2024-07-17 6:32 PM

Our Man in Arlington

Come March 1, a red-brick windowless box known to long-timers as Kann’s Department Store will bite the dust.

George Mason University, which has used the Virginia Square building for multiple purposes since 1979, is creating space for its planned state-funded Institute for Digital Innovation.

Prep work on the interior began in November, and construction fencing is up. “Select items were salvaged for potential reuse in the new building, including bricks and marble from the original structure, in the interest of honoring the history of Kann’s,” I’m told by Robin Rose Parker, a university communications strategist. The environmental impact report was quickly approved by county offices.

The Mason staff have long been sensitive to the special place for the old Kann’s that beats in Arlington hearts — holding nostalgia gatherings for those who recall it as a law school. When I posted photos of the doomed building last week on Facebook’s “I Grew Up in Arlington, Va.,” more than 400 responses (and sad emoticons) appeared within 48 hours. “Sad to see it go. I went to law school there and fondly remembered getting my favorite winter coat there,” said one.

Built in 1951 to compete with the Hecht Co. in nearby Ballston, the regional department store Kann’s became a three-story consumer adventure-land for thousands. “Arlington Becomes Real Metropolis,” read the Evening Star’s account of its $4.5 million construction. Suburbanites flocked there for dresses, coats, shirts, fabrics, cosmetics, intimate apparel, toys, Buster Brown shoes, tableware and fine candy, plus its gift-wrapping, beauty salon, photo studio and homey cafeteria.

Former employees recalled it fondly: “My sister worked in the lingerie department one summer, and my mother was assistant fashion coordinator. I was in a few junior fashion shows. Kann’s was our go-to.”

Another’s “grandmother worked there until she was 84. Kann’s was good about avoiding age discrimination.” One alum “worked in the lamp department and Trim-a-Tree during the holidays.” Kann’s annual rooftop life-size Santa and reindeer became an anticipated annual spectacle.

“I remember going there with my great aunt when I was 4,” one reminisced. “What impressed me was the escalators, chimes and announcements over the loudspeakers. It seemed a cross between Disneyland and the zoo.”

In the early 60s, one mother “would find items she liked and watch them get reduced, then go on sale, then on clearance. She’d end up getting things for a dollar or two…a role model in stretching a dollar.” Another from that era got her first credit card from Kann’s.

The downstairs “Kannteen” served tuna salad and “Cherry Smash, fries and barbecue on a bun,” one recalled. The eaterie “had built-in ‘loops’ of counter space and you sat on stools,” wrote another. “The waitresses wore uniforms…complete with aprons.”

Perhaps the oddest memory: “The toilets that popped up into a magical rim of blue light that was supposed to disinfect them.”

By far the most vivid memory involved the live monkeys in a glass cage in the shoe department. Reports are that the squirrel monkeys from Brazil were named Teeny, Weeny, Eeny and Miney. No one seems to have a photo (WETA documentarians searched widely when they made the 2004 Arlington history “Heroes, History & Hamburgers”).

That special store also embraced community affairs: “Free hearing Test, Given by the Quota Club of Arlington,” read the 1975 ad in the Arlington News. “Kann’s Cares.”

The owner of one of Arlington’s historic Victorian homes is selling. Pam Jones, soon to leave the 1889 “Memory House” at 6404 Washington Boulevard in East Falls Church, has hence donated two original 1899 portraits of original owners Harry and Alice Fellows.

In 1932, Harry Fellows became the first Arlington County Board chair and was mayor of Falls Church before the neighborhood shifted to Arlington in 1936.

After the home’s new buyer declined, the Arlington Historical Society agreed to accept the paintings. Jones parts reluctantly with the quaint house, which in the past served as a bed and breakfast.





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