Our Rich History: Shillito’s marvelous buildings still remain in Downtown Cincinnati, one a condominium

Part 2 of a continuing series on Cincinnati’s grand downtown department stores.

By Paul A. Tenkotte
Special to NKyTribune

Born in November 1808 in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, John Shillito arrived in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1817 at age nine. In an era when young boys of rather poor circumstances entered the workforce, Shillito immediately took a job at one of Cincinnati’s leading merchandising firms, Blatchley and Simpson. He spent thirteen years there.

John Shillito. Source: Charles Goss, Cincinnati: The Queen City, 1788-1912 (1912). Vol. 4, p. 609.

In 1830, John Shillito became a partner in a dry goods store on Main Street, called McLaughlin & Shillito. During the 1830s, working with various other business partners, he moved his store at least twice, first to the west side of Main Street, between Fourth and Fifth Streets, and second, to the north side of Fourth Street, between Main and Sycamore Streets, where it occupied 14,400 square feet. In 1836, Shillito married Mary Wallace of Covington, Kentucky, the daughter of Colonel Robert Wallace, the namesake of Covington’s Wallace Woods neighborhood.

In 1837, Shillito’s dry goods store was officially renamed “John Shillito & Company.” The “company” included four other business partners. Five years later, in 1842, Shillito brightened his establishment with new gas lighting. Ten years after that, in 1852, he purchased a lot on the south side of West Fourth Street in Cincinnati, between Vine and Race Streets, intending to build a new store.

Designed by architect James W. McLaughlin (1834-1923), the son of Shillito’s original business partner, the four-story building was opened in 1857. At 53,250 square feet, it featured 3.5 times the floor space of his old store. Designed in the Renaissance Revival style, it still exists today as part of the McAlpin, a stunning downtown condominium development.

John Shillito’s 1857 store, on West Fourth Street in Cincinnati, later became McAlpin’s Department Store, and is now a fashionable condominium development. Source: D. J. Kenny, Illustrated Cincinnati (1875), p. 154.

Outgrowing his Fourth Street store in only two decades, John Shillito again hired architect James W. McLaughlin to design a mammoth new store on the southwest corner of West Seventh and Race Streets. An L-shaped, six-story building with a basement and a sub-cellar, the structure’s foundations were “25 feet below the surface of the ground, resting on slabs of Indiana stone seven feet wide and a foot thick” (Cincinnati Daily Gazette, June 27, 1877). Its construction, utilizing iron throughout, was strikingly modern, as well as fireproof.

Shillito’s Seventh-Street flagship store was bright and airy, illuminated by a skylight dome with a “diameter of fifty-eight feet, and covered twenty feet above the roof with glass resting on iron ribs” (Cincinnati Daily Gazette, June 27, 1877). A six-floor atrium, with beautiful marble staircases, distributed light from the dome throughout all floors. But you didn’t have to climb steps at Shillito’s if you didn’t want to, because the store featured two passenger elevators, as well as two freight elevators.

Interior of 1857 store, on West Fourth Street in Cincinnati. Source: D. J. Kenny, Illustrated Cincinnati (1875), p. 155.

The first and second floors of the new flagship store featured retail departments, the third sold carpets, the fourth and fifth included the wholesale departments, and the sixth was for the store’s manufacturing component. Completed and opened in 1878, Shillito’s new flagship was marketed as the largest department store west of New York City. In the same year, McAlpin’s department store moved into Shillito’s old West Fourth Street building.

John Shillito did not live long after the opening of his new flagship store, dying in September 1879. The Shillitos had five children, Wallace, John, Gordon, Mary, and Stewart. Over the years, the sons continued the legacy of their father’s business.

Next week: Shillito’s is bought by the Lazarus family and expands into one of the nation’s great flagship department stores.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History and Director of the Center for Public History at NKU.

This L-shaped site drawing for Shillito’s new Seventh Street flagship store was published in the Cincinnati Daily Gazette on June 27, 1877.
James McLaughlin’s ground plan for the new 1877 Shillito’s store on West Seventh Street demonstrated his pioneering use of iron. Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, digital collections (originally appeared in the American Architect and Building News, October 13, 1877, p. 94).
In 1878 Shillito’s opened its new flagship store at Seventh and Race Streets. The Seventh and Race Street elevations of the building were refaced in the 1930s, but you can still see the original facing along the alley (Shillito Place). Source: George Roe, Cincinnati: The Queen City of the West (1895), p. 201.
The Lofts at Shillito Place reopened and restored the flagship store’s beautiful skylight dome in 1999. Photo by Paul A. Tenkotte.

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