Goldblatt Bros. & A.M. Rothschild & Co.
Department Store Building
by: chicago designslinger
[DePaul Center - A. M. Rothschild & Co. - Goldblatt Bros. Department Store Building (1912) Holabird & Roche, architects (1993) adaptive reuse and restoration, Daniel P. Coffey & Associates & Antunovich Associates, architects / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
July 28, 1902 started out like any other day for A.M. Rothschild. The recently retired 49-year-old retailer visited the sixth floor office of his namesake department store in downtown Chicago that morning, and after a few hours left for home accompanied by his son 16-year-old son Melville. Rothschild's wife Gusta greeted both of them in the front hall of the family's large house on Michigan Avenue at 37th Street, and Abram Rothschild headed upstairs to freshen up. He went into his bedroom, retrieved his revolver, went into the bathroom, and shot himself in the head. By the time Gusta, Melville and a servant made it to the second floor, he was dead.
[DePaul Center - A. M. Rothschild & Co. - Goldblatt Bros. Department Store Building, 1 E. Jackson Boulevard/333 S. State Street, Chicago / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Born in Germany in 1853, Rothschild was only 3-years-old when his family came to America, and as a teenager he joined his brother Max in working in their older sibling Emanuel's small dry goods store in Davenport, Iowa. The entrepreneurial Emanuel saw opportunity in the post-fire building boom underway in Chicago in 1871, so he and his brothers packed-up, moved, and found a location in the "rising-from-the-ashes" downtown business district and opened their Chicago-based retail enterprise. In 1875 the Rothschilds got out of the retailing end of things, and while E. Rothschild & Brothers prospered as a wholesale clothier, Abram's marriage to Augusta Morris in 1882 gave Rothschild entry into one of the city's wealthiest families. Gusta was the daughter of Nelson Morris one of the city's legendary - and very rich - meat packers, and when Abram decided to re-enter the retail dry goods business in 1890s, he did so with the financial support of his father-in-law and Gusta's two brothers. A.M. Rothschild & Co. hit the ground running, and was one of the largest department store concerns along Chicago's retail mecca, State Street.
[DePaul Center - A. M. Rothschild & Co. - Goldblatt Bros. Department Store Building, Loop Retail National Historic District, Chicago / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
By all outward appearances the block long building that ran from Jackson south to Van Buren Street looked to be a major success. But running the giant emporium - and a fire at the store that insurance underwriters said was caused by negligence on the part of its owner - did Rothschild in. Although his name was over the door, Gusta's father and her two brothers Edward and Ira owned most of the company's shares. When in-laws found out that they were going to have to find the funds to cover the fire losses, they decided that the time had come for Abram to retire. The three men purchased Abram's remaining shares in the company, and told him that he'd always have his office in the store and was welcome to come and visit anytime. Then after the suicide, the family made the decision to not only keep the business going, but to build an entirely new store building from the ground up. Before that could happen however they would have to cobble together a series of 99-year ground leases from over 30 separate owners. It took nearly another decade to put the deal together before construction could begin. Gusta meanwhile had found a new mate. She married another Chicago retailer who it just so happened owned a large retail clothing operation directly across the street from her family's store, and whose last name just so happened to be Rothschild. Only this time instead of carrying the name Mrs. Abram M. Rothschild, she'd be Mrs. Maurice L. Rothschild.
[DePaul Center - A. M. Rothschild & Co. - Goldblatt Bros. Department Store Building, National Register of Historic Places, Chicago / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
The Morris family hired one of Chicago's busiest architectural firms, Holabird & Roche to design their new, 11-story retail behemoth. The architectural firm had a number of projects along the State Street corridor, but A.M. Rothschild & Co. would be their largest. And although the family had a troubled history with the founder, they paid lasting tribute to him by having the architects incorporate the letter "R" into the massive cream-colored, terra cotta facade which was repeated down the entire length of the building. When the 520,000-square-foot store opened in 1912 Rothschild's drew in the crowds, increasing the value of the family's shares. In 1923, Nelson Morris' heirs decided to sell their father's packing business to Armour & Co. and to get out of the retail business. Marshall Field & Co. purchased the entire enterprise, lock stock and barrel, for $9 million. Rothschild's became the home of Field's subsidiary David Dry Goods Company until 1937 when Field's decided to get out of the wholesale business and sold the store and its contents to the Goldblatt Bros.
[DePaul Center - A. M. Rothschild & Co. - Goldblatt Bros. Department Store Building, Chicago Loop / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
The Goldblatt brothers had been operating a chain of stores in working class city neighborhoods when they made the move downtown. Shoppers had flocked to the lower priced retail outlet during the Great Depression and continued to do so after as Goldblatts followed Sears Roebuck and joined the ranks of State Street's established retail emporiums. Changing tastes combined with consumer's ever-evolving buying habits, saw a dramatic shift in the predominant pre-eminence of State Street as the region's retail hub. The mid-1970s saw the introduction of the State Street Mall as an attempt at trying keep keep and lure shoppers to that "Great Street," yet still, by the close of the decade many of the grand old department stores were out-of-business, had left their buildings behind, or were barely hanging on. Goldbaltts was one of them. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1981, and on closing day, December 31st, the State Street store's aisles were packed with shoppers, but it was too little too late. In January Mayor Jane M. Byrne announced that the city would purchase the 69-year-old structure for $10 million and convert it into the new home of the main branch of the Chicago Public Library. The plan never went anywhere, and the building sat empty until 1991 when Mayor Richard M. Daley worked out a deal with DePaul University to buy the building from the city for $1 million. The school would spend upwards of $70 million to adapt the structure for classroom, office and library use, while floors 2 through 5 would be rented to the City of Chicago for departmental offices. And the restored Northwestern Terra Cotta Company facade still bears the Rothschild "R."