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Grand Leader/Stillman’s circa 1929

By Randy Harter

Fort Wayne Reader


John Stillman, of Saginaw, MI, opened his first Fort Wayne Grand Leader department store in rented space on Calhoun across from the Cathedral in 1913. This, the seventh store in his chain of Michigan and Indiana stores, was so successful that the next year he moved it to the southeast corner of Calhoun and Wayne into the large building that had previously been home to the White Fruit House.

Five years later, he had the Alt Heidelberg Hotel (next door to the south on Calhoun), razed and a new structure built in its place to expand the existing store taking him from the corner with Wayne up to the north edge of Peoples Trust Bank. This building — now joined together White Fruit building and the new three-story structure — was destroyed in a fire on December 30, 1927 at a loss of $300,000. Stillman hired local architect A. M. Strauss to design its replacement, the pictured beautiful white terra cotta seven-story Zig Zag style Art Deco building that opened on the same site eleven months later in November 1928.

Prior to this time John Stillman, enamored with Fort Wayne, had moved his company’s operations here and in 1917 built a home for him and his family just north of the Noll Mansion, at the northwest corner of Fairfield and Beechwood. Operating under the corporate name of Stillman Dry Goods Company, in 1928 he merged his chain with the (Leo) Federman Department Store chain headquartered in Akron, OH and together they became Interstate Department Stores, Inc. At that point, he and his family moved from Fort Wayne to New York to be closer to the wholesale buying centers.

Interestingly, through the years Interstate Stores both built new stores and purchased other department, discount and variety store retail chains throughout the United States including two toy store chains, one called Children’s Supermart out of Washington, D.C., and another out of Chicago called Children’s Bargain Town. They merged the two together, and today these toy store chains are the only remnants of John Stillman and Leo Federman’s once retail juggernaut, and go by the name of Toys “R” Us.

As for the Fort Wayne store, in the 1950’s its name was changed from Grand Leader to Stillman’s. When the retail flight to the suburbs first arrived here with the opening of Southgate in 1955, they became one of the dozens of retailers bracketing the new locally unheard of 2,500-space parking lot. Stillman’s closed their downtown and Southgate stores in 1974, and the downtown location is now the site of the Indiana & Michigan Power Plaza. (Image courtesy of ARCH)

A tip of the hat to Craig Leonard and Creager Smith for their insights on this piece.

Randy Harter is a Fort Wayne historian, author and the history/architecture guide for FortWayneFoodTours.com

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