Transformation of a St. Louis dry goods store

Henry Fischer (1948)

 

How Henry Fischer, responding to increasing competition from early chain stores in 1930, converted his family's stodgy 19th Century Victorian Main Street-style building at 7209 S. Broadway in the Carondelet neighborhood of South St. Louis into a modern 20th Century Art Deco structure.

 

By Martin E. Fischer

After emigrating from Germany at the conclusion of the American Civil War, my great-grandfather, Morris L. Fischer, a peddler, arrived in St. Louis. The first official notice of his presence in the Mound City was the certification with the Recorder of Deeds office of his marriage to Ernestine Kober on Oct. 14, 1866, by Henry Vidaver, "grand rabbi" of the United Hebrew Congregation.


In the early years of their marriage, the Fischers stayed for no more than one or two years at any one address, the listings in Gould's St. Louis City Directories showed. They first resided together near downtown St. Louis at 1116 N. 8th St., which the newlyweds shared with the bride's younger brother, Leopold Kober. A year later, the 1868 City Directory listed Morris Fischer as a peddler residing in the alley in the block bounded by 6th, 7th, Washington and Franklin. (Meanwhile, Leopold Kober had moved to 1009 Market St., where he lived and worked as a cigar maker.)
 

By 1870, the Fischer couple had relocated from near the heart of the city to Carondelet's Main Street (now Broadway). During the 1870s, Morris Fischer established himself as a clothing merchant, relocating several times, but always on the west side of Main Street in a four-block stretch that extended between Pine Street (now Loughborough Avenue) on the north and Taylor Street (now Robert Avenue) on the south.
 

Why did Morris and Ernestine decide to set up shop in Carondelet? The village south of St. Louis had a thriving business district that offered prosperity for a hardworking merchant. Many of the residents, like the Fischers, were German immigrants, so they could speak the language. Also, some were Jewish like the Fischers. A healthier environment than in the bustling central city may also have been a factor. St. Louis had suffered a devastating cholera epidemic in 1866, the year the Fischers were married. But a map from 1866 in the St. Louis Public Library showing the pattern of cholera deaths reveals that most of the fatalities occurred in St. Louis proper, but that Carondelet and much of south St. Louis had been untouched by fatalities from the disease.
 

The Fischers set down roots in Carondelet that were to last for nearly a century. On Sept. 14, 1881, a deed of purchase for what became Fischer's Dry Goods store at 7209 S. Broadway was filed in the Recorder of Deeds office. Morris Fischer bought the property for $6,000 from August and Caroline Nasse. As part of the transaction, a separate deed was filed under which Fischer executed a promissory note for $3,000 owed to August Nasse for the property and four interest notes each of $90. The lender was identified as William Fink. (Nasse and Fink were partners in a wholesale grocery business at the time, according to Gould's St. Louis City Directory.) The interest rate for the loan was 6 percent per annum. The latter deed was canceled Dec. 20, 1885, when all the notes had been paid.
 

While living at 7209 S. Broadway, Morris and Ernestine Fischer had three children. They were: Johanna Fischer (1870-1874), Caroline Fischer Slupsky (1875-1938) and Henry Fischer (1876-1956).
 

Unfortunately, their father died when the two surviving children were still teenagers. Morris died Feb. 3, 1891, of "paralysis of the heart" (heart attack) at the age of 51, according to the St. Louis Bureau of Vital Statistics certified copy of death. Morris had lived only five more years after paying off his loan to purchase the store.

Into the 20th Century
 

After Morris's death, his widow, Ernestine, with the help of her son, Henry, managed the Fischer store. (Her daughter, Caroline was apparently less involved with the store and moved out when she married Col. Abe Slupsky in 1896.)
 

Before Morris died, the 1880 U.S. census had characterized Ernestine as keeping house, but the 1900 census identified her as a merchant, and her son, in his early 20s, as a clerk. As Ernestine aged, Henry took on increasing responsibility in running the store. Starting with the 1893 Gould's, Henry was listed as a clerk, but starting in 1909, he was listed as manager of the store. Even before his mother's death in 1924, Henry was identified as the owner of the store in November 1921 in the St. Louis Recorder of Deeds office.
 

In Ernestine's will, prepared in 1912, she bequeathed the store and its contents to Henry and residential property at 7228 Pennsylvania and 117 Roberts to her daughter, Caroline Slupsky.


At the time of Ernestine's death in 1924, Carondelet's Broadway shopping district seemed to be thriving. The national economy was growing, suburban shopping malls had not been invented, and neighborhood residents still preferred to shop close by.


