THE EMPORIUM – SAN FRANCISCO – CALIFORNIA’S LARGEST AND AMERICA’S GRANDEST DEPARTMENT STORE…..
The Emporium in San Francisco was the first and later became the largest and for many years the most important department store in San Francisco. The store, because of its size and convenience to transportation, helped turn Market Street into a shopping Mecca. The store offered popular or value priced merchandise. It also had special events to draw customers such as band concerts every Saturday night under the glass dome.
The original store was started in 1872 as the Golden Rule Bazaar. At the time, it was the only large store on the West Coast and was designed to serve those following the gold rush. It grew to operate out of three different buildings. During those years the store was operated by the Davis brothers.
In 1893Adolph Feist leased a building on Market Street with plans to open a major department store through a partnership with one of the major retailers in the East. When the partnership strategy failed he rented out space in the building to various small entrepreneurs. In 1896, the doors opened under the name The Emporium. Soon after, Mr. Frederick W. Dohrmann became involved. He was a German immigrant who had come to the S.F. Bay Area in 1860 and had proven himself successful in flour milling and pottery merchandising. He understood the possibilities of the original department store plan and ended up leading the 1897 merger of the Golden Rule Bazaar and the Emporium into one entity in the space that Adolph Feist had leased. He then brought his son, A.B.C. Dohrmann, in as the president. The younger Dohrmann built the systems and procedures to allow the different departments to work together. The store quickly became successful under his leadership. He remained President until his death in 1914.
The Emporium suffered major damage in the 1906 earthquake and fire. While the store was being rebuilt, a temporary store was opened on Van Ness Avenue. A new building was built on Market Street. The new building had 775,000 square feet of floor space. It had a glass arcade, a glass dome, solid mahogany fixtures, and a new grocery department. The design was intended to make this store as glamorous as anything found in the East.
In 1927, the Emporium merged with H. C. Capwell & Co. based in Oakland. The new holding company was named Emporium-Capwell. The two different divisions operated independently for years only merging their New York and overseas buying offices. The Emporium started to grow with stores on the San Francisco Peninsula, Santa Clara County, Marin County, and Sonoma County. Capwell’s, on the other hand, opened stores in Alameda County and Contra Costa County.
The Emporium-Capwell company was acquired by Broadway Hale Stores in 1969. This put together Broadway (Southern California), Weinstock’s (Sacramento), Emporium (San Francisco) and Capwell’s (Oakland) into one holding company under the name Carter Hawley Hale Stores (CHH). CHH then went on a major acquisition binge which resulted in significant debt. The company filed for bankruptcy protection in 1991. In 1992, the Zell/Chilmark fund bought CHH and renamed it Broadway Stores as the company emerged from bankruptcy protection. In 1996, Broadway Stores was sold to Federated Department Stores and they closed all the various divisions and either converted the stores to Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, or sold the facilities.
The downtown San Francisco store has mostly been converted into a Nordstrom’s anchoring the San Francisco Center mall.
What happened???? The Emporium remained a dominant department store chain in the San Francisco Bay Area until the 1970’s. Then Ed Finkelstein and Phil Schlein led a rejuvenated Macy’s organization which took the market by surprise. The new Cellar department and the fashion forward Juniors and Young Mens departments captured the youth and early adult markets. Macy’s also put money into the look of their stores setting them apart from the Emporium which did not have capital available for the stores as the parent company had to service its debt. By the mid-80’s, Macy’s was clearly the dominant player. Because Emporium was a value priced department store chain, they also faced pressure from Mervyn’s which offered better values and more convenience. The explosion of good specialty retailers also took market share. During the construction of BART, the downtown San Francisco store suffered as Market Street was a mess and this drove shoppers to the Union Square area. In the end, it was the recklessness of the parent company that destroyed the Emporium and all the other divisions of CHH.
I knew the Emporium well both as a young customer and later as a competitor. When I was a young child, I came with my parents to shop in San Francisco. Modesto was just 80 miles away, but in those days it was a major trip. We had our car serviced before we made the drive and we stayed in a hotel for three days while we shopped for back to school, Christmas, and for Spring/Summer. Although we shopped in many stores (White House, City of Paris, Macy’s, and Hale’s), the Emporium was the targeted store. Not only did it have the merchandise we could afford, but it was also a grand place to take children. During the holidays the roof had a children’s playground/amusement park. There was a Ferris wheel ride that hung out over the front of the store looking straight down at Market Street. There was also a small Southern Pacific passenger train that kids could ride. (The last time I saw the train it was at model train store in the Sunset District.) In those days, the store had a pet department with live animals which was also a playground for the kids. We usually ate in the mezzanine cafeteria. In the mid-70’s I shopped the Emporium when I worked at Bullock’s in Los Angeles and later when I was at Mervyn’s. In those days you could see a lack of excitement in fashion apparel, a decline in customer service, and, most importantly, a decline in the maintenance of the facilities.
NOTE: I treasure my memories of this Grand Dame of Retail and hope you will too. Please feel free to leave your memories in the comments section below.
These postcards are from the Plummer & Associates Collection. Please do not copy or reproduce without written permission from John Plummer.