The Harris Company

by Aimmee L. Rodriguez

On April 16, 1905, Philip and Herman Harris put an advertisement in The Daily Sun:

Harris' Opening

 On Wednesday, April 19, we will formally open our doors to the public of San Bernardino and vicinity...A cordial Invitation to visit our store is extended to you all. We are strangers among you, but have come to stay and we want to get acquainted...We have come here prepared in every way to do a large Dry Goods business. If courteous treatment, low prices, good goods and honest methods are appreciated here then we will certainly have no difficulty in gaining your trade. We mean every word we say and say just what we mean. Try us...Harris 'Has It For Less.'

Philip, Herman and Arthur Harris were three of eleven children from a German mercantile family.

Philip Harris

Philip Harris

Herman Harris

Herman Harris

Authur Harris

Authur Harris

Harris Company's First Location
Harris' First Location

Their San Bernardino business was the flagship for a chain of stores which became synonymous with the Inland Empire of Southern California. Their first location was in the Armory Building at 462 Third Street, between D and E Streets. Harris' was on the bottom floor, and had a mere 25 feet of frontage.

Philip and Herman began with $4,700 worth of stock from their store, the White House, which they closed in Santa Ana, and experience of working for their Uncle Leopold of Harris & Frank, in Los Angeles. They started their business with three employees: an office girl, and two sales ladies. Arthur Harris arrived in 1906 from his brother-in-law's store in Anaheim, bringing $2,500 with him. The money aided in the move to Harris' second location across the street from their original store. The Harris brothers hired a window trimmer along with a dozen employees, and became the style center of the city.

The Harris brothers quickly gained a favorable reputation and a loyal patronage for their straightforward business dealings. In 1907, the second floor was taken over to house their growing Millinery and Ready-to-Wear departments. The next year, Harris' installed the first elevator in San Bernardino, attracting a lot of attention. It was the first time for many to see one. An early employee recalled that the grown-ups humored the kids by taking them up and down.

The brothers failed at a Colton location early on but found another success with the 1908 opening of their Redlands store. Philip Harris moved to Redlands to manage that store. His first wife had died when his son Melville was only two and he remarried in 1907. He was sorely missed by the San Bernardino staff.

By 1915, San Bernardino Harris' was bursting at the seams and they expanded into Cartwright's Dry Goods next door. They inherited their electrical sign and restrooms, took one wall out between the stores, and bought out their next door neighbor's clothing store on the opposite side which happened to be owned by their brother-in-law, Rudolf Anker. By 1919, Harris' management began to acquire land on the corner of Third and E Streets for creation of a new store. While construction for the San Bernardino store was underway, employees eagerly awaited the move to the new building. One employee said, "How thrilled we were when the new building was being constructed. We would go on our lunch hour to watch the progress of the workmen...Everyone was glad to say goodbye to smoky oil stoves!" A month before the move, the little business that started as a partnership of brothers became a corporation worth $1,000,000. The Harris Company graduated to the status of department store.

The building formally opened on November 7, 1927. It housed a basement, first floor, mezzanine level, second floor, third floor and roof garden. The Harris Company was built as a fireproof structure that would include all the modern amenities of the time. There was a tea room, lunch counter, beauty parlor and barber shop, a sit-down soda fountain, candies, stationery, and on the south side of the building, a grocery store called Sage's Market. The southeast corner of the building had a staircase of colorful tiles, which led up to their second floor restaurant, Café Madrid. The buildings doors were made of hammered copper. The main entrance archway fitted with Italian marble rose 29 feet, while the interior lobby ceiling was an impressive 32 feet high. The exterior had alternating intricate stone and wrought iron ornamental grillwork. The Harris coat-of-arms was molded within the stonework similar to businesses in Europe. The structure revealed a face to match Harris' reputation of quality and service. The Sun, eloquently stated the significance of the Harris building in San Bernardino when it printed, "Towns do not have department stores. The Inland Empire has arrived."

Harris Company Main Floor
Main Floor

Many thought the Harris brothers were taking a gamble to build a modern department store in a city of roughly 20,000 people. Three years later, the risk was realized when the Great Depression began closing banks across the country. Herman and his nephew, Leslie, devised a plan to save at least one of the banks that backed Harris'. Throughout the day, regular deposits were made for the Harris Company and employees were sent over to open new accounts. Herman stood atop a chair and announced his confidence in the bank, prompting other leading citizens to follow suit. According to R. D. McCook, co-founder of First National, Herman nipped the panic in the bud. Even though the years were lean, by saving electricity and cutting salaries, none of the Harris employees were laid off.