The 7200 block of South Broadway was typical of the variety of small merchants serving the neighborhood. The 1924 Gould's St. Louis Red-Blue Book listed: Southern Commercial and Savings Bank at 7201, Herz Hat Shop at 7205, Fischer's Dry Goods at 7209, Weisman Dry Goods at 7211, Olson Hat Shop at 7213, Wasserman's Shoe Store at 7221, and C.W. Mueller Grocery at 7229. On the east side of Broadway were located: Kroger Grocery & Baking Co. at 7200, Lampke Confectionery at 7202, Chott Varieties at 7204, Southern Floral Co. at 7206, Robert M. Taylor, chiropractor, at 7208, C.R. Watkins Furniture & Fuel Co. at 7208-24, Albert Fischer, barber, at 7226, and BM Tire & Vulcanizing Co. at 7230.

Circa 1930 photos


We don't really know exactly when these "before" and "after" photographs of the Fischer dry goods store were taken, but several facts point to 1930. Henry Fischer obtained a building permit to conduct a $950 alteration of the brick store at 7209 S. Broadway in 1921, according to Sandy Bender, archivist with the Recorder of Deeds. But, for reasons to be explained below, this permit most likely preceded by a decade the major facade transformation shown in these two pictures.

 

The Victorian look: Fischer's Dry Goods store before the remodeling. The Art Deco look: Fischer's Dry Goods store after the remodeling.


One important clue to the timing of the photos is found in the lower right corner of the older photo: The front end of an old car parked there barely shows the radiator shell, hood, bumper, fenders, headlamps and tires. The research staff of the Automotive Research Library of the Horseless Carriage Foundation Inc. in La Mesa, Calif., identified the car as a 1929 or 1930 Model A Ford. And a staff researcher for the Henry Ford Museum Research Center in Dearborn, Mich., said it appears to be a 1930 or 1931 Model A Ford.

 

Other clues are found in design elements of the renovated store shown in the later photo. The new facade is clearly an Art Deco architectural design, a style which was prominent from 1925 to 1940, according to "Identifying Architecture: A Pictorial Guide to Styles and Terms, 1600-1945" by John J.-G. Blumenson. The opaque, pigmented glass called Vitrolite installed around the display windows of the renovated store was used extensively in the 1930s and 1940s to cover walls, according to "The Buildings of Main Street: A Guide to Commercial Architecture" by Richard Longstreth.


The large "Fischer's" sign painted onto the Vitrolite above the display windows is rendered in a typeface of the Art Deco period called Broadway. (It is ironic that Broadway is also the name of the street where the store was located.) The type font was identified for me by Otmar Hoefer, director of font marketing for Linotype Library GmbH in Hamburg, Germany. The Broadway typeface was created in 1928 by Morris Fuller Benton, who was chief typography designer for American Type Founders of Elizabeth, N.J.
 

Unfortunately, when questioned about whether the Recorder of Deeds office had any construction permits for the Fischer store from around 1930, archivist Bender said that the records from that period were not on microfilm and the building permits from then were missing.


The 1921 building permit was listed in the Carondelet News, but the newspaper failed to follow it up during the following year with further details of what the project entailed. And an exhaustive search through the Carondelet News editions of 1928 through 1935 for other building permits or articles referring to Henry Fischer or the 7209 Broadway address failed to turn up any reference to the renovation.
 

But from the clues described here, it seems certain that the building's transformation occurred around 1930.

From Victorian to Art Deco
 

The earlier photo shows a typical 19th Century Victorian storefront marked by features characteristic of that architectural style: a mansard roof topped by a crown molding with hexagonal slate tiles; two projecting dormer windows topped by curved head moldings on the third floor; and a pronounced cornice with a soffit decorated with modillion blocks forming the boundary between the second and third floors. The windows on the second and third floors are wooden double-hung sash types with plain sills. The second floor facade is entirely comprised of a simple brick wall punctuated by the three windows. The first floor facade is mostly comprised of two large rectangular display windows framed with wood and brick.


Features that were probably early 20th Century additions are the unattractive electrical wiring connected through the second story brick wall and the awning, which separates the first and second floors. Perhaps the 1921 building permit may have been related to these items.
 

Renovation of the store provided opportunities for the Fischers to promote their business. The windows in the "before" photo contain a variety of items for sale in the store and bear "Remodeling Sale" signs. Similarly, the "after" photo shows the windows displaying merchandise and sporting "Grand Opening Sale" signs.


The later photo shows a major transformation: The roofline has been lowered to match the height of the neighboring limestone building to the north, and the electrical connections that marred the front of the building have been removed.


To Carondelet neighborhood residents of the time, the restyled facade must have appeared very modernistic. The bold use of the 1928 Broadway type font on the sign, in particular, emphasized novelty in the renovation. Art Deco typefaces "were not merely neutral marks communicating ideas or information; they were symbols of the new and improved," according to "Deco Type: Stylish Alphabets of the '20s and '30s" by Steven Heller and Louise Fili. In addition to the Vitrolite surface treatment and the typography of the Fischer store's dominant sign, other typical Art Deco features included: the flat roof topped by simple crown molding; three rosette floral decorations; a decorated chevron masonry panel; metal casement-style windows framed by double columns of glass blocks; and the large display windows with panes angled toward the main entrance.


The lower half of the facade is dominated by the shiny, smooth-surfaced Vitrolite, which provides a visual contrast to the brick surface of the upper part of the building. The parallel roof molding, horizontal distribution of rosettes, decorative panel and top and bottom edges of the Fischer's sign created a very horizontal look for the vertical building. This horizontality, as well as the decorative banding, smooth wall surfaces and the rounding effect of the display window panes, are characteristic of the later, streamlined period of Art Deco design of the 1930s and 1940s, according to "The Buildings of Main Street: A Guide to American Commercial Architecture."

The next generation

Portrait photo, circa 1921, of the Fischer children, clockwise from upper left: Morris, Rosalinde, Salwin and Lucille.


Henry Fischer and his wife, Martha (nee Daust; 1875-1954), had four children. They were: Rosalinde (1909-22), Morris (1912-61), Salwin (1915-21), and Lucille (1917-).
 

In the following interview, conducted on May 19, 2001, Lucille Alexander (nee Fischer), who was around 13 years old at the time of the store renovation, recalls memories of her childhood in the family dry goods business:

Q. Do you remember when your family moved into the back of the store?

A. We used to live at 7515 Pennsylvania Ave. After my brother and sister passed away six months apart, my mother said she couldn't live there any more. She kept seeing their playmates, the neighbor's children. So then we moved to the store. There were tenants in the front and in the back on the second floor, so my father had the folks move out from the back and we moved into the back. I guess we moved when I was about 5, because I went to school when we lived in the store.


There was an old fashioned bath, maybe of wood, for the people in the front. We didn't have a bath inside, so we had an outhouse in the backyard. We had to go out the back way. We didn't have a front entrance [to the living area]. We had a back entrance and a big porch across the back. Eventually my father said we can't keep living like this.


I was born in 1917, so it was about 1922 or 1923 when we moved into the back of the second floor of the store.

Q. Do you remember the renovation of the store that occurred after you moved in?


A. We had to move out of the [store] building because it was practically demolished. We moved across the alley. Right in back of us at 7210 Pennsylvania Ave. there was a two-story house where we moved into the second floor. It [the renovation] took I don't know how many months. They took this off and they took that off. Instead of having a front and back quarters, it [the second floor of the store] was made into a single residence. It was real nice. It was a six-room apartment.

Q. What was on the third floor before the renovation?

A. Renters. I don't think it was as big as the second floor. I didn't go up there.

Q. What was the second floor like before the renovation?

A. There were three rooms in the front. There was stairs going up to the third floor and a gangway. I guess there was a kitchen, but I don't really remember it because we didn't live there in the front. We lived in the back. In back was a room we called the dark room because it didn't have any windows. It was a very small room where we kept an upright piano against the wall. My parents had a bedroom in one of the other rooms. The way the land was laid out we had three steps going down [from one room to another].


There was a kitchen and another bedroom. My brother, Morris, and I slept in the same bedroom. As I got bigger and he got bigger, Morris moved into the kitchen, which was turned into a bedroom. We didn't need it as a kitchen because there was a kitchen downstairs [on the first floor behind the store].

Q. How was the renovation financed?

A. My father took out a mortgage to do all this remodeling. Before he did this, in order to get a little extra money, he bought a four-family flat on McRee near Shaw's Garden. It was right before the Depression. At that time $50 rent was considered pretty good. During the Depression people were out of work and they couldn't pay the rent. They moved out. So my father lowered the rent--cut it in half to $25 a month.

Q. How was the store on the first floor remodeled?

A. The entrance of the store was remodeled to be a little different. My mother had a nice big kitchen in the back of the store. Next to the kitchen, we had the "cement" room. We called it that because it had a cement floor. It was a bathroom and a storeroom combined. There was a toilet and a bathtub, and we had stock in there. That was there before the house was remodeled. When my grandmother, my father's mother [Ernestine], was still living, she lived on the first floor behind the store.


