest in her craft, “Stanley died when I was 31 years old. We were close. I had a passion in photography and he saw me doing something that I was trying to do well.”

Throughout Stanley’s life, he documented his family, friends, and travels through photography. This eventually resulted in the mother and daughter team publishing a book in 2007 titled Reflections of a Man: The Photographs of Stanley Marcus. Though the book showcases more photos of people then cities and structures, the quality of his imagery communicates his understanding of people and how they experienced the environment around them. Said Allison, “I remember the curiosity … He wanted to experience the best of everything. What aspect of the city, state, or even to a degree, the world, was not influenced by him?”

While the focus of this sentiment may pertain more to fashion, his influences in leveraging architecture were just beginning to expand with the completion of the family home by architect DeWitt.

Expanding Before the War

As the Great Depression began to lift with President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, Neiman Marcus turned a profit in 1936 for the first time in several years. The store’s 1937 New Year’s advertisement read, “This Dallas-owned institution belongs to Dallas, and we shall continue to put back into the property and merchandise that which is made possible by a generous patronage. Shortly, we shall announce new plans for enlarging certain shops.” This statement came just before the first Neiman Marcus Awards, in 1938, which quickly elevated the international reputation of Dallas in regards to fashion even further with its high-profile recipients.

With the war looming, future restrictions on construction were imminent. Stanley and his father hired Le Maire, along with New York architecture firm Darveed Inc., to update and expand the store in a more contemporary style per Stanley’s insistence to his father. Records of correspondence between Darveed’s architects, Rene Brugnoli, and Terence Harold Robsjohn-Gibbings, George Dahl in Dallas, and Stanley, reflect the younger Marcus’ attention to detail, even regarding the hardware selections.

Expanding After the War

Stanley learned from Sears’ Chairman of the Board, Gen. Robert Wood, that his company was starting a massive building expansion effort in 1948 to leverage a nascent construction market. Stanley knew that it was time for Neiman Marcus to expand as well. Dahl again led the effort in designing two new floors for the building in collaboration with Le Maire. To solve a critical problem related to increased vertical circulation needs within the building, Stanley moved to add escalators against the wishes of both his father Herbert and his aunt, Carrie Neiman. The solution worked with the innovative efforts of Le Maire who designed a hanging garden between the new escalators.

Equally important was the first true expansion of the store outside of the downtown core. To stymie competition that might arise as the city grew northward, Neiman Marcus built a store in Preston Center in 1951 that lasted for nearly 15 years until the opening in 1965 of NorthPark Center by Raymond Nasher, Hon. AIA.

Nasher approached Stanley about opening a Neiman Marcus store in NorthPark. Reluctant at first, Stanley eventually agreed when he was unable to expand the Preston Center store due to its proximity to residences in University Park. As part of the deal, Stanley could commission his own architect.

Eero Saarinen, FAIA committed to designing the store after completing the design for the CBS Building in New York City, however, he died unexpectedly in 1961 before Stanley’s project was underway. Kevin Roche, FAIA, Saarinen’s partner, took the commission and, along with fellow partner John Dinkeloo, FAIA, designed it in collaboration with architect E.G. Hamilton, FAIA of Harrell & Hamilton (now Omniplan), who was tasked by Nasher to design the balance of NorthPark Center.

While Stanley wanted to use white marble throughout the new store, Nasher and Hamilton reinforced the need for unity within the overall design and materiality of the Center. Roche responded to this, and worked to create a store with bold elements defining the departments within. Marcus recalled later, “We found ourselves educating most of the architects as to what the philosophy of a store was. One of the things we had to teach them was that we were positive of only one thing with any store—that we would want to change it within 10 years … [Roche] was very convincing that a building had to have some discipline even if you did have to change it a little.” Stanley was right, and later, during a remodeling to keep the store contemporary, elements with which he argued against had to be removed at great expense.

