I woke Saturday to the news that the old Younkers Department Store headquarters in downtown Des Moines had burned to the ground. That store represented five generations of my family history. Thankfully no one was hurt, but the news felt like all my happy memories had been reduced to ash along with it.
Younkers Department Store at 7th and Walnut
In reality, memories stay with us forever, but I’m still very sad I’ll never see that grand 115 year old building again. I hope sharing a few of those memories with you might help me keep it all in perspective.
With my cousins Jane and Larry, Grandma Ellie, and Big Grandpa Mandelbaum
Younkers began as a dry goods store founded by brothers Lipman, Samuel, and Marcus Younkers in Keokuk, Iowa in 1856, and moved to Des Moines in 1879. In 1899 they moved the store into the building at 7th and Walnut. In 1928 Younkers Brothers merged with J. Mandelbaum and Sons – leaving my great great grandfather Julius Mandelbaum, Big Grandpa (my great grandfather Sydney Mandelbaum), his brother Morris, and brother-in-law Norman Wilchinski with full ownership. The store at 7th and Walnut was a better location, so they kept that building and the Younkers name. Another large merger in 1932 gave a 51% controlling interest to the Frankel family, however Big Grandpa and subsequent generations of my family continued to work in the Executive Offices and sit on the Board until Dad stepped down as President and CEO in 1985.
Younkers President and CEO Bill Friedman Jr.
Since then Younkers has changed hands several times, including a buyout by Saks Fifth Avenue in the 1990’s. The downtown store was closed and sold off in 2005, and currently undergoing a 35 million dollar renovation to turn the space into both retail (on the lower floors), and subsidized housing.
Julie Anne – 16 year old sales assistant
Like my father before me, I started out in the family business tagging clothes in the warehouse during summer break when I was 14 years old, graduating to the sales floor of the Juniors department the following summer. As a child, I had lofty dreams of decorating the magnificent display windows, and perhaps one day becoming a buyer to indulge my travel lust.
The downtown store was the jewel of the department store chain, which my father grew from 6 stores to 28 stores across Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota, and South Dakotah during his tenure. The downtown headquarters boasted the first “electric stairs” in the state of Iowa (the escalator installed in 1939), and it’s famous Tea Room restaurant became the epicenter of Des Moines social life for many generations to come.
My grandparents, my 2nd birthday, Mom and Dad on their 25th wedding anniversary
In the 1940’s there were dinner dances there every Saturday night while child prodigy Louis Wertz (who later changed his name to Roger Williams when Hollywood and big recording contracts beckoned) played piano. Later on “theater evenings” were held in which diners would receive free movie tickets to downtown cinemas “to make a real evening of it” after fine dining in the restaurant.
Dad by the poster for the Thunderbolt Kid Gala
Writer Bill Bryson remembered Younkers in his memoir, The Life & Times of the Thunderbolt Kid , “but it’s sanctum sanctorum was the Tea Room. The Tea Room was the most elegant place I had ever been – like a stateroom from Buckingham Palace magically transported to the middle west of America.”
Lord Litchfield’s official wedding portrait of Prince Charles & Princess Di
Indeed, Dad even brought over a member of the royal family – famed celebrity photographer Lord Patrick Litchfield, for an exhibition of his photographs during a British store promotion in the 1970’s . A double decker bus and black cab were also shipped over for the event – my first encounter with the country and culture that would later become my home. Coincidently, Mr. Bryson would also end up making his home in England.
Meeting Jackie the Ringling Circus Clown
As a child I remember meeting Jackie the Ringling Clown (albeit reticently), and luncheons with my Mom and Grandmothers between shopping where local models walked the Tea Room floor looking so glamorous to a little girl.
Halston with Dad in the 70’s
As a teen, I was spellbound by my first big fashion show when Dad brought Parisian couture to Des Moines with Yves St. Laurent’s models and gowns from Paris, followed by charity shows in honor of the Des Moines Art Center with top American designers of the day, Bill Blass and Halston. I guess my window dressing aspirations paled once the models taught me their make-up tricks. I was a chubby 13 year old when Mr. Blass told me I had a photogenic bone structure. The man of his word helped introduce me to modeling agents in New York years later.
Outside Younkers on my dad’s shoulders for the Shrine parade
I may not have followed the rest of my family into the retail business for long, but Younkers and the Tea Room did ultimately play a pivotal role in my chosen career and country of residence. All of the fond memories there will always hold an enormous place in my heart. Like this photo of me (age 3 1/2) taken by the Des Moines Register & Tribune perched on my father’s shoulders at 7th and Walnut (just outside the store) for the Shrine parade.
And then there was the flavor of my youth – the fabulous Tea Room food…
Younkers Rarebit Burger
(compliments of Holiday Celebrations with Recipes from Younkers)
When we would have lunch in the Tea Room, Mom would always order the chicken salad while I would anxiously look forward to grabbing the yummy cinnamon roll that would accompany it. However, the Younkers Rarebit Burger was hands down the most delectable and most talked about dish – the perfect burger smothered in a creamy, peppery cheese sauce.
1/3 cup cooking oil
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
2 cups whole or reduced-fat milk
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon hot sauce
4 ounces sharp American cheese, shredded (I used sharp cheddar)
8 hamburger patties
8 hamburger buns, toasted
1). Place oil in a medium saucepan. Stir together flour, paprika, salt and dry mustard. Add flour mixture to oil; cook and stir for 1 minute. Stir in milk all at once. Cook and stir over medium heat until thickened and bubbly. Cook and stir 1 minute more. Remove from heat; stir in Worcestershire and hot pepper sauce. Add the cheese and stir until melted. Makes 2 cups.
2). To make Younkers’ popular Rarebit Burgers, cook 8 hamburger patties to 170° F or until no pink remains. Place each burger on a toasted hamburger bun. Spoon about 1/4 cup Rarebit Sauce over each bun. Serve immediately.
This was traditionally served with french fries, but I substitute green beans to cut down on the calories.