Book Review: Cohen Brothers The Big Store

December 10, 2012 5 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Classifying himself as a silver-hair residing in Atlantic Beach, Michael Hoffmann provides us with a review of Metro Jacksonville's Cohen Brothers The Big Store.

Urban planner Ennis Davis, a founder of the website, has written a highly readable account – accompanied by photographs, maps and illustrations – of Cohen Brothers, the Big Store on Hemming Park that was the center of retail activity in Jacksonville for 75 years. The building it occupied during that time, the St. James Building, was Henry Klutho’s masterpiece that lives on today as Jacksonville’s city hall.
The German-born Jewish Cohen brothers arrived in 1867 to a Jacksonville still prostrate from the ravages of the Civil War, and they set up a dry-goods store in a building constructed of logs on Bay Street, which was then the city’s retail center. The business prospered under the leadership of Jacob Cohen and as the city’s population grew and their sales increased, the business moved to larger sites on Bay St.
The Great Fire of 1901 concluded this epoch of the city’s history on a tragic note. But, as frequently is the case, the catastrophe presented opportunities for visionaries (and immigrants) like Jacob Cohen and Henry Klutho to re-build bigger and better – in the process stamping their names indelibly on the city’s history.
Klutho was a practitioner of the Prairie School of architecture that was founded and nurtured by Frank Lloyd Wright. Klutho, along with many other architects and builders, came  to Jacksonville looking for work after the Great Fire. As a consequence, Jacksonville today has the largest collection of Prairie School buildings and houses anywhere outside the Midwest.
By 1912 Jacob Cohen had acquired the site of the venerable St. James Hotel, which had burnt down in the fire but previously had been one of the poshest spots in the city for late-19th-century snowbirds to roost before Flagler extended his railroad to Miami and the Keys. Klutho convinced Cohen that a 4-story, mixed-use, mixed-tenant building would draw the maximum number of shoppers to his store. The building cost $500,000 to build and drew comparisons to Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia and Macy’s in New York City for what the patron could expect in goods and service.
Subsequent expansions of the St. James building to meet the needs of a growing retail business amidst a growing population led to alterations of Klutho’s original design, including the removal from sight of a magnificent octagonal skylight that, thankfully, was restored after the city purchased the building in 1993. Today’s visitors to city hall can see and appreciate what local patrons of Cohen’s could not for much of the building’s history.
Downtown Jacksonville, after decades as the area’s prime destination for shopping, sports, dining and after-hours activities, not to mention employment, began to diminish in the 1970s as suburbanization, desegregation, the automobile culture, perceptions of downtown traffic and parking, and the rise of suburban shopping malls undercut the central city’s appeal throughout the United States. The heavy hitters in downtown Jacksonville retail – Cohen’s, Penney’s, Sears, Ivey’s and Furchgott’s -- followed the trends and built in suburban malls that sprang up all over Duval County.
Cohen’s went through a series of name changes beginning in 1958 when the Cohen family relinquished control to the May Company and the store became May Cohen’s, then May’s, then after subsequent ownership changes, Maison Blanche, Gayfers, Dillard’s and Belk’s. The two existing suburban Belk’s in Duval County are the surviving lineal descendants of the original Cohen Brothers. The flagship store on Hemming Park (now Plaza) had many good years after 1958, but by the time closed in 1988 downtown was firmly fixed in its diurnal existence.
I recently attended a talk at the BookMark given by the author and his co-author, Sarah Gojekian, and there was a lively give-and-take between the authors and an audience comprised of still-sentient silver-hairs. Everyone had a story or anecdote about Cohen’s or the vibrant street life of Jacksonville in its heyday, and the book itself includes additional reminiscences from those who loved the Christmas windows, or remembered the first escalators in Jacksonville, or still crave Cohen’s signature “Annaclairs” candy. (The recipe is included in the book.)
It’s hard to imagine that any long-term resident of northeast Florida could read this book and not be quickly immersed in their own reverie. They may also reflect upon, as did the audience at the BookMark, the emergence of the St. Johns Town Center as the retail locus of today, a phenomenon Davis identifies as an “edge city.” Davis believes the best hope of reviving the downtown core in Jacksonville is to maintain basic services and to allow time for evolving national trends to take hold here that make a walking city attractive once more.
Ennis Davis also published in 2012 Reclaiming Jacksonville: Stories behind the River City’s Historic Landmarks (The History Press, $24.99), a book of photographs with accompanying essays that examines 14 Jacksonville landmarks, all currently empty and many abandoned and crumbling. There is an extensive bibliography, comprised mostly of articles that appeared in local periodicals, including pieces by Times-Union legends Bill Foley, Jessie-Lynne Kerr, and Cynthia Parks.
Book review by Michael Hoffmann is a silver-hair who lives in Atlantic Beach and has an MA in history from the University of North Florida.

Click here to order your autographed copy of Cohen Brothers

Click here to order your autographed copy of Reclaiming Jacksonville