Polsky

Polsky

From Christmas Bells to School Bells

Question: In 1930, what historical landmark located in downtown Akron and spanning a whole city block was built with a whopping price tag of $2.1 million?

If you answered with the Polsky Building, then you may be familiar with the current association that the structure has as an educational building of The University of Akron. Most students dread having class in Polsky, as it often seems dark and dreary with hardly any windows. However, if you could travel back in time, you would hear Christmas bells and busy shoppers bustling around the building, during an era in which it was known as Polsky’s Department Store.

Abraham Polsky and Sam Myers founded a humble dry goods store in 1885 on Howard Street. Little did they know, Abraham’s sons, Bert and Harry, would launch this small business into an illustrious multilevel department store that spanned an entire city block, thriving well into the 1970s. Polsky’s housed four levels of merchandise from fine jewelry to furniture, and even had a restaurant named the Puritan, a place of refreshment for hungry shoppers that was famous for its delicious pies. Countless Akron natives remember Polsky’s fondly, not only for the shopping experience, but for the family and community that Polsky’s inspired every winter as people of all ages flocked downtown to see its famous animated Christmas window displays. 

Downtown Akron at Christmas time circa 1960s, courtesy of the Akron Beacon Journal

A Business is Born and Makes Moves

Polsky’s history in Akron began in 1885 as Abraham Polsky and Sam Myers’s store, Myers & Polsky Drygoods. The first brick-and-mortar Polsky store was located at 165 South Howard Street. However, the company was negatively affected by the Depression of 1892, and the pair went their separate ways, leaving the A. Polsky Company in Polsky’s hands alone.¹ 

“About twenty thousand people attended the grand opening in March 1913,” when the Polsky Store moved to a small location on Main Street called the Polsky Arcade.2

Though Abraham Polsky passed away in 1915, his two sons Bert A. and Harry O. Polsky carried on the booming family business.3 The Polsky Store’s acquisition by New York’s Hahn Department Store chain in 1928 opened the door for major expansion.4

The Golden Years

Illustration from the cover of a Polsky Department Store directory, courtesy of The University of Akron Archives.

The Polsky Building as we know it was constructed between 1929 and 1930. The new building has an art-deco style and was designed by New York firm Starrett & Van Vleck, who were also the architects of New York City’s Bloomingdale’s and Saks 5th Avenue.5 A state-of-the-art parking deck accompanied by a walking bridge is suspended over the intersection of State and High Street and was built in 1961.6

The new Polsky parking deck during its grand opening in 1961, courtesy of the Akron Beacon Journal

The new Polsky building became known for more than its architectural style and futuristic parking structure, though. Polsky’s storefront windows were famous for their elaborate Christmas displays that drew onlookers from far and wide to witness marionette shows (1945–49), Santa Claus and His Toyland Circus (1960), or the adventures of the gingerbread boy (1974–78). Unveiled the night of Thanksgiving each year, the Polsky Christmas windows became a staple of the Akron family’s holiday excursions and marked the start of the Christmas season.7 Learn much, much more about the history of Christmas displays in Akron from Joanna Wilson’s book, The Story of Archie the Talking Snowman.

Listen as Linda Ward describes her experience working as an assistant buyer for Polsky’s Department Store.
A Polsky’s window decorated for Christmas, courtesy of Jeanne Tassiello.

The End of an Era

The late 1970s was a time of economic struggle in Akron. The Mohawk Rubber Company shut down in 1978, and the Firestone and Goodyear Tire & Rubber Companies began to negotiate wage cuts. The working families of Akron were suffering financial instability, and downtown department stores took a hit.8 In addition to local economic turmoil, surveys concluded that “local customers were increasingly bypassing Polsky’s to shop at Sears, Penney’s, Higbee’s, and Kmart.”9 Polsky’s just couldn’t keep up with the big-name chain stores.

Polsky’s closed for good just before Christmas of 1978, after nearly a century in business.10 The now-empty building “had originally been intended to be a hotel built by a group of investors headed by F. A. Seiberling,” but in 1987, The University of Akron acquired Polsky “by donation from the Prudential Insurance Company of America which owned the building since 1981,” and settled on using it as a classroom building.11

Now and Beyond

The Polsky Building, a fixture of The University of Akron’s campus, “provide[s] office and classroom space for 1,500 to 2,000 students, 600 UA faculty and staff, and 200 student assistants.”12 It currently houses classrooms, offices, a small food court, a Barnes & Noble bookstore, The University of Akron Archival Services, and a high school.1

The famous store windows are also put to good use today by the Curated Storefront organization to showcase contemporary local artists.13

Researched and written by Nicole Orchosky with LaVonne Evans

  1. Hal Fry, “The Polsky Story,” Akron Beacon Journal, (28 Aug. 1960): p. 2.
  2. Mark J. Price, Lost Akron, (The History Press, 2015), p. 71.
  3. Hal Fry, “The Polsky Story,” Akron Beacon Journal, (28 Aug. 1960): p. 8.
  4. Mark J. Price, Lost Akron, (The History Press, 2015), p. 71.
  5. Ibid., p. 72.
  6. “Parking Was Plentiful At Polsky’s,” Akron Beacon Journal, (5 Nov. 2018), https://www.ohio.com/news/20181104/local-history-parking-was-plentiful-at-polskys
  7. Joanna Wilson, The Story of Archie the Talking Snowman, (1701 Press, 2015),http://www.1701press.com/archie-the-talking-snowman
  8. Special, Reginald Stuart, “Closing of Store and Plants Mark Decline in Akron,” New York Times, (10 Dec. 1978): p. 25. https://www.nytimes.com/1978/12/10/archives/closings-of-store-and-plants-mark-decline-in-akron-bad-news-from.html
  9. Mark J. Price, Lost Akron, (The History Press, 2015), p. 73.
  10. Special, Reginald Stuart, “Closing of Store and Plants Mark Decline in Akron,” New York Times, (10 Dec. 1978): p. 25.
  11. Jennifer Racutt, “Polsky’s renovation will launch a new era,” The Buchtelite, (23 July 1993), University of Akron Archives.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Curated Storefront, accessed 29 Oct. 2019, http://www.curatedstorefront.org.

Photos

  1. Photograph, Downtown Akron – Christmas, c. 1960s, General Photograph Collection, Akron-Summit County Public Library, Akron, Ohio, United States.
  2. Illustration, Polsky’s Department Store on the cover of a store directory, University of Akron Archives, Akron, Ohio, United States.
  3. Photograph, The new Polsky parking deck during its grand opening in 1961, The Akron Beacon Journal, Akron, Ohio, United States.
  4. Photograph, Polsky’s Department Store window decorated for Christmas, Jeanne Tassiello, Akron, Ohio, United States.