23 November 2008

Dead Malls of Louisiana: Goudchaux's Flagship Store, Baton Rouge

(Not a dead mall, but dead retail nonetheless. Enjoy!)

“The world’s longest department store,” the flagship Goudchaux’s at 1500 Main Street just east of downtown Baton Rouge, was first constructed in the late 1930s, with the original structure then being expanded upon/renovated at various times throughout the years (usually at five year intervals). The present structure is two stories tall, with an adjacent 4-story warehouse attached on the west end. Because of limited space in the inner city and the importance of the bordering east-to-west streets as traffic thoroughfares, the nature of the expansion of the store was to grow lengthwise in the block between Main and Laurel Streets, parallel to those streets, eventually stretching for 2½ blocks from the KCS railroad line eastward across the rights-of-way of North 15th, 16th, and 17th Streets for 971 feet. This unusual shape gave rise to the nickname “the world’s longest department store.”

From the earliest, the Goudchaux’s management had recognized the value of free, convenient parking and provided ample amounts of it, so that today whole blocks or parts of the blocks surrounding the store to the east (up to North 18th Street) and south (up to Florida Street) are comprised of surface parking lots. From at least the 1950s onward, Goudchaux’s also operated a car care center on the corner of Florida and N. 15th Streets (1501 Florida), about a block from the main structure. This building remains in commerce today as an auto repair and service shop.

Goudchaux’s operated this store for many years and it was consistently profitable, also being centrally located near the downtown shopping district which dominated Baton Rouge retail until the 1970’s. In fact, Goudchaux’s did not open a second store until 1976, when they opened a branch store in the newly-opened Cortana Mall (now Mall at Cortana).

In 1979 Goudchaux’s entered the Lafayette market by opening a store at Acadiana Mall. In 1982, the Goudchaux’s organization and the Maison Blanche department store chain of New Orleans merged; the combined chain was headquartered in Baton Rouge. They could not use the Goudchaux name in the NO market due to the existence of a similarly named, NO-based retail chain (Leon Godchaux Clothing Co., Ltd., also called Godchaux’s), so the MB name was retained, at least in the NO area. This was the high point of Goudchaux’s history, when it comprised of two profitable regional chains, and interests for a time in the booming Florida market through its ownership of JW Robinsons of St. Petersburg (1987-89). The peak number of stores was 24, employing 8,000, with a sales volume of $480 million.

At some point before Mercantile Stores assumed ownership in 1992, the Goudchaux’s name was dropped and all stores became Maison Blanche, including the 1500 Main store. The flagship store at 1500 Main was by now seeing lean times, as its customer base had long since departed to the suburban outlets and competing department and discount stores in the suburban shopping malls and strip centers which had cropped up from the 1970s onward.

When Dillards purchased Mercantile Stores (which included Maison Blanche) in 1997, it assumed control of the 1500 Main store, which was subsequently rebranded as a Dillards. For its last few years of operation, the now-tattered store at 1500 Main served as a Dillards clearance outlet, before management finally gave in to market realities and quietly shuttered the store in March of 2000.

For some years after closing, the old store remained vacant and unused, a massive community eyesore without easy remedy. In 2003 (?) the site was purchased with the intent to redevelop the massive structure into an office center called Renaissance Park. At least one major potential tenant, BR-based US Agencies Insurance, made plans to relocate their headquarters to the former store.

However, fate has, at least temporarily, altered future plans for the former store. After Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005 and devastated the Gulf Coast, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), charged to deal with the disaster, faced massive manpower needs and consequently space needs. Quickly they leased the entirety of the 1500 Main structure for the duration of the emergency, to house their emergency operations center. As of to-day, they are still occupying the structure. The emergency workers have long since departed, so the building now houses an army of post-disaster FEMAcrats, not just to deal with lingering poast-K issues, but to be on call when the next tropical chaos strikes.

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