The Age of the Downtown Department Store

July 24, 2012 46 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Before shopping malls took over the Jacksonville region, downtown's streets were once lined with grand department stores. In honor of the upcoming 100 year anniversary of the Cohen Brother's St. James Building (now city hall), and with our second book currently in production, Metro Jacksonville takes a look at a few retailing landmarks from yesteryear and encourages our readers to share their memories of a retail era gone bye.

It could be argued that despite the opening of the Jacksonville Landing and construction of some of our tallest skyscrapers, the 1980s were downtown's darkest period in our decades long fight to create a vibrant urban core.  Before then, Hogan Street between Hemming Plaza and Bay Street was the home to a May-Cohens (most May stores eventually became Macy's), JCPenney, Levy/Wolf, Furchgott's, Rosenblum's, and Sears.  Here is a brief summary of the rise and fall of downtown Jacksonville's largest department stores.

Cohen Brothers "The Big Store"

Cohen Brother's "Big Store" in 1939. Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

Known as the "Big Store", the Cohen Brother's massive department store was the 9th largest in the country when it opened its doors on October 21, 1912.  Founded by brothers Samuel and Morris Cohen in 1867, the store was originally housed in a small log cabin on Bay Street.  Under the direction of younger brother Jacob Cohen, the business grew to become the anchor pulling the retail core of downtown from Bay Street to Hemming Park.  The younger Cohen himself, would end up being known as the "Wanamaker of the South."  With nearly 330,000 square feet of space during its heyday, the store dwarfed the average 186,000 square foot Walmart Supercenter.  Cohens would be acquired by May Department Stores in 1959 and renamed May-Cohens.  During the depressing 1980s, the "Big Store" fought a valiant fight for its survival, outlasting all of downtown's former grand department stores.  However, with the opening of the Landing, it's doors closed permanently in July 1987.

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