Miller & Rhoads in the Richmond Community
Throughout its 105 year life-span, Miller & Rhoads played an active role in the Richmond community, frequently working to better the community and to promote downtown. Aside from its various contributions to artistic and community related events and organizations, Miller & Rhoads implemented four annual programs that greatly benefited the city of Richmond and the state of Virginia. In 1947, the store held a Book and Author Dinner in the Tea Room, and this soon became an annual, national event. Many famous writers such as Robert Frost, Jerome Weidman, and Samuel Eliot Morison spoke at the literary event that brought together people from around the state. In 1949, Miller & Rhoads initiated its Virginia Woman's Forum, thereby offering women an opportunity to convene and discuss national and international affairs. Miller & Rhoads also hosted an annual Women Who Work seminar and a student leadership Virginia High School Forum. These events, though, were not the limit of Miller & Rhoads' involvement in the local and statewide community. Miller & Rhoads intertwined itself within the Richmond community from its very beginning. The timetables below describe how the events, growth, and life of Miller & Rhoads affected and mirrored the growth and life of the Richmond community.
In 1885, three businessmen, Linton Miller, Webster Rhoads, and Simon Gerhart chose Richmond as the site for a dry goods store. With $3000, they invested in the development of a store called Miller, Rhoads, & Gerhart. Reconstruction had ended in 1870, and the store opening in 1885 paralleled the investment and growth that Richmond experienced during these years. Concurrent with the store's first expansion was the Richmond development of the streetcar in 1888, which proved to be a great asset in later years for the expansion of Miller & Rhoads' trading area. In 1890, Simon Gerhart moved to set up a store in Lynchburg, and the Gerhart surname was removed from the store name.
Significant growth in Miller & Rhoads and in Richmond marked this time period. In 1906, Miller & Rhoads incorporated, and by 1909, it had acquired nearly half a city block of space fronting Broad Street. While the store grew, Richmond expanded to a city of 127,000 people with the 1910 annexation of Manchester (Dabney 279). In 1914, the federal government selected Richmond as its site for the Fifth Federal Reserve Bank, while Miller & Rhoads made a significant expansion onto Grace Street, which "[transformed] the character of downtown Richmond, and [entrenched] the store's position as the center of the new shopping district" (Rhoads 17). Miller & Rhoads' move onto Grace Street altered what had been a strictly residential area. With the advent of World War I in 1917, Miller & Rhoads joined Richmond in unified support by selling war bonds. By 1920, Richmond had increased in population to 171,000, and Miller & Rhoads had completed its expansion from Broad and Sixth to Grace and Sixth.
The Roaring `20's swept up Richmond as Richmonders frequented dance clubs, shopped, and partied amidst the decade of prosperity. During this period, Miller & Rhoads completed its major expansion into the entire block of Grace Street between Fifth and Sixth Streets. With this growth, the store rose five stories above almost an entire, square, city block. With this solid, business front on Grace Street, Miller & Rhoads ended Grace's existence as a residential area. Within just a few years, stores, banks, and movie theaters followed the giant department store and turned Grace Street into Richmond's Fifth Avenue. Miller & Rhoads firmly established itself as "the shopping center" and came to play a dominant role as a downtown landmark. In 1929, in response to the growing needs of the strong retail and business corridor spurred by Miller & Rhoads, business leaders erected the Central National Bank building, Richmond's tallest skyscraper (at the time).
While the Depression crippled much of the nation, Richmond remained relatively less affected, owing to its stable tobacco industry and its diverse economy. Miller & Rhoads operated in the black every year, and even made a major investment in 1935 by air-conditioning the entire store and installing an escalator system. When the Depression finally ended, Miller & Rhoads expanded yet again by adding several floors on top of its store between 1940-1941. By this time, the automobile had become a member of most Richmond families. In response to the growing presence of the automobile, Miller & Rhoads teamed up with its respected rival, Thalhimers, and constructed a parking garage with 1,000 spaces at the corner of Seventh and Grace. With the U.S. entry into World War II, Miller & Rhoads supported Richmond and the nation through its World War II display windows, its help with recruitment, and its aggressive campaign to sell war bonds.
Amidst the post-war boom, Miller & Rhoads experienced a great period of productivity and sales reached an all time high. While downtown flourished, Richmond began to gradually lose some of its population to the developing suburbs. With Richmond growing physically into the counties, Miller & Rhoads decided the time was ripe for its own major expansion. Between 1956 and 1960, the store opened branch stores in downtown Lynchburg, Charlottesville, and Roanoke.
In 1961, the issue of integration ignited Richmonders. In order to ameliorate the situation and to prevent the sit-ins that occurred at Thalhimers and Woolworths, Miller & Rhoads fully integrated the store in 1961. With school integration imminent, many white Richmonders fled to the suburbs in "white flight." With the burgeoning suburbs farther and farther from the downtown core, Miller & Rhoads made the decision to build small branches in Southside Plaza and Willow Lawn, the first large suburban shopping centers in Richmond. By the early `70's, the suburbs had multiplied, and Miller & Rhoads had to respond to the changes this population shift created. Hesitantly, Miller & Rhoads built two large stores in the newest malls, Regency Square and Chesterfield Mall. When 1975 arrived, Miller & Rhoads was a changed institution. In response to the suburban sprawl, the store, out of necessity, had created suburban branches that were already outpacing the flagship downtown store that truly embodied the essence of Miller & Rhoads.
While the Richmond skyline grew and the business district became increasingly filled with national companies, Miller & Rhoads continued to expand throughout Virginia and into North Carolina. In 1977, Richmond elected its first black mayor and first majority black city council, thereby shifting the racial balance of power in the city. Just a few years later, the corporate balance of power shifted at Miller & Rhoads with the takeover by Allied Stores. In an effort to revitalize the decaying downtown retail core, the city government, Miller & Rhoads, and Thalhimers teamed together in 1985 in the development of the Sixth Street Marketplace, an urban, festival, shopping center. Unfortunately, the downtown mall did not remain a success as suburban shoppers were content with their local malls and no longer wanted to come downtown. Miller & Rhoads' suburban stores continued to grow, while the downtown store remained fairly stagnant with the exception of the Christmas season. In the late 1980's, while Richmond, neglected by the counties, experienced swelling crime and social problems, Miller & Rhoads underwent several detrimental buyouts and mergers. After this tumultuous period, the store filed for bankruptcy protection in 1989, and in January, 1990, Miller & Rhoads closed its doors for good.
Miller & Rhoads' departure created a huge vacancy in the center of Richmond. The passing of one of downtown's major anchors started a chain reaction as store after store closed, leaving downtown bereft of a retail center. The closing of Miller & Rhoads left more than an empty building, though. For years, the store had played a key role in the life of Richmond, and its own life had frequently mirrored or affected the city. The store had achieved far more than retail sales; it had created a larger, Miller & Rhoads community consisting of employees, consumers, and Richmond. As a symbol of Richmond, the store served as a point of synthesis in which the employees and consumers met and interacted in the Miller & Rhoads community. While trips to the Tea Room, meetings at the clock, and picnics with employees exist solely as memories, the community fostered by Miller & Rhoads does persist. Though Santa and the clock (now at the Valentine Museum) provide constant reminders of Miller & Rhoads, the shared memories of the good and the bad times at Miller & Rhoads invisibly bond a whole community of men, women, and children of all backgrounds.