Robert Ledermann was dazzled the first time he saw the elaborate animated Christmas displays in the department stores that lined State Street in the late 1940s. "When you looked into the windows in those days it was like looking into a big wonderland," he says. He remembers waiting two hours in line to see Santa at Marshall Field's, riding the miniature railroad at the Fair department store at State and Adams, and eating with his family at Harding's Colonial Restaurant at 21 S. Wabash, where well-behaved kids could choose gifts from a pair of treasure chests. "There were so many wonderful things about downtown," says Ledermann, who went on to spend most of his professional life working in retail along State Street. He even misses the five-and-dimes: "There was a certain smell in Woolworth's that was just wonderful."
About 20 years ago, Ledermann started searching for a book on the history of State Street. When he couldn't find one, he decided to write one himself. He gave up after a year and a half, because he couldn't find a publisher, but two years ago he revived the idea and signed on with Arcadia Publishing. Christmas on State Street: 1940s and Beyond came out earlier this year.
Filled with rare archival images from store and university collections as well as photos Ledermann himself has taken over the years, the book is a tour of old State Street from the Sears flagship store on Van Buren to the Roosevelt Theatre (now Channel Seven Studios) at Lake.
At Christmas the window competition was fierce: Field's created the bushy-browed Uncle Mistletoe, one of Santa's helpers; Wieboldt's borrowed Cinnamon Bear from the holiday radio serial; and in 1939 Montgomery Ward weighed in with the soon-to-be-famous Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, created by store copywriter Robert L. May. (Ledermann's book includes photos of the May family, borrowed from one of Robert's daughters.) In 1976 one of Field's windows featured a small figure of Richard J. Daley standing on a dais addressing a crowd of animals. "When the mayor died a few weeks later, they took him out of the window," says Ledermann, and replaced him with Uncle Mistletoe's consort, Aunt Holly.
The same decade saw many State Street stores move or close as crowds flocked to Michigan Avenue and the suburbs; closing off the strip in 1979 to create a pedestrian mall nearly killed off those that remained. But a $25-million renovation in 1996 reopened the street to auto traffic, and Sears moved back onto the strip in 2001.
"It's coming back," says Ledermann. "But it's changed, like all of us change."
He'll sign copies of his book, which is in its second printing, Friday, November 29, at noon at Marshall Field's, 111 N. State (312-781-1000) and Sunday, December 1, from 3 to 4 at the Old Orchard Barnes & Noble in Skokie (847-676-2230). Thursday, December 5, at 12:15 at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, Ledermann will give a slide presentation as part of the Friends of Downtown brown-bag lunch program (312-744-6630).