The Big Store

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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.

In March 1928, Cohen Brothers retained Paramount actress Edna Kirby to “live” in a display window for one full week culminating in her wedding. (photo credit: Jacksonville Historical Society

In March 1928, Cohen Brothers retained Paramount actress Edna Kirby to “live” in a display window for one full week culminating with her wedding on the last night. (photo credit: Jacksonville Historical Society)

Bridal vignette, Cohen's display window (photo credit: Jacksonville Historical Society)

Bridal vignette, Cohen’s display window (photo credit: Jacksonville Historical Society)

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.

St. James Hotel before the Great Fire of 1901 (photo credit: Jacksonville Historical Society)

St. James Hotel before the Great Fire of 1901 (photo credit: Jacksonville Historical Society)

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.

Windsor Hotel (upper left) and The Big Store overlooking Hemming Plaza, circa 1920s (photo credit: Jacksonville Historical Society)

Windsor Hotel (upper left) and The Big Store overlooking Hemming Plaza, circa 1920s (photo credit: Jacksonville Historical Society)

St. James Building, Henry Klutho, architect, circa 1920s (photo credit: Jacksonville Historical Society)

St. James Building, Henry Klutho, architect, circa 1920s (photo credit: Jacksonville Historical Society)

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.

Cohen Bros first floor and mezzanine (photo credit: Jacksonville Historical Society)

Cohen Bros first floor and mezzanine (photo credit: Jacksonville Historical Society)

Cigar and sundry shop, Cohen Bros,1st Floor (photo credit: Jacksonville Historical Society)

Cigar and sundry shop, Cohen Bros,1st Floor (photo credit: Jacksonville Historical Society)

Cohen Bros. Soda Fountain circa 1918 (photo credit: Jacksonville Historical Society)

Cohen Bros. Soda Fountain circa 1918 (photo credit: Jacksonville Historical Society)

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.

Electrical Kitchen cooking show circa early 1940s. (photo credit: Jacksonville Historical Society)

Cooking show at ‘Electrical Kitchen’ circa early 1940s. (photo credit: Jacksonville Historical Society)

The Fashion Salon, Cohen Bros, 2nd Floor circa 1950 (photo credit: Jacksonville Historical Society

‘Fashion Salon’, 2nd Floor circa 1950 (photo credit: Jacksonville Historical Society

Crowds waiting for the new escalators at May-Cohens circa 1960. (photo credit: Jacksonville Historical Society)

Crowds waiting for the new escalators at May-Cohens circa 1960. (photo credit: Jacksonville Historical Society)

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.

W. Adams St., downtown Jacksonville's retail district, circa 1952 (photo credit: Jacksonville Historical Society)

W. Adams St., downtown Jacksonville’s retail district, circa 1952 (photo credit: Jacksonville Historical Society)

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.

 

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Black Wings at the Ritz Museum

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Jacksonville History Show: Adonnica Toler of the Ritz Theater and Museum and veteran Jacksonville broadcaster Harry Reagan discuss the “Black Wings: American Dreams of Flight” with special attention to the exhibition’s relationship to Jacksonville, and iconic Bessie Coleman’s aviation career. Jacksonville civil rights activist Alton Yates’s participation in aviation-testing crucial to the space industry is overviewed, as are year-round exhibits on view at the Ritz Museum.

The traveling Smithsonian National Air and Space exhibition at the Ritz Museum through Jan. 17th is based on the book “Black Wings: Courageous stories of African Americans in Aviation and Space History by Von Hardesty (Harper Collins 2008).

Ritz Museum thru Jan. 17th. Tues 10am - 4pm, Sat 10am - 2pm

Ritz Museum thru Jan. 17th. Tues 10am – 4pm, Sat 10am – 2pm

 

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Co-produced by University of North Florida Dept. of Communication

 

 

 

Downtown revitalization

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THE JACKSONVILLE HISTORY SHOW: For almost 10 years the Jacksonville Historical Society has released its annual Endangered Properties list to encourage restoration and reuse of historic structures and, in recent years, there’s been an emphasis on revitalizing buildings in downtown Jacksonville.

Aviation attorney Ed Booth Jr, Jacksonville Historical Society president, discusses renovation successes, works in progress, and challenges for the future with veteran Jacksonville broadcaster Harry Reagan.

Revitalization success stories

The Florida Theater is, of course, the “poster child” of downtown revitalization. It opened in 1927 and was in danger of demolition in the 1970s. The building was saved, properly restored, and has been in constant use ever since.

Most recently, the Jesse Ball duPont Center opened in June 2015 and is home to 12 of the area’s non-profit organizations. The center occupies the former Haydon Burns library, which replaced the Carnegie library in 1965, and served as Jacksonville’s municipal library until 2005.

Mid-century Modern palm alcove

Mid-century Modern palm alcove

Local architect Taylor Hardwick, a member of the Jacksonville Historical Society for many years, designed the Mid-century Modern architectural style for the Haydon Burns library.

The duPont Center is a “text-book” case of how to restore a building to exactly as it appeared when it first opened.

Restorations in progress

The Elena Flats apartments on East Duval Street is an example of the wooden boarding houses built around 1903, just after the Great Jacksonville Fire. Former councilman Bill Bishop and his wife, both architects, spearheaded the redesign: four luxury apartments are expected to be completed in late 2016.

For more on the Elana Flats renovation see A piece of Downtown Jacksonville history by David Bauerlein for the Florida Times-Union.

Prime location: Corner of Bay and Ocean streets

Artists Jim Draper and Anna Banas created the Jaguar mural for the abandoned Bostwick building in 1995.

Artists Jim Draper and Anna Banas created the Jaguar mural for the abandoned Bostwick building in 1995.

The former Guaranty Trust, or Bostwick building, considered for years a lost cause because of structural problems, is being “lovingly restored” brick by brick over a new framework. The building was bought for $165,000 in July 2015, and is undergoing a restoration project the likes of which Jacksonville has not seen in a long time. The Cowford Chophouse, a steak and seafood restaurant with rooftop bar, will open Summer 2016.

The jaguar murals were moved to the J. Wayne and Delores Barr Weaver Center for Community Outreach, not far from EverBank stadium.

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cowford chophouse

Challenges for the Future

Jacksonville Fire Station No. 5 was built after the Great Fire and was a working fire station for over 100 years. The two-story building sits in the midst of Riverside Avenue high-rise renewal – it most likely will not remain at its current location but can be moved.

On the banks of the St. Johns river near the Mathews Bridge sits the 165,000 square-foot Ford assembly plant. The Jacksonville Historical Society is encouraging the 1925 red brick property to be used for a venue like the Riverside Arts Market.

The Ford assembly plant opened in 1925 to build autos primarily shipped to South America.

The Ford assembly plant was built in 1925 to build autos primarily shipped to South America.

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UNF Dept. of Communication

Video Editor: Karen Gardner

Treasures from the JHS Archives

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Apache mother and children. Castillo San Marcos,St Augustine, Florida circa 1879.

Apache mother and children. Castillo San Marcos, St Augustine, Florida circa 1879.

The Jacksonville History Show: Executive Director Emily Rutherford Lisska and JHS Associate Director /Archivist Taryn Rodriguez-Boette discuss the many “treasures” of the Jacksonville Historical Society.

The society has, since 1929, depended on archival donations from the community to collect the history of Jacksonville. The Edward M. Kellogg album is one such donation. He took original photos of rural downtown Jacksonville to sell later in a curiosity shop he owned on Bay Street.

Mr. Kellogg made a trip down the St. Johns river in the 1870s to Palatka and St. Augustine. The album includes 20 -25 photos of  imprisoned Apaches at the Castillo de San Marcos in 1879.

“There are wonderful photos of that imprisonment which have become very important to the history of the Native Americans and the Trail of Tears,” said Ms. Rodriguez-Boette.

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Also discussed are the Worley Cup trophy, the opening of Atlantic Boulevard in 1910, and the ostrich farms of Talleyrand Avenue! 

 

The Gingerbread House Extravaganza

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The Jacksonville Historical Society is pleased to announce a new Jacksonville History Show! This Show is a collaboration between the JHS and the University of North Florida’s Communications Department. For nearly fifteen years, the Jacksonville History Show premiered on Comcast Cable Channel 99. Hosted by Executive Director Emily Rutherford Lisska and veteran broadcaster Harry Reagan, this fascinating monthly program features in-depth author interviews, “deep dives” on current exhibits and events of historical interest, timely architectural surveys, and news about community tours and events. You can still see the old shows from our previous show on Comcast Cable attached above. 

University of North Florida Dept of Communication

Karen Gardner: Coordinating Producer, Video Editor

The Gingerbread House Extravaganza ~~~ Dec. 2nd thru Dec.23rd

Emily Rutherford Lisska with Harry Reagan

The Gingerbread House Extravaganza is endowed through the Delores Barr Weaver 2015 $10,000 Event Fund Grant. The $4 million fund supports fundraising efforts for 20 local non-profits and is administered through the Community Foundation for Northeast Florida.

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Bridge of Lions

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The Bridge of Lions in St. Augustine carries A1A over the Mantanzas Bay to Anastasia Island and south to Key West, where State Road A1A actually begins. A pair of marble Medici lions adorn the bridge, completed in 1927 by the “Father of the Bridge of Lions,” Henry Rodenbaugh, a vice president and bridge expert for Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway.

Henry Flagler and John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil, but by 1885 Flagler had left the corporation (he still sat on the board of directors) to essentially develop the entire east coast of Florida, he being known as the “Father of Miami and Palm Beach.”

Flagler first moved to Jacksonville at the advice of his wife’s doctor as she was very ill and the warm climate would suit her well. She died two years after their arrival. Flagler married her care-giver in 1881; they honeymooned in St. Augustine which Flagler found to be a charming city but lacking hotels and infrastructure.

“Replicas of the Medici lions at the Bridge of Lions” by Michael Kagdis via Wikimedia Commons

“Replicas of the Medici lions at the Bridge of Lions” by Michael Kagdis via Wikimedia Commons

Flagler decided to develop the city into a winter resort for wealthy northern elites. The 540-room Ponce de Leon Hotel (now Flagler College) opened in 1887 to immediate acclaim. It was wired for electricity by his friend Thomas Edison.

To service his hotels (plus Hotel Alcazar, 1889, now the Lightner Museum) Flagler bought up several short-line railroads which became Florida East Coast Railway, when some 40 years after construction of the Ponce de León Hotel began, an FECR vice-president would organize a bond issue to build “The Most Beautiful Bridge in Dixie.”

Its construction came at the height of the extravagant Florida land boom of the 1920s, and the bridge is one of its greatest landmarks. It was designed not merely to carry cars, but to be a work of art.

“Bridge of Lions” by Mainstreetmark via Wikimedia Commons

“Bridge of Lions” by Mainstreetmark via Wikimedia Commons

The Bridge of Lions is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It gets its name, of course, from the pair of lions replicating those found at Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence, Italy. The statues were a gift from Dr. David Anderson, who sold Henry Flagler land for the Ponce de Leon Hotel.

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NOTE: St. Augustine celebrates its 450-year Commemoration on September 8th. The city is not calling it a Sesquiquadricentennial, though, as Jacksonville had done in 2012 for the anniversary of the 1562 discovery of Ft. Caroline by Jean Ribault.

Cross-posted at Flipped Again.