Among what seems like thousands of photos in the archives of the Jacksonville Historical Society are hundreds of the retail mecca, Cohen Brothers department store. When it opened its Hemming Plaza store in 1912, its square footage made it the ninth largest department store in the country. For over 75 years Cohen Brothers was the shining star of downtown Jacksonville’s dynamic retail community.
The Big Store, as Cohen Bros. came to be known, had its beginnings in the years just following the Civil War. The Cohen family emigrated from Germany to New York City to continue a family business in the dry goods industry. Brothers Samuel and Morris visited Jacksonville in 1867 and decided to set up a shop in the struggling yet resilient port city. Because they were established dry goods merchants, their store thrived from opening day.
But it was their brother Jacob (called the John Wanamaker of the South) who had the foresight and marketing savvy to establish Cohen Bros as the anchor of a bustling retail district. Around the store grew varied commercial trades.
Jacob Cohen was 13 years old in 1875 when he arrived in Jacksonville. By the time he was 18, Jacob was running the store. Cohen Brothers, The Popular Dry Goods House moved in 1897 to Florida’s first skyscraper, occupying in retail splendor the first two floors of the six-story Gardner building on Bay Street.
Meanwhile, Jacksonville’s population exploded to make it Florida’s largest city. At the time, Jacksonville was the nation’s most popular winter resort. “The Winter City in the Summer Land,” gained its fame due in no small part to extravagant steamship cruises on the St. Johns River. Several blocks north of Cohen Brother sat the St. James Hotel at Hemming Plaza (known then as St. James Park), one of the most glorious of the grand hotels in the South.
The St. James, as well as the adjacent Windsor Hotel, were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1901. On May 3rd, the fire devastated 146 blocks of downtown Jacksonville and over 2,000 buildings, including Cohen Brothers. The Windsor was the only hotel of 19th-century Jacksonville to be rebuilt.
The St. James property remained empty for years. Municipal development projects for the area were debated until the Windsor Hotel ownership bought the square block lot. The purchase would eliminate the possibility of a rival hotel from being built. Morris and Jacob Cohen acquired the property in 1910. The Big Store would be a complimentary neighbor for the Windsor. The merchants of Bay Street were sceptical of the move.
The Cohens selected architect Henry J. Klutho, a Frank Lloyd Wright protégé, to design their new store. The Cohens wanted a two-story retail store. Klutho suggested a four-story mixed use building with retail space on the first two floors. The ‘Prairie School’ style St. James building gained national attention and acclaims soon after its completion. At the heart of the building was a 75-foot octagonal skylight flooding the interior with natural light.
The St. James building and Cohen’s Big Store opened on Oct. 21, 1912 drawing 28,000 visitors. By the late 1920s Cohen Brothers needed more retail space. Klutho suggested adding a fifth floor to save the skylight, but Jacob Cohen died before the plans were finalized. Cohen’s management commissioned an architectural firm in Nashville, Tenn. to draw up alternative alterations. Klutho was so disgusted with the finished building he moved his office to Springfield.
The Big Store remained a popular Jacksonville destination through the decades. In 1958, Cohen Brothers was acquired by May Company department stores. The store was re-named May-Cohen. The first floor and basement of the St. James building were renovated with an escalator between floors. The basement would become ‘a store within a store’ doubling May-Cohen retail space.
The urban landscape around May-Cohen expanded as well. May Co. entered into a joint venture with S.S. Jacobs & Co. to form Downtown Center on the day Cohen Brothers was acquired. A seven-story parking garage was planned and a $15 million multi-use building. As many as six major retailers would sit within a five-block radius of May-Cohens at Hemming Plaza.
The early 1960s saw demographic shifts to the suburbs and major department stores followed the population to establish branch stores in outlying shopping centers. May-Cohen was a late arrival, in fact was the last major retailer in Jacksonville, to expand outside of downtown in 1965, to Regency Square Mall, one of the nation’s largest enclosed shopping malls.
By the end of the decade, the market share for downtown shopping fell to 25 percent. Jacksonville experienced the same downtown blight that affected most of the country. The 1971 Downtown Master plan was established to save The Big Store and nearby retail establishments. When work finally began in 1978 on a revamped Hemming Plaza, suburban malls were a firmly entrenched societal staple.
The Big Store would be the last major retailer to close its downtown Jacksonville store in 1987.
Thanks to “Cohen Brothers THE BIG STORE” by Ennis Davis and Sarah Gojekian, The History Press, available for sale through the Jacksonville Historical Society bookstore.