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100 years at the Woolworth Building

"Our plans are not completed as yet," Sam Howard told a reporter, "but we hope to be in the building by Jan. 1, 1911. That is a hope, but one we expect to realize."

The former Texan was being too optimistic. Constructing the largest building Southern Oregon had ever seen just wasn't going to be that easy. Winter weather and material shortages would push its completion well into summer.

Howard and his two brothers had come to Medford with their wealthy rancher father in the spring of 1907. When their father died in December, the boys took control of the family fortune and began buying property and investing in local businesses.

By 1910, they were principal partners, at least monetarily, in Medford Furniture and Nicholson's Hardware, two companies that traced their roots back to Medford's earliest days.

The companies merged as the Medford Furniture and Hardware Co. and, with the partners selling more than they ever had before, they needed to expand.

The brothers purchased two lots on the corner of East Sixth Street and Central Avenue for $50,000, and by September 1910, construction had begun.

The Medford Furniture and Hardware building was Medford's second four-story building and the first ever formed in concrete. The basement and first three floors were dedicated to home furnishings and hardware, while the fourth-floor offices would be rented to medical and other businesses.

Costing $100,000 to construct, it included some unique features. The building's basement extended out under the sidewalks and was lit by decorative glass tiles placed in the concrete.

The four entrances were embellished with terrazzo tiles, a concrete mixture with crushed marble from the quarry near Williams in the Applegate Valley.

After six months of an inventory "removal sale" at the original Main Street locations, Medford Furniture and Hardware Co. moved to their new home at the end of July 1911. Construction dust continued after the opening, and it was April 1912 before fire escapes were finally installed.

Three years later the Howards took over the building, leaving the mercantile business to the remaining partners. It was a successful arrangement until 1921, when the building was sold and the furniture company was forced to move out.

Now known as the "Medford Center," the building's upper floors would become a haven for medical and dental offices and its lower levels would house a succession of furniture, jewelry and grocery stores.

In 1937, F.W. Woolworth Co. leased a small portion on the lower floor of the building and moved from their Main Street location.

After a major renovation in 1950, the building was renamed the "Medical Center" Building, and Woolworth doubled the size of their store by taking over the entire lower level.

Until 1988, when Woolworth closed the store, the smell of popcorn floated out its doors and up and down Central Avenue.

In 2003, five years after the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Medford Downtown Historic District, the sturdy concrete structure was renamed, and large red-and-gold signs proclaimed it the "Woolworth Building."

Now, even without the smell of popcorn, it's ready to last another hundred years, and maybe even more.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at newsmiller@yahoo.com.

The Woolworth Building at East Sixth Street and Central Avenue in Medford began life in July 1911 as the Medford Furniture and Hardware Co. - Bill Miller