Neiman Marcus’ next venture was an expansion into Houston in 1967. After an underwhelming launch, Stanley collaborated with notable developer Gerald Hines, Hon. TxA, a fellow patron of architecture, to relocate the Houston branch into Hines’ new Galleria mall. Commissioning HOK for the design, Stanley was less pleased with the efforts of founding architect Gyo Obata, FAIA. Stanley recalled later, “I think Obata was intent upon his career and the importance of the building to his career rather than the importance of the building to our career.” A brutalist design completed in 1969, the façade was criticized for its unimaginative mimicry of Le Corbusier’s famous Sainte Marie de La Tourette in Lyon, France.

A Voice for Dallas’ Future

Stanley’s influence over Dallas took a great leap forward when he exhibited superb leadership in the wake of President John Kennedy’s assassination just one mile from his Main Street store. A good friend of newly sworn-in President Lyndon Johnson, Stanley looked to right the growing animosity and guilt within Dallas regarding its perceived complicity in Kennedy’s death. On January 1, 1964, he bought ad space in both The Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Times Herald, proclaiming the message, “What’s Right with Dallas?” The advertisment inspired Dallasites to look forward and see the opportunity for Dallas to grow. The ad continued, “We concur with Mr. [J. Erik] Jonsson [the incoming city mayor] that a city, like individual or business institutions, must take an honest look at its inventory and be willing to consider its faults as well as its assets.”

Stanley Marcus (right), chairman of the Dallas Chamber of Commerce aviation committee, showed Ralph Platt of Cleveland, Ohio, president of the Aviation Writers Association, a scale model layout of the future Love Field. / Photo: Dallas Public Library – Texas/Dallas History and Archives Division/The Dallas Morning News Collection; Published May 23, 1953

Outgoing Mayor Earle Cabell formally created a Citizens Memorial Committee that included Stanley and other civic leaders. Stanley traveled to New York City and met with future Pritzker Prize-winning architect Philip Johnson, FAIA, a friend of the Kennedy family, about designing a memorial for Kennedy in Dallas.

Incoming Mayor Jonsson led the creation of the 1964 Goals for Dallas, a roadmap for the future of the city in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination. Said Jerrie Smith, “I think that Stanley had great respect for Erik Jonsson because he was also such a great visionary. At the time, we believed he was doing the right thing.” One result of this effort by Jonsson was revising the approach to a new Dallas City Hall.

Previous studies for a new centralized municipal center had imagined a Beaux-Arts design, but Jonsson tapped Stanley to intervene and lead an effort to commission an appropriate architect for the fulfillment of beautifying Dallas. I.M. Pei, FAIA was hired because of this effort and the iconic—if somewhat oppressive—Dallas City Hall was completed in 1978. Said Stanley later, “Now, whether this was a good design or not, I don’t know. I’ve never been terribly keen about the building inside.”

San Francisco and Philip Johnson

Stanley sold Neiman Marcus in 1969 to Broadway-Hale Stores, which hastened a period of expansive growth across the country during the 1970s and ‘80s. As Stanley retained independence within this merger, he remained heavily involved in the design and construction process. Thomas Alexander, former executive vice president of Neiman Marcus, joined the store in 1970. Alexander, later a commissioner with the Texas Historic Commission, became one of Stanley’s closest employees over his nearly 20-year career.

“I think one of the best examples of Stanley Marcus working with architecture is the San Francisco store, designed by Philip Johnson,” said Alexander. “Stanley and Philip hit it off pretty well, which is rather unusual considering they were two very big egos.”

The location selected for the first expansion into California was on the site of a recently failed retail institution near Union Square known as the City of Paris. The design concept by Johnson involved demolishing that structurally unsound building. Said Alexander, “I first went in that store when it was still doing business as the City of Paris. There were pieces of it falling down already. One whole floor was curtained off with canvas and they were still trying to make it work. The rotunda was the only element left intact of any consequence, and people loved it. The knowledge that it was being torn down before it could fall down, and the knowledge that an outside luxury goods store company was coming from Dallas to occupy it, meant nothing to San Francisco, CA. The citizens were opposed to it.”

