Memories of Montaldo’s
And how a sofa became more than just a piece of furniture
By Billy Ingram
Photographs by John Koob Gessner
Although its been gone now for almost a quarter century, Realtor Barry Hardeman enjoys reminiscing about Greensboro’s most sophisticated women’s ready-to-wear and millinery shop and its magnificent accoutrement.
“When Greensboro was younger, you had your regular department stores —and then there was Montaldo’s.” As a youngster in the late 1950s, Hardeman would accompany his mother on shopping excursions at Montaldo’s two-story palace of haute couture, fronted by five enormous display windows curving around the corner of North Elm and Gaston (now Friendly).
“When ladies went in to shop they generally had a salesperson that was their go-to person,” Hardeman says of the Montaldo’s experience. “They would take customers around to any areas in the store, then stay by their side to help them shop the way you would today at Neiman Marcus.”
Montaldo’s on Fourth Street in Winston-Salem (where
a/perture cinema is today) had been selling furs, sportswear, and ladies hats for more than a decade before the two sisters, Lillian Montaldo Doop and Nelle Montaldo Reed expanded into Greensboro in 1933. It was Nelle who managed the Greensboro emporium, situated for the first few years on the ground floor of the Jefferson Standard Building.
Nelle traveled the world procuring one-of-a-kind furnishings to decorate the shops. “They were truly fine antiques,” Hardeman recalls. “She had a collection of Murano glass chandeliers that were out of this world.” The Winston and Greensboro locations had their own distinctive look but, Hardeman notes, “They were both very upscale, considered elite in their day, carrying everything from cosmetics to women’s intimate apparel and anything in between.”
Early on, there was one highly unusual sofa in the couturier section of the store that captured Hardeman’s imagination, one that ladies lounged on while models strutted around in the latest fashionable evening gowns, wraps and wedding dresses.
Inevitably, when his mother was shopping at Montaldo’s and paused momentarily to rest, “She would somehow gravitate to that sofa,” Hardeman says. “I remember being fascinated by it; there’s a merman carved on one end and a mermaid on the other. I can still remember sitting on it with her as a kid. Of course, I had to be on my best behavior.”
Montaldo’s vacated downtown in 1976 to anchor the new Forum VI mall, adjacent to Friendly Center. “They moved all of the antiques into that store and set them up in a more modern setting,” Hardeman explains.
While the Greensboro Montaldo’s was prospering in the 1990s, other outlets around the state and Southeast, even as far away as Colorado were seriously underperforming. The department store chain was liquidated in 1995. The new owners, Coplon’s, wanted nothing to do with those magnificent antique furnishings that lent such an air of sophistication to the Gate City for so long. “Everything was sold in a sealed bid situation to patrons of the store,” Hardeman reveals. “It wasn’t open to just anyone. Although, I seriously doubted my bid could compete with some of the other wealthier customers of the store.”
Surprised with the news that he had submitted the winning bid, Hardemann didn’t hesitate, “I went right over and we loaded it up. The sofa weighs a ton. It’s carved walnut so it’s extremely heavy.” It became a centerpiece in the home Hardeman shared with his his longtime business associate and life partner, Tom Chitty. “It’s been recovered twice in its life with us, and it’s still a fixture,” Hardeman says.
Chitty passed away in 2017. “I live alone now,” Hardeman says. “But whenever I entertain or have people over they always want to sit on it, touch it and feel it. The carving is extraordinary. That’s the joy of owning wonderful things, sharing them with other people.”
Over the holidays one year, “I was finishing up in the kitchen,” Hardeman recalls. “When I saw my mother stretched out taking a nap I thought, ‘That’s the reason I have this sofa; it was meant to be.’” h
A native of Greensboro, Billy Ingram recalls following his mom around the store while she shopped at Montaldo’s