Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Funny Thing About May....

Every year has one, but very few seem to have managed to leave behind any clear memory traces in my mind.

The main exception seems to have been May, 1975.

May 7, 1975, to be precise.

That was the day the old Tiedtke's department store burned in downtown Toledo.

It was one of the biggest fires in Toledo's history.

The store had closed about three years earlier. Like so many downtown stores, it had been done in by white flight to the suburbs and the construction of malls with acres of free parking. Since my immediate family never owned a car and relied upon the buses to take us downtown to do our shopping, this shift in shopping patterns was something that I was painfully aware of.

The Tiedtke's building that burned down had opened in 1910. It seems to have been given only minor updates between that time and its closing some 63 years later. Although its 6 stories had come to seem small to me after a 1969 trip to the huge Hudson's store in downtown Detroit, it continued to have a certain charm. Well, "charm" is probably far too strong a term. Maybe "ingratiating annoyance" better captures the feelings it generated in me. It lacked the polish of the other big downtown stores (Lasalle's, Lamson's, and the Lion Store), having something of the feel of a bargain sale in a gymnasium about it. Its noisy crowds early on prompted me to start calling it The Madhouse. The best and most memorable part of it as far as I was concerned was its top floor toy department. All the lowered-ceiling panels had been removed (assuming they'd ever been there in the first place), leaving only a gaping blackness punctuated by mysterious ductwork over my head. Shopping for toys there in that poorly-lit space was not unlike shopping for toys in a dream....

I think my mother worked there in the men's department while still a teenager in the 1940s. Her photo may have even been featured in a newspaper ad for the place, though no one seems to have saved a copy.

They had a heavily promoted Giant Sale when I was quite young. I can remember going into the store one cold, dark night, probably in December, and seeing the big Giant Sale signs up everywhere. I was extremely disappointed when no giants could be found no matter how hard I looked for them.

The only time I can recall ever having lunch with my maternal grandmother involved her taking me to the Tiedtke's cafeteria. Like the toy department, it seems to have been unusually dark even on the brightest days. Unlike the toy department, however, it had a long series of windows that faced the Maumee River, so I'm somewhat at a loss to explain its dark feel. I guess the dark paint and Vitrolite panels sucked up the photons like artificial black holes.

Alas, those windows didn't provide a very good view of the river. Immediately behind the store was a dirty gravel parking lot. Then came Water Street, which may as well have been an alley through the warehouse district, and then - what? Low buildings and weeds that blocked the view? Whatever crap may have been in the way, I always thought it most unfortunate. What's the point of having a river if nobody can see it?

I can't recall anything my grandmother might have said to me, nor can I recall anything I might have said to her. "Just give me a damn hot dog and nobody will get hurt!" seems to have been my attitude. "Don't pee on the floor and we'll get along fine" seems to have been hers. The 70+ years that separated us seems to have prevented anything more from being communicated.

I got iced tea. As usual, it was much stronger than what I had at home. I've never understood why restaurants always seem to serve such strong iced tea.

We seem to have been the only people in the place....

The only thing I can remember buying at Tiedtke's was the sound track album to "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" - probably in 1970. I still have it. No scratches!

They were in the process of tearing Tiedtke's down when the fire broke out. As luck would have it, I went by the place in a vehicle just a few hours before the fire for the first and only time in my life. A school field trip had taken me to Detroit that day. Our teacher drove me and a few other lucky students right by the dying hulk on our way back to our building. I stared in sad amazement at the former Madhouse. And when someone commented about how awfully long it was taking them to tear the place down, I loudly piped up in my best gangster voice that I knew a faster way to get rid of the place. Less than 6 hours later, the former shopping mecca was engulfed in flames probably sparked by a never-identified arsonist. I'm still surprised my teacher didn't give my name to the police as a possible suspect.

Here's a picture of the fire that I took from one of my south-facing living room windows:

Here are a couple photos taken by unknown others who were much closer to the scene than I was:

Here's what the building looked like shortly before demolition began:

And here's what things looked like when the store was still thriving circa 1960:

A few years ago when I was visiting an antique mall somewhere in northwest Ohio I found and bought the following memento:

It's odd to think that this small bag that I got is just about all that remains of a huge store that stood for decades, and odder still to know that it ended up in my hands in exchange for just a buck or two, but... I suppose it had to end up somewhere.

It could easily have ended up incinerated. Or in a landfill. Lots of bags do.

Maybe someday I'll take it to the mall so it can see for itself how much times have changed.

And maybe I'll fill it up full of coffee beans first, just to be perverse....


  1. That sixties photo is very Art Deco. I never saw anything like that before American Graffiti.
    Seems fitting your Butch and Sundance soundtrack survived without a scratch. That should become part of their legend.

  2. Fascinating fotos! I just love how the internet makes obscure, ancient info available to us at the click of a mouse! I'm curious as to why there's a Tiedke's sign across the street from the main store... did it have offspring in the area? The part about the toy floor on top awoke eerie Twilite Zone fancies! And the dark cafeteria... hmmm. Another odd memory association - there was this old S & W Cafeteria used by those who worked on Capitol Hill, and it was VERY dark, but in an oddly good way - you know, rich carved wood, dark elaborately patterned carpets, dark red seats, I think? NOT at all what I'd think of now as associated with cafeterias!

    Your recollection of an outing with your grandmother sparked memories of my own; fortunately mine was far more easy to connect with than yours! She and I shared mutual artistic sparks, and she even took me to the ballet, as well as picnics, the zoo, etc. As the oldest, I was the fortunate in this, because, due to an injured leg from a car accident, she became a little less mobile. (She was on crutches for the rest of her life.) Even so, she still gallivanted far more than the two grandfathers I knew.

    Anyway, your preternaturally psychic prediction is amazing, or more likely, perhaps you were simply precociously aware of how criminal mindsets work, due to watching Dragnet and/or Perry Mason, eh? Tell me, O seer of the future, what do you think might happen to the downtowns of today? Will astronomical fuel prices bring back bus travel into vogue? Or will people switch to ordering everything online?