Historic Powell Building in line for new purpose

Brad Gillis and Joey Gilkerson of Devreco, a prominent Downtown Salisbury development company, have reportedly agreed to buy the building from its current owners, Phil and Joseph Wright of Vernon Powell Shoes.

On Dec. 4, 1937, Montgomery Ward store employees opened the doors to a brand-new building, the structure now referred to as the Powell Building and today slated for a make-over.

For everyone involved on that day, this was a big step, moving into a new home located only a block away from their earlier leased location.

This new home represented “enlarged and luxuriant quarters,” local Ward manager Frank J. Miller said 80 years ago.

This expansion added 50 more employees and stocks were doubled.

In time for Christmas sales, the new place was decorated throughout, with a Toyland in the basement, and flowers everywhere.

The store had a “style center” on the mezzanine floor, a new department featuring infant’s wear, and a tire service station, as they called it, at the rear of the store facing Camden Street.

Nearly 10 years earlier, Montgomery Ward and Company opened its first Salisbury store in the building previously occupied by the Farmers and Planters Co., located on the south side of Main Street, next to the Port Exchange building, where Mill Street slices through the area toward the Mill Street bridge.

Montgomery Ward signed a long-term lease and contracted renovations to suit some of their needs, adding four display windows and installing an electric elevator.

But this first building had challenges. According to one account, there were no cash registers. Instead, employees “passed money along to a central office by means of traveling overhead containers.”

There must have been a collective sigh of relief in December 1937, as fire threatened the stock the month before at their old store. A rear wall cracked, and there was some damage to a small amount of third-floor stock. It’s not clear if part of the stock had been moved to the new location, but damages could have been much worse.

The fire destroyed an adjacent warehouse used by Feldman Brothers furniture store. The Turner Brothers wholesale grocers (in what is now the Port Exchange Building), which adjoined the furniture warehouse, had only negligible damage.

The new building, which opened next to Woolworths, had all the amenities and was described as “one of the finest buildings on Main Street.”

In the early 1970s, Montgomery Ward moved to its third store, on South Salisbury Boulevard, around the time when the business nationwide celebrated its 100th anniversary.

The 1872 opening of Montgomery Ward in Chicago was hailed as “the world’s first mail order catalog business and the first unconditional guarantee of goods purchased through the mail,” a guarantee promised by founder Aaron Montgomery Ward. The business soon found a rival, Sears Roebuck.

The Vernon Powell shoe business moved into the Main Street building from its store at the corner of Church and Division Streets, giving the current building the longer identity as the Powell Building.

Built shortly before the 1937 opening, the 45,000-square-foot building replaced an earlier building erected at this location after the 1886 fire.

That first building was the residence and dentistry business of then the late Dr. William T. Smith, Salisbury’s first full-time dentist; his first house at this location suffered from the 1860 fire.

Joey Gilkerson and Brad Gillis.

The post-1886 Smith home and business had the elegant style of a brick urban rowhouse. Montgomery Ward brought a new form of style to the new building, described in 1937 as a modified colonial design and “among the largest of its kind in this section of the country,” among the most modern and fully equipped among the stores of the famous chain.

The Vernon Powell business made its mark on the historic building, and the future of the building is yet to be seen.

Brad Gillis and Joey Gilkerson of Devreco, a prominent Downtown Salisbury development company, have reportedly agreed to buy the building from its current owners, Phil and Joseph Wright of Vernon Powell Shoes.

To make the deal work, however, Devreco said it needs to find a primary tenant for space.

No matter how the building will be remembered or named or redeveloped, Montgomery Ward can claim to have been the first proud tenant.

Linda Duyer lives in Salisbury. Contact her at lindaduyer1@yahoo.com.


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