Iconic retail

Posted: November 3rd, 2017 | Columns, Communities, Featured, North Park, PastMatters | No Comments

The history of the J.C. Penney department store in North Park

By Katherine Hon

Newcomers may only know the boxy two-story building on the southeast corner of Ray Street and University Avenue as the former location of Wang’s North Park.

Residents who have been here longer may remember Big Lots occupying that building during the early 2000s and REI before then. But the building we see today at 3029 University Ave. originated in 1942 as a J.C. Penney department store. It anchored retail in North Park into the 1980s and drew other major chain stores, including National Dollar Stores, Lerner Shops, Kay Jewelers, Woolworths and Thrifty Drug Stores to the busy commercial area along University Avenue.

The J.C. Penney store is in the distance beyond the North Park sign hanging above University Avenue at 30th Street in this 1964 photo looking eastward taken by architect Sim Bruce Richards. The Jerome’s store on the right is a dress shop. (Courtesy of the Sim Bruce Richards Family)

The first J.C. Penney store at Ray Street and University Avenue was one of only two built by the company during World War II. The North Park store apparently was successful even during the war years, and the company decided to expand it in 1954, replacing it with the building seen today.

The J.C. Penney Co. started with one hard-working businessman, James Cash Penney. He was born Sept. 16, 1875 on a farm near Hamilton, Missouri. He worked for a local retailer after graduating from high school. He partnered with Thomas Callahan and Guy Johnson, who owned dry-goods stores called Golden Rule in Colorado and Wyoming, and moved to Kemmerer, Wyoming in 1902 to open a store in that small coal-mining town. He participated in the creation of two more stores and purchased full interest in all three locations when Callahan and Johnson dissolved their partnership in 1907.

By 1912, Penney had established 34 Golden Rule stores with sales of more than $2 million. The next year he changed the chain name to J.C. Penney Co., with a motto of “Honor, Confidence, Service, and Cooperation.”

By 1941, Penney operated 1,600 stores in all 48 states. He retired in 1946, taking the title of honorary chairman. Penney died in New York City on Feb. 12, 1971, at the age of 95.

The Kemmerer, Wyoming store and associated buildings were designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1978 because they show the humble origins of the J.C. Penney Co., and because it was there that Penney formulated the merchandising ideas that enabled him to create the first truly nationwide department store chain.

An undated San Diego Union-Tribune article looks back to August 1954 when the enlarged J.C. Penney department store was getting ready for its grand opening. The building has remarkably retained its iconic historic integrity for 63 years. (Courtesy of the North Park Historical Society)

The commercial blocks along the south side of University Avenue between Ray and 32nd streets are part of the original Hartley’s North Park tract, which extended south almost to Dwight Street. In the decades before the J.C. Penney store was built at 3029 University Ave., an automobile service garage, which was operated by Paul Hartley from 1926 to 1933, occupied the corner. The city’s Fire Station No. 14, with its tall tower for drying hoses, was just to the east at 3035 University Ave. on two lots donated by Mary Jane Hartley, known as the “Mother of the North Park District.”

It is part of North Park lore that the fire station was destroyed in the winter of 1941-42 when the basement for the J.C. Penney store was being dug and a storm filled the pit with water, undermining the fire station’s foundation. A Dec. 9, 1949 news article notes that although a new fire station was built by the city at the corner of 32nd Street and Lincoln Avenue in 1942, the damaged building was “altered and repaired, and it is now used by the Penney store, along with the old tower, an area landmark, for storage space.” The tower likely remained until the expansion of the J.C. Penney store in 1954, when the City Directory lists the address of 3035-37 University Ave. as “Under construction.”

Penney commented that his company “is the finest example I know of cooperative effort; people sharing in what they helped create have made it what it is.” The same could be said of North Park.

— Katherine Hon is the secretary of the North Park Historical Society. Reach her at or 619-294-8990.

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