By Manning Harris
The Breman Museum has a marvelous new exhibition called “Return to Rich’s: The Story Behind the Store” just in time for the holidays. Happily, the exhibit will run through May 27, giving Atlantans plenty of time to revisit and revel in the history, glory, and sentiment of an Atlanta legend.
As any native Atlantan or longtime resident can tell you, Rich’s Department Store was more than a store: It was a home away from home for a lot of people, sort of an Oz at the end of the rainbow in the world of retail shopping. Even though Rich’s Downtown Atlanta store closed in 1991 and the Rich’s name was dropped from the suburban stores in 2005, the memory of what the store meant to its many customers is still strong.
The genesis of the current exhibition occurred when Tom Asher, president of the Rich Foundation, and Jeff Clemmons, author of “Rich’s: A Southern Institution” discovered the Wilbur Kurtz mural “Fashion Through the Years” at the Coca-Cola Archives. This 53-foot painting was commissioned for Rich’s 75th anniversary in 1942 and is one of the show’s star attractions. Kurtz was an artist and Georgia historian whom Margaret Mitchell personally selected as a technical and artistic advisor/historian for the film version of “Gone With the Wind.”
In fact, the velvet coat Ms. Mitchell wore for the Atlanta world premiere of the movie in December, 1939, is on display at “Return to Rich’s.” The coat is on loan from the Atlanta History Center; it was a treat for this GWTW fan to see it.
Rich’s began as a story of Jewish immigration from Hungary, and the business was founded in 1867, as “M. Rich’s Dry Goods,” two years after the Civil War. So Rich’s and Atlanta grew together, and Morris Rich said: “What was good for Rich’s was good for Atlanta. And what was good for Atlanta was good for Rich’s.”
Famed Atlanta author Celestine Sibley, in her book “Dear Store,” wrote that “Morris, although young…chose to be a part of Atlanta and to share what he had…by extending credit to those who needed it.” And people never needed it more than in 1867 during the height of Reconstruction. Rich’s legendary customer service was born.
In 1924, the Downtown store opened and was instantly proclaimed the “South’s Greatest Department Store.”
There are so many aspects to the affectionate relationship between Rich’s and Atlantans, and the Breman’s presentation is ingenious. There are representations, sometimes the original, of some of the following Rich’s landmarks:
There’s the great Rich’s clock, which became an instantly identifiable symbol of both the store and Atlanta: “Meet me under the clock” was a phrase that set the time and place for many an Atlanta rendezvous.
The Magnolia Room (in the Downtown store, though Lenox had one, too, for awhile). There has probably never been a more beloved dining room in the history of Atlanta. Their coconut cake, for example, was known far and wide, and had to be ordered months in advance for December holidays.
The Pink Pig, Rich’s most cherished children’s tradition, began in 1956 as the Snowball express. The monorail ride debuted in the Downtown store, and in 1959 the Pink Pig Flyer was born. The rides were redesigned in the mid-70’s and named Priscilla and Percival, who will greet you at the Breman exhibition.
“Like so many long-time Atlanta residents, one of my favorite Thanksgiving memories involves the lighting of Rich’s Great Tree Downtown,” writes Jeff Graham of the GA Voice. You may see several beautiful shots of the tree and related memorabilia at the exhibition.
There are some beautiful clothes and pictures on display from Rich’s Fashionata—for many years the premiere fashion show in Atlanta; top designers contributed: Coca Chanel, Bill Blass, Yves Saint Laurent, among many others.
You can pick up a pamphlet called “Rich’s Stories” and call the numbers listed to hear many distinguished Atlantans sharing (on tape) their recollections of Rich’s experiences; for example, the exceedingly popular Penelope Penn “shop for you” service that the store provided. Incidentally, Breman Museum’s executive director Aaron Berger reported to Atlanta INtown that the current show “is the largest exhibition in our history and will encompass two-thirds of our gallery space.”
Please make use of the excellent website (returntorichs.org) the museum has provided; not only for tickets and visiting hours, but for fascinating aspects of Rich’s and the exhibit.
In addition, sincere thanks to David Schendowich, the Breman’s Marketing and Communications Manager, and to Timothy Frilingos, Curator, for their kindness and help in preparing this article. Go and enjoy!