J.C. Penney’s Springfield store was the 1,001st in the chain when it opened on Oct. 5, 1928.
“Large crowds attended the formal opening yesterday of the new J.C. Penney company store at 522 East Adams street,” the Illinois State Journal reported.
The new store … is modern in every way and the equipment is conveniently arranged for the displaying of merchandise. … There are three departments, dry goods being located in the basement, men’s clothing and regular department store wares on the first floor, while women’s ready to wear goods will be on the second floor.
Manager R.R. Mohr, a 15-year Penney veteran transferred to Springfield from Pennsylvania, promised the local store would follow the Penney tradition of keeping prices low on a regular basis, not through periodic sales.
“In the service which we will endeavor to give to local customers, we will try to maintain the J.C. Penney company standards at the high level at which they are being maintained in other store towns,” he told the newspaper.
Penney’s remained on the south side of today’s Old Capitol Plaza until 1971, but the store was gutted and revamped after a disastrous fire the night of Jan. 22, 1942. The store had just closed when Penney’s assistant manager, Robert Mahan, went back in to get a can of paint he needed to paint his baby’s bed. By the time Mahan discovered the fire, which started in a basement trash bin, it was already out of control.
The blaze, fed by flammable mattresses and other bedding in the basement, quickly traveled up a ventilating shaft to the roof of the three-story building. Three firefighters were overcome by smoke while trying to quell the fire inside Penney’s, and three more were blasted into the street by a powerful backdraft.
The acrid smoke blanketing downtown forced thousands of spectators to move a block away to watch the firefighting efforts.
“The smoke pall was visible for several miles,” Journal reporter Fred Fernandes wrote. “Huge spotlights trained on the building were unable to penetrate the smoke blanket.”
Store officials estimated the loss at $300,000. However, J.C. Penney reopened in the same building only three months later. The construction schedule probably was accelerated because reopening day, April 8, coincided with the chain’s nationwide 40th anniversary celebration. Advertisements boasted the remodeled store was the “modern department store for the whole family.”
J.C. Penney left Adams Street in 1971, opening a new Springfield outlet – 10 times larger and with much more parking – on Bypass 66 (today’s Dirksen Parkway).
The store was ahead of its time – perhaps too far ahead in some ways. The Springfield Penney’s, for instance, once had a grocery section. And when it opened, the Dirksen Parkway store offered in-store delivery from the Penney’s catalog; telephones strategically located around the store connected shoppers direct to catalog sales, and Penney’s promised delivery within 48 hours. Neither innovation lasted, but by 2020, variations of both were common to both brick-and-mortar and online merchants.
Between changing consumer tastes and shutdowns forced by the Covid-19 virus, the J.C. Penney chain, down to 800-some stores, was forced into bankruptcy reorganization in May 2020.
Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society.