In an age before women had the right to vote, Elizabeth C. Quinlan was a natural entrepreneur who had a business acumen that rivaled most men of her era. Quinlan made a name for herself by buying and selling the finest ready-to-wear clothing and accessories in downtown Minneapolis. Her innovative retailing ideas were copied by merchants from coast to coast. An acute business sense and cutting-edge fashion instinct made her hugely successful, but it was her warm and witty personality that made her the queen of Minneapolis.
Born in Madison, Wisconsin to Irish immigrant parents in 1863, Elizabeth C. Quinlan started working for Minneapolis’ leading dry goods store, Goodfellow and Eastman, at the age of sixteen. Over the next fifteen years, Quinlan would go from earning ten dollars per week to becoming the store’s top-earning sales person—making more than any of her male colleagues.
While working at Goodfellow and Eastman, fate dealt Quinlan a life-changing opportunity in the form of Fred D. Young, the store’s second most successful sales person, and her close friend. Together, they dreamed of opening an exclusive salon selling only the finest silks, satins, and furs. Young said that he wanted to open a store and begin “clothing the women of the northwest in a manner to make Paris fashionistas sit up and take notice.”
The Fred D. Young and Company opened a small boutique in a humble, subleased corner of Vrooman’s Glove Company at the Syndicate Building in downtown Minneapolis. Quinlan agreed to help Young at his store for a three-month trial period. If it didn’t work out, she planned on returning to her position at Goodfellow and Eastman.
While Young managed the store’s finances, Quinlan sourced and purchased only the finest items to be sold at the shop, as well as charming the clientele. She was the first woman to make a mark as a buyer in what was known affectionately as the rag-trade. Together, they learned that Quinlan’s fashion instincts exceeded her sales acumen. While on a buying trip to New York, Quinlan ran across a brown, ready-to-wear frock of taffeta-lined wool. It was the perfect dress for the ladies of Minnesota, so Quinlan snapped up several of them. They were the hit of the town that season. Ladies began ditching their made-to-order garments for the off-the-rack frocks at Fred D. Young and Company.
Just as the store began to find its stride in 1903, Young was forced to end his day-to-day involvement in the boutique because of a severe illness. Before he left, Young renamed the store Young-Quinlan Company. Quinlan took over his work managing the finances, as well as keeping all of her duties. Fred D. Young died in 1911 at the age of 49. Having never married, his interest in the store became available to Quinlan, which she purchased for $100,000 (about $2 million today.) As the sole owner of the store, Quinlan honored her friend and business partner by never taking his name off the door.
Now under Quinlan’s sole direction, the store continued to flourish. She oversaw every aspect of the store’s management. Her employees were entirely devoted to her and the success of the store. Soon, the store occupied five floors of 513 Nicollet. Quinlan’s hectic schedule kept her away on buying trips to New York and Europe for months at a time, leaving the store in the capable hands of her dedicated staff. Quinlan was just as dedicated to her store and employees, she turned down several jobs in larger cities, including one in New York City making $50,000 per year, to stay in Minneapolis.
By 1926, at the age of 63, Quinlan knew it was time to expand further. This time, she would build her dream store at the corner of Ninth and Nicollet. She told the New York Post, “This whole thing is intensely personal with me. My character, my whole philosophy of life, is so tied up with the store, which, after all, is nothing but the outward expression of myself, that it is difficult to separate the two.”
New York architect Frederick Ackerman was challenged by Quinlan to build a beautiful home for her beautiful merchandise. Ackerman was primarily a residential designer, but Quinlan liked his idea of an emporium of quiet luxury that would resemble an exclusive women’s lounge or club. At a cost of $1.5 million (about $20 million today,) Ackerman built her a five-story jewel box that was remarkably innovative. The building had a 250-stall underground parking garage with an elevator that whisked customers straight to the sales floor and a high-tech sprinkler system that offered protection against fire. Plus there was room to grow. The building was engineered with the consideration of adding an additional seven floors to the existing five. Finally, she asked that the plan could easily convert the upper floors into office space if the store wasn’t successful.
In the end, Quinlan got a “perfect gem.” The exterior of the ground floor of the Renaissance Revival building was covered in golden Kasota stone. Above that, the exterior was clad in yellow bricks and cool gray marble. The windows were framed with decorative stone pilasters and columns and bronze doors lead to the grand interior. Inside, light from the large, brass-framed windows made the terrazzo floors glow. Custom-made walnut and brass display cases stood beneath crystal chandeliers that hung from opulently ornamented vaulted ceilings. The grand hall culminated in a one-of-a-kind travertine staircase that urged clients to visit the upper floors. Quinlan loved every inch of her new building, which soon became a widely admired, and often copied, retailing phenomenon.
The grand opening on Tuesday, June 15, 1926, was dubbed a housewarming. The Sunday before, the Minneapolis Tribune featured advertisements about the formal opening, and a special insert devoted entirely to the promotion of the new building. The insert gave readers a sneak-peek into the entry hall, the sales floors, and even the bathrooms. On opening day, more than 20,000 people lined the streets to get a glimpse of the grandeur inside the store. The merchandise was all top-drawer—there were no cheap imitations, shoddy materials, or standardized cuts at Young-Quinlan. Shoppers flooded the sales departments hoping to purchase a small memento to memorialize the day. Handkerchieves, gloves, and perfumes sold exclusively at Young-Quinlan were top sellers.
Young-Quinlan wasn’t just popular with the movers and shakers of Minneapolis, popular actresses such as Ethel Barrymore and Lynn Fontanne frequented the store. Tourists from around Midwest would come to Minneapolis just to see the unique displays in Young-Quinlan’s fifth-floor auditorium. In 1932, Quinlan brought a collection of rare imperial treasures from Russia to display. In the 1940s, Quinlan presented a couture Hattie Carnegie gown encrusted with 40,000 pearls with a price tag of $150, 000. The gown was escorted to the store from the airport by a slew of policemen.
By May 1945, at the age of 82, Quinlan realized she could no longer keep up with the physical demands of running the ship. She told friends that she had traveled across the Atlantic sixty-nine times, in an age before transatlantic flights. Most of her family and loyal staff were at or beyond retirement age, so she decided it was time to sell her beloved business to a Chicago retailer. She kept ownership of her building and leased it back to the new retailer. Quinlan died just two years later of a heart disease that plagued her for most of her adult life. The store changed hands, and names, several times but never saw the financial success it had under Quinlan’s control. The Young-Quinlan Company sputtered to a close on April 30, 1985.
When she was hailed by Fortune Magazine as the foremost women’s specialty executive and among the top sixteen business women in the country, Quinlan responded by saying, “I never wanted to be a business woman. I was simply a woman in business.”
Her legacy is quietly evident all around the Twin Cities. The Elizabeth C. Quinlan Foundation has granted millions of dollars to higher education, social service, and arts organizations since the 1950s. But it’s her lovely building at the corner of Ninth and Nicollet that stands in constant tribute to her remarkable success. Thankfully, it was saved from the City of Minneapolis’ over-zealous wrecking ball in 1985 by Robert and Sue Greenberg. They pumped millions of dollars into the restoration, reserving space for retail on the opulent first-level, and converting the upper floors into offices. Just as Quinlan had planned.