G. Stockton Strawbridge

Elaine Brown
Hilary Koprowski

“A pain in the neck. . . Outspoken. . . Stubborn . . . Mischievous. . . A nudge. . . A courtly gentleman. . . A dignified, exuberant man. . . A powerhouse of conscience. . . A gusty, honorable retailer. . . Charming. . . Very tenacious. . . Hard to resist.” Those words were used to characterize George Stockton (or “Stock” as he was called by those familiar with him) Strawbridge. Thacher Longstreth, the patrician councilman from Chestnut Hill, explained that Strawbridge was so effective as a civic leader, because he had “a mind like a steel trap, and combines that with the most extremely agreeable personal charm.” “A pimple on the backside of the city” is how Strawbridge referred to himself. However, he exercised his clout for the betterment of Philadelphia.

S trawbridge was the grandson of the co-founder of the Strawbridge & Clothier department store situated at 8th and Market Streets. After high school, Strawbridge worked at lower level positions in the store for nearly two decades, before serving twelve years each as company president, chief executive officer, and chairman of the executive committee. Under his direction the family-run company expanded from three to thirteen stores, and annual revenue increased to nearly $1 billion.

During the 1980s when locally owned department stores were being snapped up by Wall Street investors at a ferocious pace, Strawbridge thwarted a hostile takeover by investor Ronald Baron. Among his actions was to place a full-page newspaper advertisement declaring: “The Family is Not For Sale. More than 12,000 employees, over 3,000 shareholders, third-, fourth- and fifth-generation Strawbridge & Clothier descendants - we are a family.”

The Philadelphia Award was presented to Stockton Strawbridge in 1989 for his unremitting commitment, extending four decades, to renovate East Market Street from a dilapidated, decaying strip into a revitalized corridor of commerce. Strawbridge initiated and directed the Market Street East Improvement Association, whose mission was the beautification of the stretch of Market from City Hall to Sixth Street. Mayors of Philadelphia and civic leaders took his telephone calls and made trips to see him in the flagship store at 801 Market Street. His office displayed pictorial representations of “a transformed East Market Street.” Sketches depicted “a grand boulevard” embellished with attractive lights, punctuated with new trees and trash baskets, dotted with bus shelters, decorated with street signs and benches, and maintained “by a cadre of uniformed ‘marshals’ to keep it all pristine.” Strawbridge claimed that an “unimproved East Market Street” was “a Champs-Elysees in the rough.”

Strawbridge raised almost $14 million to achieve this vision. His persistence overcame the resistance of leaders in Philadelphia who thought the improvement project was folly. He frequently visited business owners along East Market Street to raise a $2 million maintenance fund to keep the street “clean and beautiful.” Strawbridge was also instrumental in bringing the Gallery 1 and Gallery 2 shopping malls to the street. The Market Street East Improvement Association became the model for the Center City District, as Mayor Edward G. Rendell and business leaders sought to replicate Strawbridge’s success to Center City in its entirety.

After learning of Strawbridge’s death, Rendell declared that Strawbridge was “one of the greatest Philadelphians in the history of the city…He was someone that understood the importance of giving back to the city.” Strawbridge’s attorney, Peter Hearn, recalled his surprise at seeing the elderly Strawbridge pick up a gum wrapper off Market Street. Strawbridge remarked to Hearn: “As the fellow who is leading [the initiative to improve East Market Street], I’m not above bending down to pick up a gum wrapper. We’re all part of this.”

James J. Copeland

Sources: In the opening group of quotes, capitalization was sometimes changed to make it read better. Hank Klibanoff, “Advocacy Afoot at Last, Beleaguered Philadelphia Pedestrians have a Pressure Group to Stand Up for Them,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 13, 1989; Leslie Scism, “A Strawbridge Steps Aside,” Philadelphia Daily News, September 21, 1989; Virginia S. Wiegand, “Many Bemoan the Loss of Strawbridge Spirit,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 7, 1996; Jane M. Von Bergen, “At the End for the Strawbridges: Father and Son are Divided,” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 14, 1996; Virginia S. Wiegand, et al, “City Loses a Fervent Friend,” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 9, 1997; Jane M. Von Bergen, “In Business and in City Renewal, Strawbridge a Persevering Leader,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 10, 1997; Gloria Campisi, “G. Stockton Strawbridge Dead at 83,” Philadelphia Daily News, February 10, 1997; Nita Lelyveld, “Hundred Pays Homage to Patriarch,” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 13, 1997.