Tragically, Herman passed away in 1933 of a heart attack, and only six years later, Philip died as well. Both men were lauded in the papers for their community involvement and civic mindedness. Out of respect, each Harris store in San Bernardino and Redlands closed early on the day of the burials. The area's citizens mourned the loss of these great men. Philip's three sons, Leslie, Harold, and Melville had been raised in the business since childhood and were next in line to be at the helm. The second generation of Harris' successfully continued management of the Harris Company and ushered in a period of significant growth.

One program initiated by this trio in the late 1940s was called, Men's Night. One shopper recalled, "Only men were allowed in the store to shop for Christmas gifts for their wives, girlfriends, children and others. It was great fun, and the clerks, mostly older women, were a tremendous help."

Harris Company Men's Department
Men's Department

Another feature throughout the 1940s and '50s, which became synonymous with Harris' and the holiday season was their animated window displays on E Street. Many Inland Empire residents had an annual tradition of stopping by the Harris Company to see the Christmas windows. Additionally, for many years, the Harris Company had the only Santa in the region. Numerous children met their very first Santa Claus at Harris' Toyland.

The Harris Company Santa
Harris' Santa

Similar to the original founders, the second generation worked hard to ensure that San Bernardino had everything the big cities had. In 1947, the Harris Company was the first building to have a 'motorstair,' or escalator (as it is known today) in the Inland Empire. It created quite a stir since the closest alternative was an hour away in Los Angeles. For the next three days after its inauguration, parents knew exactly where to find their children when they shopped.

The Harris Company Motorstair
Harris 'Motorstair'

In the years ahead, the Harris Company underwent several expansions to their San Bernardino and Redlands stores. More importantly, they also extended the Harris' chain, opening a new store as the main anchor of the Riverside Plaza on September 30, 1957.

Sadly, during this era of growth and memories, three more Harris' passed away. Arthur, the youngest of the founding brothers who knew many customers by name, died in 1951. Harold, Philip's second son, passed away in 1965, and Leslie, Philip's eldest, passed away in 1971. When Leslie died, the mayor said, "The death of Harris is a great loss to the community of San Bernardino...[his] achievements will go down in the history of this city as an inspiration not only to those who lived here in his time, but to those who follow..."

The suburbs had been growing steadily since the end of World War II, and with the spurt of highway construction across America, downtowns lost many historic structures. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, due to the Central City redevelopment program, major changes occurred at the San Bernardino store. The 1927 floors were taken out and retrofitted, the upper floor windows were in-filled, and lightweight concrete was used to build a fourth floor in order to relocate the executive offices formerly on the mezzanine level. The majority of the mezzanine level was removed, though Café Madrid, gift-wrapping and alteration facilities remained.

The Harris Company was slated to be one of the anchor stores of the new Central City Mall which would be completed in 1973. An addition was built to link the Harris Company to the mall. Harris' redesign team used tiles and wrought iron from Portugal to create a beautiful stairway and landing. The ornate ceiling clock was moved from its original location to the new staircase to complete the space.

The Harris Company's Link to the Carousel Mall
Harris' Link to the Carousel Mall

The third generation of Harris', Harold Jr. (Hap), Don, son of Melville, William Engel, son-in-law of Harold, and Bennet Meyers, son-in-law of Leslie, faced a recession in the '70s that had far reaching effects stretching into the Gulf War recession of the 1990s. Even though a parent company, El Corté Inglés, came on board in 1981, with expansions (growing the chain to nine stores) other factors came into play that resulted in the end of the Harris Company as we knew it. Aside from two recessions within a 20 year period, Bennet Meyers died in 1975, Bill Engel retired early after heart surgery in 1977, Don, who was prone to headaches, slipped into a coma in 1984 and passed away in 1988, and Melville, the last of the second generation, died shortly after. A final crushing blow to the local San Bernardino economy, came with the closing of Norton Air Force Base in 1994. Harris' merged with Gottschalks in August 1998, and Harris' flagship store in San Bernardino closed four months later on January 31, 1999. The remaining stores in the chain became Harris' Gottschalks and El Corté Inglés retained ownership of the flagship building and the name the Harris Company.

Just 10 years later, as a result of our nation's current recession --- what our present day media is calling the Great Recession, --- Gottschalks had to liquidate in March 2009. Going out of business sales for the chain ran for the next several months and ended in July 2009. Forever 21 moved into some of the Gottschalks locations, but the San Bernardino flagship store continues to remain vacant. The building now stands as a silent, and somewhat sad, sentinel to a more vibrant past when shopping was more than a mundane exercise of daily life. Shopping at Harris' was an experience tied to the memories of people's lives: Christmases, banana splits at the soda fountain, collecting S&H Green stamps, buying a wedding dress, or having tea at the Café Madrid. Not only were patrons better for having visited Harris', but the city of San Bernardino was a better place because Harris' created community.

* For a more detailed history on the Harris family and the Harris Company, please see The Harris Company (Arcadia Publishing) by Aimmee L. Rodriguez, Richard A. Hanks, and Robin S. Hanks