In 1859, the Reich brothers, twelve-year-old Mauritius and sixteen-year-old William, left their family in Hungary, bound for America. Originally settling with friends in Ohio, the two set about adapting to their new home. They changed their last name to Rich and Mauritius adopted the name Morris. In the coming years, they traversed Ohio, working as traveling salesmen. After the end of the Civil War, in search of new opportunities, the brothers left Ohio and made their way south, to Atlanta.
By 1867, Atlanta was a mere 3 years past its Civil War destruction. But, the city had risen from the ashes and people like the Rich brothers were making their way to the town to seek their fortunes. Once in Atlanta, Morris borrowed $500 dollars from his brother to open M. Rich and Co., on Whitehall Street, a small dry goods store in the heart of the city. The retailer would prosper, with generations of the family working for the store that would come to be known as Rich’s. Over the years, the store would grow, gaining a regional reputation and an intensely loyal customer base.
In the 1920s, Rich’s opened its flagship location, at Broad and Alabama Streets in downtown Atlanta. It was here that some of Atlanta’s most beloved traditions would take root: the Great Tree on the Crystal Bridge, the Pink Pig, Fashionata, and the Magnolia Room tea room with its classic chicken salad and coconut cake. Even the building itself, with its distinctive clock over the entrance, became a part of city lore.
A trip to Rich’s was not just an errand, but an experience. Ladies in white gloves and dresses and children in their Sunday best made the trip to Broad Street for what was more than a day of shopping, it was a destination. People came from around the state just to experience the sights and sounds of Atlanta’s premier department store.
A few years after Rich’s centennial, the company was acquired by Federated Department Stores, an Ohio-based retail management corporation. By the early 1990s, the landmark downtown Rich’s store had closed its doors for the last time. In the coming years, the Rich’s name would slowly begin to disappear until all remaining stores operated as Macy’s. But the march of time would not erase the fond memories of generations of Atlantans.
Customer-First Approach / Civic Mindedness
Rich’s built its reputation on a customer-centric approach. The stories of its generosity are plentiful. In 1914, when a dramatic drop in the price of cotton financially crippled many Georgia farmers, Rich's accepted cotton bales as payment, taking a financial loss.
In the early 1920’s, Rich's enacted a liberal exchange and credit policy where any item could be exchanged and nearly anybody could receive store credit. It was not uncommon for Rich's to refund merchandise not carried by its stores or provide full refunds on noticeably used items.
At one point during the Great Depression, Atlanta could only pay teachers in promissory notes. Rich's agreed to cash those notes – without requiring the teachers to shop at the store – until the City could reimburse the store.
In 1969, the Rich Foundation, the still-existent philanthropic arm of the company, gifted Atlanta from the Ashes (Phoenix Rising) to the City. The statue, marking one hundred years of Rich’s in Atlanta, now stands at the south end of Woodruff Park.
Christmas at Rich’s
In 1948, Rich’s debuted a dedicated Store for Homes at its downtown location. More modern than the 1924 building, the new structure was connected to the main store by a walkway that spanned Forsyth Street. The four-story, glass-enclosed walkway was known as the Crystal Bridge. At the holidays, the Crystal Bridge itself became a destination for Atlantans.
On Thanksgiving night, Atlantans crowded the streets below the Bridge as choirs filled each level. Above them, rising from the roof of the Bridge, was a tree, dozens of feet high and elaborately decorated. The choirs would perform and, as the night sky settled over the city, the Great Tree would be lit, signaling the start of the holiday season in Atlanta. It was an eagerly-awaited spectacle that was even featured on the cover of Time Magazine one year.
In 1953, the ride that came to be known as the Pink Pig debuted at the downtown Rich’s store during the Christmas holidays. For 25-cents, youngsters could hop onto a metal monorail car for a three-minute ride over the Rich’s toy department. In the 1960’s, a second tram was added, and the ride was extended onto the store’s roof, giving the riders a never-before-seen up-close view of the Great Tree.
After the Broad Street store closed, the Pink Pig and the Great Tree both found new, temporary homes. The Pink Pig was moved to the Festival of Trees holiday fundraiser and the Tree, a few blocks away, to Underground Atlanta. Eventually, both of the beloved holiday traditions found their way to the Lenox Macy’s store, where they remain today.
As World War II ended, Rich’s launched the event that would eventually become its signature runway show. At a downtown Atlanta theater in 1945, the store hosted the first Fashionata fashion show gala. It would be held again in each of the next two years before taking an extended hiatus.
In the late 1940s, the store hired its Fashion Director, Columbus-born Sol Kent. Part of his job included enhancing the reputation of Rich’s designer department, working with buyers to select pieces from designer collections. After several years in the job, Kent resurrected Fashionata, building it into a showcase for the store’s designer fashions.
For thirty-five years, Atlantans gathered to see the latest offerings from a global roster of designers, many of whom were first introduced to Atlantans through Fashionata. Designs from Christian Dior, Ralph Lauren, Halston, Armani, and Chanel were all featured at the benefit event over the years. As director, Kent oversaw the theme, music, and script for every show. He chose the fashions and the models. And, he managed it all from his place behind the podium as emcee.
The Magnolia Room
On the sixth floor of the Broad Street store, Rich’s operated the Magnolia Room, a café that offered a break during a day of shopping. The Magnolia Room menu offered a variety of dishes, including light snacks and full meals. But the menu item most fondly remembered by many Atlantans was its coconut cake. In later years, Magnolia Rooms also could be found at some of Rich’s suburban Atlanta stores.
Rich’s in Atlanta
To most longtime Atlantans, Rich’s was more than just a department store and many have a personal story about their Rich’s experience. Over nearly 140 years, its traditions, customer service, liberal return policies and passionate civic mindedness placed the store - in the minds of Atlantans - in the company of Coca-Cola and Gone With the Wind. And, it all started with an enterprising immigrant and a small dry goods store.
Hasani Sahlehe is a multidisciplinary artist. His practice consists of abstract paintings, installations, and performances that explore memory, migration, and the supernatural. Significant exhibitions of his work have taken place at SCAD Museum of Art, the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, and NADA Miami. His work has been published in Art Papers, New American Paintings (with Noteworthy Artist distinction), and Burnaway. He was awarded the SCAD Alumni Atelier, MINT Leap year residency, and the Hambidge Residency for the Arts and Sciences. Collectors of his work include Michael Rooks, curator, High Museum of Art, and SCAD. Sahlehe currently serves as the teaching artist at the Morris Museum of Art. He received his Painting BFA from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2015. Sahlehe is originally from St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands.