John Lewton, Heyday-Era Campus Shop Serving Cornell

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Roger Sack, Cornell class of 1962, was a young man who knew clothes. He inherited a sense of style from his father, who, though the son of poor immigrants, shopped at Rogers Peet, Brooks Brothers and Paul Stuart. He was a man of “refined taste,” remembers Sack, whose souvenir from World War II was a bolt of tweed from Scotland for a Balmacaan coat. When it came time for his Bar Mitzvah, Sack wore a gray flannel suit with tattersall vest from Rogers Peet. And when he went to Cornell, the shop that most resembled the ones he knew from New York was John Lewton.

“John Lewton could pass for Old Money,” remembers Sack. “Mr. Lewton was an imposing character, husky, broad-shouldered and quite good looking. He was the type of guy who got his clothes at J. Press, Paul Stuart and Chipp.”

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Lewton was born May 30, 1904, and hailed from the town of East Liverpool, Ohio. Not much is known about his early life. He wanted to be an opera singer, according to Sam Bonnani, former buyer for the Cornell University Store and one-time employee of Lewton’s. He moved to New York, where he immersed himself in the world of opera before leaving the city for Ithaca. There Lewton found work with David Saperstone, owner of The Sports Shop. Here Lewton meet Clara Patterson, the store’s bookkeeper, and soon the two were married.

In 1946 the couple opened a shop at 222 East State Street. The four-story building was known as the Naughton-Brown building and since 1910 had been been occupied by a tailor named Emil Kohn. The building was known for its rounded windows on the third floor and the pressed tin wall and ceilings on the first floor. John and Clara would live and work out of this building for the next 31 years.

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The John Lewton shop opened its doors on November 28th. Lewton made the announcement to the Cornell community through an ad in the student newspaper. Although not solely a college shop, Lewton was a loyal advertiser in the Cornell Daily Sun, which would feature his products in student fashion pictorials during the ’50s. “Lewton liked to hire students and did a good business with the fraternities,” remembers former employee Sam Bonnani. “He would send his student representative to the fraternities with a suitcase full of ties, ascots, and shirting samples.”

John Lewton was a top-quality campus shop, recalls Bob Freudenheim, a third-generation menswear clothier. The windows were impeccable and very clubby, says Freudenheim, and made you want to see the goods inside. Those goods included tweed and Shetland suits and sportcoats; challis, foulard and rep ties; English and Scottish knitwear; tab and buttondown shirts; Casswell & Massey fragrance; and alligator-hide accessories. Brands included Lacoste, Fred Perry, Sero, Barracuta, Corbin and suits from Naturalaire. Jackets were soft shouldered, three-button models and custom tailoring was available.

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Lewton did not like change for change’s sake, says Bonnani, and was suspicious of schemes such as the closing of the street to create a pedestrian mall called The Commons. Still, he knew that on the clothing front he had to be nimble. A page in the September 23, 1969 issue of the Cornell Daily Sun carried an advertisement for the film “Midnight Cowboy” on the left and an advertisement for John Lewton on the right.  It was perhaps a bit jarring to see them together, but the Lewton advertisement is transitional, as far as the Ivy heyday goes. It still recommends the university-style suit model it calls the Brooks, but the ad also promotes a new two-button model, fitted and with a deep vent. It was clear that the times were changing.

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Looking at Lewton’s ads of the period, one can see how he navigated the post-Ivy era. One could put together an outfit comprised of Austin Hill tartan trousers, Braemar sweater, and Gordon-Ford jacket of corduroy or tweed, and come up with a higher-end version of a look not much different from what Playboy was showing in its fashion pictorials. However, at one point the haberdasher ran afoul of one counter-culture icon. Will Gubin, Cornell class of ’66, recalls that Richard Farina’s book “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me” mentions Lewton. “The book was obviously about Cornell,” says Gubin, “but Farina had changed the names of every person and place in the book, except one: John Lewton.” The book references to Lewton are the following:

Why don’t you flee man before you get some bath oil on your nice John Lewton suit?

And Oeuf — under his tailored John Lewton pajama tops —wore a Sea Island shirt and a English challis tie.

As the times changed, Lewton would retain some student trade, but it was his dedicated base of professionals, doctors, lawyers, and professors that would become the backbone of his business. Bonnani recalls his time serving Lewton’s loyal customers “with a tear in my eye and a lump in my throat.” The customer service was superb and included house calls. Bonnani recalls a customer named JS Barr who had an eponymous stock brokerage firm in town. He was old and feeble but still came in to buy suits. When he reached the point where he needed assistance getting his pants on and off, Bonnani would accompany him to the fitting room. “You’re not going to get service like that again,” Bonnani says.

