J.C. Penney recently announced that it will close 33 stores, putting 2,000 people out of work. The only closing in North Carolina will be the Vernon Park Mall store in Kinston. So Winston-Salem gets to keep its Penney store at Hanes Mall, Penney’s fourth location in the Twin City. But we also still have the first and third Penney buildings, now being used for other purposes.

In 1924, Penney opened its ninth store in North Carolina at 521-523 North Liberty Street in Winston-Salem. People who worked and lived in the area had already noticed the three story brick building, running through the block from Liberty to Main Street, under construction. But for most local citizens, the first news that one of the nation’s great retailers was coming to town was this ad which ran in the Winston-Salem Journal in August, 1924.

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Over the next few weeks, Penney continued to run teaser ads.

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Finally, on September 30, they ran their grand opening ad. The store opened on Wednesday, October 1, 1924.

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The original J.C. Penney store on Liberty Street can be seen in the foreground of this 1929 picture. The brand new Reynolds building in the background had put Christmas trees on its ledges

The store was an immediate success. By early 1929, they had outgrown their space, and with no room to expand on site, had begun a new building on Fourth Street.

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The second J.C. Penney store is seen at the right in this 1947 Christmas parade picture. Next to it on Fourth Street is the Anchor Company, the Twin City’s toniest department store. The Penney building site is now a part of Merschel Plaza.

The normally soaring fish balloon, a familiar entry in parades of the 1940s and 1950s, had been pulled down to clear the traffic signal at Trade Street.

Macy’s took over New York’s Thanksgiving parade and turned it into a Christmas parade in 1924. They introduced balloons in 1927, the first being Felix the Cat. The balloons were released at the end of the parade, but at first, most exploded very quickly. Soon the balloons were equipped with a safety valve to bleed off pressure, so floated over the city for up to a week before bursting. Macy’s offered gifts to those who returned the burst balloons to the store.

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The original Felix the Cat balloon

By the late 1950s, Penney was again out of room, so built a third store at the corner of Fourth and Marshall Streets.

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The last downtown J.C. Penney store, 1963, Fourth at Marshall Street, now occupied by The Rush fitness center. Next to it is L. Roberts and in the immediate foreground, the legendary Recreation Billiards, established 1947, now a hangout for trendy 20somethings. The only older public establishment in the heart of downtown is Camel City Pawn Shop on Liberty Street, which opened in 1930 and is still going strong.

The movie showing at the Carolina Theater was “Who’s Got The Action?”, starring Dean Martin, Lana Turner, Eddie Albert, Paul Ford, Walter Matthau and Nita Talbot. The plot was a typical late 1950s / early 1960s one: Martin’s horse=playing threatens his marriage, so his wife, Turner, becomes his bookie.

Meanwhile, the original store had become a part of the Twin City’s burgeoning furniture district. In 1930, the Atlanta based chain Havertys moved into the building. Soon, their growth led them to build their own building across the street at the southwest corner of Liberty and Sixth Street on the former site of the original Centenary Methodist Church. Havertys still has a showroom in suburban Winston-Salem.

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Haverty’s Furniture in the original J.C. Penney building

Once they had moved out, the building was occupied by Bridges Furniture well into the 1960s. After Bridges closed, as the downtown area slipped into decline, the building was often vacant. Several efforts in the 1970s and 1980s to revitalize the downtown area had varying results.

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The original Penney store was occupied by Bridges Furniture Company in this 1966 photo. The businesses beyond Bridges are Winston Furniture, Home Real Estate, Huntleys Furniture and Larsens, formerly the Charles Stores. Beyond Fifth Street, the State Theater can be seen.

In the early 2000s, one of the pioneers in the latest revitalization effort was Thea’s Blues and Jazz Club, which enjoyed a brief run at 521 North Liberty. When Thea’s closed in 2006, Mike Coe refurbished the building as a combination of artist’s studios/shops and apartments now known as the Artists on Liberty building, or simply, AOL.

This post was created on a Mac on the top floor of the original J.C. Penney store

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