Last year his Wanamaker’s design portfolio was auctioned off at Freeman’s in Philadelphia, with about three dozen conceptual sketches and pastels he made for the Grand Court, such as The Ballet of Fragrance, The Magic of Glass, and Santa’s Candy Castle.
William Valerio, the director and CEO of the Woodmere Museum in Chestnut Hill, caught them all. About a dozen are now framed and hanging in the museum.
“The wonderful thing about these drawings is that they are documents of creative installations that include music, that include dance, that include visual representation,” said Valerio, who was previously unfamiliar with the sketches. “This is part of Philadelphia’s history. Wanamaker’s pioneered so many aspects of modern retail. One of them was the celebration of the holidays. ”
The store kept on the nines for the holidays year-round and even played a role in inventing Mother’s Day. Wanamaker’s department store, now called Macy’s on 13th and Market Streets in Center City, was designed as part of the American Renaissance architectural movement, bringing the ambition and grandeur of Roman classicism to modern urban cities.
With an interior space as huge as the central Grand Court, the store needed an artistic vision to match. You found that in John Winters.
Originally from Omaha, Nebraska, Winters studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and later became an administrator with the Works Progress Administration (WPA). He eventually moved to Philadelphia and got a job in the display department at Wanamaker’s, where he designed set pieces and window decorations for retail stores for decades.
For his grand court designs, Winters created thematic displays with elements of fashion, performance and architecture alluding to Greek mythology, Japanese gardens and European court galas. His drawings show a three-dimensional sensibility, filling the room deeply with rows of set pieces and actors and drawing the gaze upwards with sumptuous vertical pieces, like a full-size hot air balloon draped in curved canopies.
The drawings contain explanations of kinetic technology (“moving color overhead”) and design nuances (“glass is flexible”).