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The clothing business fit the Lewtons’ lifestyle perfectly. They lived and worked in the downtown building, which they restored in 1975. Clara (who went by Claire) had excellent taste and was the buyer for the women’s department, which was launched in 1962. “My best memories of John were when he was telling jokes or picking on Claire about how much more the men’s store sold that day versus the women’s,” says Lewton’s nephew David Patterson. The couple were members of the local country club and yacht club and spent their summers in a cottage home on the west shore of Cayuga Lake. As they aged they also bought a home in Pompano Beach, Florida, where they spent their winters.

It was in Pompano Beach that the good times ended for this succesful retail duo. Clara died on February 4, 1977, and John soon sold his business to another young couple, Tom and Meg Hilton, who ran the store until 1986. John Lewton died the following year. Says Bonnani, “I think he died of a broken heart.” — CHRISTOPHER SHARP

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10 Comments on "John Lewton, Heyday-Era Campus Shop Serving Cornell"

  1. rvpress59 | May 2, 2016 at 12:59 pm |

    Thank you Mr. Sharp for your sympathetic and accurate portrayal of an era when campus shops featured on the premises ownership even beyond the shores of Lake Cayuga.

  2. Señor Yuca | May 2, 2016 at 1:06 pm |

    From what year is the ad ‘Important Findings for Gift Prospectors’?

  3. @Richard You’re Welcome.

    @SY ad is from 1964

  4. Great photo. Handsome clothes on gentlemen who look like…excuse the expression…dudes. Men where men and women were glad of it, I think.

    Will

  5. carmelo pugliatti | May 2, 2016 at 7:15 pm |

    Who drew those advertising for locals shops like Lewton?

    P.S.
    I would be very curious to see the shop windows of Lewton in 1947-48.
    He sold natural shoulders sack in these early days or also padded jackets and darted double breasteds?
    Interesting question.

  6. carmelo pugliatti | May 2, 2016 at 7:31 pm |

    Another night thought (here in Italy are the 01.23).
    All these stories about “Ivy” shops become sad around 1968-69 and end in ever more sad way in late 70s-80s.
    I have the deep belief that also the better part of America (the United States that i love and desperately regret) had his “decline and fall” in the same years.
    Coincidence?

  7. @carmelo-I think allot of images from this time are stock provided by brands they carried.

  8. Señor Yuca | May 3, 2016 at 5:16 pm |

    Thanks for the info Mr Sharp! The reference to ‘the new three inch width’ had me intrigued.

    Good article.

  9. Carmello writes: “I have the deep belief that also the better part of America (the United States that i love and desperately regret) had his “decline and fall” in the same years.”

    Carmello, I waited to see if anyone would address your remark and since they haven’t I will, at risk of being deemed a living-in-the-past old fogey (*) sadly agree with your perception of a post-1969ish “decline and fall” of many IMO largely positive, often uniquely American practices, beliefs and customs. We could speculate on the reasons and pros and cons of this development but this is not the forum for that.

    Specific to the decline of “Trad shops (shoppes?)” is not just the decline – not, to date, the demise – of Trad/Ivy/collegiate clothing styles. There is also the rise of corporatization of virtually everything from retailing to “education” which lead to a decline of the economic viability of shops such as John Lewton, This in turn as lead more recently to a vast – generally unremarked – decline in small scale American entrepreneurship; far fewer small corporations are forming today than during the 1980s-90s.

    The last non-Ivy, locally owned “Trad shop”, name, I’m ashamed to say, forgotten, I serendipitously encountered was in the mid-1990s across from the campus bookstore at Ball State University, Muncie, IN. As I recall its pseudo-English style facade caught my eye and inside the dimly lit interior things were time-warpishly arranged just as in ubiquitous Trad shops of the 1960s. I was so charmed I bought a sweater and some socks I didn’t need just to show support for the proprietor who was fighting a doomed fight to defend the faith in that blue collar, rust belt small city. I imagine that shop is long gone,

    * “a person, typically an old one, who is considered to be old-fashioned or conservative in attitude or tastes.”

  10. Sam Bonanni | June 23, 2016 at 6:11 pm |

    Great story…Bring backs lots of memories.. John also showed a lot of ascots to the Cornell students and professor. I worked for John for approximately 10 years and when he went to Florida I ran the store for him. I learned his style of trimming the windows at the store..Sam Bonanni

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