Stanley, however, had an idea to gain support. While in a meeting with city officials, Stanley proposed refurbishing the rotunda and then reconstructing it as part of a new design by Johnson. Johnson had been selected to appeal to San Francisco based on his national stature.

Said Alexander, “It was Dianne Feinstein, the senator from California, Mayor [George] Moscone, Stanley, and myself. He [Stanley] stated, ‘Why don’t we take that mosaic tile dome down piece by piece. We will find out who made the original and we will ship [the pieces] there to be refurbished. We will put it back up there exactly the way it was and we will use this as the focal point of the rotunda when you first walk in the store.’”

The approach worked at great expense to Neiman Marcus and the store finally opened in 1982, eight years after its inception.

The famous “City of Paris” stained glass ceiling atop The Rotunda restaurant in the Neiman Marcus department store in Union Station, San Francisco, CA. / Photo: Norm Evangelista @Gnawme

The Elder Statesmen

When Stanley retired in 1975, he began to focus more fully on civic involvement. His last major effort, lasting nearly 15 years, was a plan to ensure the future of the Dallas Symphony. Stanley was a critical participant in the eventual design, construction, and fundraising for the Meyerson Symphony Center. The success of the center heavily rested on Morton Meyerson’s shoulders to the point that his mentor at Electronic Data Systems, Ross Perot, offered a $10 million gift to ensure it was named after him.

Once Meyerson was tasked with leading the effort to build a new hall for the Dallas Symphony, he named Stanley as the architectural selection committee chair. In her book The Meyerson Symphony Center, Laurie Shulman wrote, “The committee initially sent a letter to a large group of established architects in addition to those recommended by its own membership inquiring as to whether they would be interested. Some of the most prominent firms initially declined to submit presentation, including Kevin Roche/John Dinkeloo Associates; Gwathmey & Siegel; Charles Basset of Bassett & Reiner; Gerald McCue of Harvard University School of Design; Geddes, Brecher, Qualls, Cunningham Architects; E.G. Hamilton of Omniplan Architects in Dallas (presumably declining due to a conflict of interest, because Hamilton had served the project in an advisory capacity); Welton Becket Associates; and I.M. Pei of I.M. Pei & Partners.

According to Stanley, “The committee was shocked when Pei initially turned the symphony down. He gave the reason that he was terribly busy and couldn’t undertake it. I took his request to be deleted from the list seriously, and frankly, I was wrong.”

It became evident that Pei felt he would not be wanted because he had already completed so many recent projects in the city of Dallas. However, Stanley and the rest of the selection committee were intent on hiring him. He flew to New York and had lunch with Pei where he convinced the famed architect to take the commission outright. This was after having already interviewed many well-established international architects.

Stanley Marcus of Dallas; I.M. Pei, architect of the Meyerson Symphony Hall; and Eduardo Chillida, internationally-renowned Basque sculptor inspect the Meyerson site for the installation of Chillida’s sculpture. / Photo: The Dallas Morning News Archives.

A Lasting Legacy

Stanley passed away suddenly in 2002 at the age of 96. This was during a time when brick and mortar stores were first beginning to struggle as online commerce came into its own. Stanley’s last major speaking engagement was two years prior at the request of Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, the largest internet-based retailer in the world.

Said Jerrie Smith, “My father proudly told me later that when he got on stage he noticed the audience was all ‘kids, more or less, in casual wear.’ He responded by taking off his tie and dress shirt, promptly giving his talk in his trousers and undershirt. My father wanted to make the audience laugh and feel inclusive of him.”

Perhaps this says as much about his ability to read an audience in the moment as the way he could anticipate designs that would inspire us all.

James Adams, AIA, RIBA is a senior associate with Corgan.