Macy’s holiday star is coming back and so is the Bon Marché

Nov 27, 2019, 10:50 AM | Updated: 10:54 am

The holiday window display, featuring model trains, will move next year to the Southcenter Macy's. (Macy's) Bob James, designer of the star, also designed the holiday window display model train layout. (Bob James) The Bon Marché star, as it appeared during a test last week. (Anthony Evans) Wendy James is thrilled the star her father designed is back. (Feliks Banel)

KIRO Radio listeners heard the good news first almost three weeks ago, and now the Bon Marché star at 4th Avenue and Pine Street downtown is indeed back, and just a few days away from lighting up for its 63rd year.

The big green and red switch will be flipped Friday, November 29 at 4:30 p.m. as part of the annual tree lighting festivities and holiday carousel at Westlake Park. I might be making up that part about the switch being green and red.

And, I will freely acknowledge that I have very little objectivity when it comes to this story. I was deeply touched back in September when KIRO Radio listeners reached out and asked me to try and figure out what was going on with the star. That was the weekend when Nicole Brodeur reported in The Seattle Times that the downtown Macy’s was going to close in early 2020, and that the star was damaged beyond repair and would not be back this year.

Those KIRO listeners wanted to know if the star could be repaired in time to be displayed this year, or if it could at least find a new home on another building or at the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI).

The next few weeks were a bit of a rollercoaster ride.

I felt a bit like Kolchak the Night Stalker trying get a straight answer out of the Macy’s offices in Chicago about the condition and even the whereabouts of the star. But then, it was so great to hear from people like Anthony Evans, an old Lake Washington High School classmate whose office looks down on the roof of the old Bon Marché, and who shared photos he’d taken during the recent construction of penthouse.

This was followed by a low point, when it looked as if the star had already been taken to the dump. But then came word from an anonymous source — a “loyal KIRO listener” — who had access to the roof and who shared pictures of identifiable pieces of the old star atop the building. Then came my favorite moment, when my friend and colleague Casey McNerthney at KIRO TV dispatched Chopper 7 to shoot surveillance video of the roof.

Earlier this week, I went downtown to tie up a few loose ends around the return of the star. First, I stopped in at the Downtown Seattle Association – who, in the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve done some history-related work for over the years – and I spoke with Senior Manager of Media Relations and Issues Management James Sido.

“When it was floated out there that the star may not be coming back, I think that the hope that I had was that it could somehow be saved,” Sido said, recalling when the news broke in late September.

“And what is I think kind of reaffirming about what happened behind the scenes … is that you had companies pulling together for something that’s important to the community,” he continued. “And they understood that they were making an investment in this place, making an investment in downtown, making an investment in tradition for the holidays.”

As reported by Erik Lacitis’ Seattle Times story from Nov. 24 reported, building tenant Amazon and the building’s new owner Starwood each ponied up $250,000 to repair the old star for this year and to build a new one – using as much of the old star as possible – for display next year and into the foreseeable future.

What the Times’ story doesn’t say is that both of those companies ponied up because an anonymous local person understood the value of the star and made the “ask” of the two companies, and then orchestrated the steps necessary to ensure the resurrection of the old star.

This person, who I met with and with whom I had a long conversation, has no desire to get any credit. I also believe this individual would’ve brought the star back with or without the multiple stories we did on KIRO Radio and MyNorthwest, and without the “Save The Star” Facebook page.

While I was downtown, I also went to 4th and Pine, where the unlit star has been in place since last week. It was there that I met with Wendy James, who started that Facebook page a month or so ago.

It was Wendy’s late father Bob James who designed the star back in the 1950s. She says her dad was a humble guy, but because she and her siblings loved the stuff he did as a designer for the old Bon Marché department store, they weren’t shy about telling people.

“I think he was really proud of it,” James said. “But we were the ones down here going, ‘My dad did that, my dad did that!’”

And James is, naturally, thrilled that the star is back.

“Being born in Seattle, growing up in Seattle and having this be such a great tradition, and then now, saving it,” said James, “I’m proud. I’m happy.”

Did the Facebook page or all the KIRO Radio and MyNorthwest stories help?

“I don’t know how much I had to do with it. I don’t know how much you had to do with it, but it sure didn’t hurt,” Wendy James said, chuckling.

Back at the DSA offices, does James Sido believe it’s possible to measure or somehow calculate the value of having the star back?

“I don’t know that I have a cold answer or a cold response about what the star means,” he said. “I think a lot of it is emotional. I guess maybe the cold analytical part would be you’re getting more foot traffic in downtown, but I think you’re getting that foot traffic anyway.”

But, Sido says, the Bon Marché star clearly has value.

“I really think that that this star does captivate people,” Sido said. “I think when you walk down Fourth Avenue and you look up and you see the sky lit up with this huge star, you pause for a minute.”

One more significant change coming to the building after Macy’s leaves is a return to its roots. A source says that the old department store — housing offices and ground-floor retail — will be re-branded as the “Bon Marché building,” and that all traces of Macy’s name will be removed. Macy’s was combined with the name in 2003 for the awkward “Bon-Macy’s”; the “Bon” part was ditched completely in 2004.

Along with the Macy’s name and the store itself, one more thing is leaving downtown: The display-window holiday model train layout. It was also originally designed by Bob James back in the late 1940s, and has been a mainstay of street-level holiday décor in Seattle ever since.

Macy’s spokesperson Andrea Schwartz said by email on Monday that the trains and the layout will be saved, and will be displayed next holiday season at the Southcenter Macy’s.

If and when that Southcenter Macy’s location closes, I have it on good authority that an anonymous local history museum is standing by and ready to take possession.

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Macy’s holiday star is coming back and so is the Bon Marché