Few stores have enjoyed the legendary status afforded the upscale retail stalwart, Miller & Rhoads. The iconic department store that once stretched an entire street block left an indelible mark on not only the retail landscape of the city, but also on Richmond residents. The former site of Miller & Rhoads now houses the Hilton Richmond Downtown and the Miller & Rhoads Apartments and as of this month, visitors will be greeted by a new reminder of the retail history that particular city block holds in the form of a new Virginia Historical Marker, unveiled on May 1, 2019.
The marker, SA 119, commemorates the site’s historical significance not only to retail but to the city of Richmond as a whole. Founded in 1885, Miller & Rhoads grew from a small dry goods shop to one of the largest department stores in the South when it peaked in the middle of the 20th century. Miller & Rhoads further cemented its place in the history books during the Civil Rights movement when, following the protests of African Americans and specifically, the Richmond 34, the store fully desegregated by 1961. Miller & Rhoads was also a founding member of Retail Merchants in 1906.
Long before the era of big box stores, Miller & Rhoads offered customers one-stop convenience for goods and services ranging from stamps to clothing, sporting goods, to public telephones, but in a glamorous, cosmopolitan setting where exceptional customer service reigned supreme. Speaking on customer service, founder Webster Rhoads is quoted as saying, “between the patrons and the management there is more to be desired than mere selling; an abiding friendship is valued far above profit.” Miller & Rhoads embodied the “customer is always right” mantra, believing so strongly in the quality of their goods and the importance of developing relationships with their customers, that they offered a remarkably lenient return policy in an effort to bolster consumer confidence. But it was in creating collective shared experiences for consumers that Miller & Rhoads truly excelled – and for which they are still remembered fondly today.
Something of a cultural hub, Miller & Rhoads served as a gathering place for Richmonders. The store regularly played host to celebrated writers and art exhibits, as well as other community events. Richmonders of a certain age can all remember meeting someone “under the clock,” a nod to the distinctive clock that perched above the information desk.
For more than 40 years, ladies of Richmond beelined to the Amethyst Room on the 2nd floor where milliner Sara Sue created whimsical, customized hats – noted for their originality, but also for the distinctive status symbol label that read, “Designed for You by Sara Sue.”
Sara Sue’s latest creations, as well as other designer wares, were debuted in seasonal fashion shows held in the celebrated Tea Room at Miller & Rhoads. The runway in the Tea Room tied the store to the community – bringing fashions to life in a social setting. During its heyday, there was no greater gathering spot for Richmonders than in the Tea Room which was the go-to for business lunches, families, young couples, as well as the ladies who lunch crowd.
But perhaps the greatest shared memory for Richmonders as it pertains to Miller & Rhoads is the magical experience of visiting the “real” Santa Claus in Santaland – an experience shared by thousands of children of all generations until the store closed in 1990. In 1942, Miller & Rhoads hired Hollywood stuntman Bill Strother to portray the man in the red suit, and the rest as they say, is history.
Drawing on techniques and makeup borrowed from Hollywood, Strother transformed the Santa experience, becoming the most famous Santa in the history of Virginia. Families from all over Virginia, as well as many from out of state, flocked to Miller & Rhoads every Christmas for an opportunity to dine with Santa in the Tea Room where, in a carefully orchestrated act with great fanfare, Santa would appear in the oversized chimney. He would enjoy lunch or dinner with children and their families, which always included Rudolph Cake for dessert, and make a great production of chugging a glass of milk, as only the jolly man could. But the real magic came when, using his Hollywood experience, Strother devised an act where, aided by the glamorous Snow Queen and a strategically placed microphone, he would already know each child’s name by the time that they approached him – a feat that truly inspired awe and wonder from all.
Today, the magic lives on at the Hilton Richmond Downtown with nostalgic touch points that reference the site’s storied historic past. Tiled photos behind the front desk depict the sprawling retail legend as it once stood along Broad and 5th Streets; memorabilia is displayed throughout the property in carefully curated frames; larger than life portraits of founders, Linton Miller and Webster Rhoads watch over the lobby; and guest rooms are adorned with imagery from the department store. The hotel’s 1885 Cafe and Market, aptly named after the founding year, offers guests a true taste of the past, featuring original Tea Room recipes including Brunswick Stew, the M&R Club, Seven Layer Chocolate Cake, and Miller & Rhoads Silk Pie. The hotel exudes a sense of place, welcoming travelers to the very spot where so many Richmonders once gathered, and offering them a chance to “meet under the clock” which passes time in the lobby.
The Hilton Richmond Downtown is located at 501 East Broad Street. The 1885 Cafe serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days a week.