From the back door, we had to go four steps up from the kitchen into the backyard. I guess that was because of the way the land was laid out. This was close to the [Mississippi] river, so the ground was slanting down toward the east.


Before the house was remodeled the outhouse was in the backyard. But after it was remodeled, we had a bathroom added. My grandmother had the toilet on the first floor, and there was an old fashioned toilet on the second floor, but before the renovation we couldn't use that because it was for the tenants in the front. That's why we had to use the outhouse.

Q. Did your grandmother live on the first floor because she had trouble walking the stairs?

A. No. That was because the second and third floors were rented to tenants. They were all Spanish people. Carondelet was a large Spanish settlement, direct from Spain, not from Mexico; Spain.
 

That's how my father learned Spanish. They would come into the store and they couldn't speak English. My father couldn't speak Spanish, but they would point. [In the store] they didn't have stuff on the tables like they do now and you help yourself. Everything was on shelves along the walls, and there were counters. The Spanish [customers] would point to what they wanted and would say the Spanish word. My father picked up the nouns. He couldn't have a conversation. And that's how I learned some Spanish too.

Q. Was the cement room with the bathroom used for storage before the renovation?

A. That must have been my grandmother's bedroom. She must have lived there behind the store. She died [in 1924] after my sister and brother, but before the renovation.


My brother Salwin died first [in November 1921]. Six months after that, my sister died [in May 1922]. At that time they didn't give preventive shots like they do now. My brother died of diphtheria. Six months after that, my sister had an abscess in her middle ear. Nowadays they give penicillin for that.


I admired my mother [Martha Daust Fischer]. She worked in the store. We used to have our big meal in the daytime and we came home for lunch. I walked seven blocks [from school]. After my grandmother died, we ate in the kitchen in the store in the back.
My mother didn't work in the store until after we moved there. Before that, it was my father and grandmother who ran the store.

Q. Did you and your brother, Morris, ever work in the store when you were young?

A. I started when I was seven years old. They had registers in those days. My father got me a box, and I stood on the box. This wasn't all the time, but when I wanted to, I was the cashier starting when I was seven years old. I don't think my brother was interested when he was young. Later on he worked in the store, but I don't think he really liked to.

Q. Did your mother and father divide up the work in the store?

A. They were both working in the store waiting on customers. The wholesale houses were on Washington Avenue, and my mother would take the streetcar and go downtown to do the buying for the store. Butler Brothers was on 18th. Rice-Stix [Dry Goods Co.] was at 9th and Washington on the south side of the street. Ely Walker was about 16th on Washington. Washington was full of small wholesale places. They [the wholesale companies] also had salesmen who would come around to the store, and both of my parents would do the buying. But sometimes my mother went to the wholesale stores.

Q. What items did you sell in the store.

A. They called it a dry goods store. Young people don't know what that is. It was clothing--men's clothing, women's clothing, underwear, stockings. No shoes, except soft bedroom slippers. Not any dress clothing like fancy dresses or men's suits. We had gloves, stockings, knitted caps. No dress caps.


In those days, there were separate stores. There were millinery stores that sold ladies hats. There was a millinery store next to us. And there were shoe stores. Hardware stores were separate. Every store was separate. Nowadays Famous & Barr, Venture and Target sell everything.

Q. What were some of the other stores on the 7200 block of South Broadway?

A. Oh, there was a big furniture store, Watkins furniture store. He was the wealthy man in the neighborhood. He had the whole block on the other side of the street, the east side, and he owned about half a block on our side. Next to us was a millinery store. The bank, Southern Commercial and Savings Bank, was on the corner. That was their first office. There was a shoe store in the middle of the block, a grocery store down at the south end, a jewelry repair shop and a beauty shop. That was all on our side. Watkins had storage and furniture sales on our side.


After we remodeled, the bank remodeled. There used to be a store between our store and the bank, but they took it over. Afterwards, the bank was right next to us.

Q. What was in the basement of your family's store?

 

A. When we first moved there, it was just a half of a basement with a dirt floor. There was nothing down there. I guess they had a coal furnace, but that was after they had a coal stove. When we lived there it had hot water radiators. In the sidewalk in front there were big metal doors that would open up for the coal delivery trucks.

Q. At the front of the store, besides the main store entrance, the photos show there was a second door on the left side. Where did that lead to?

A. Inside was a stairs going up and a walkway, a hallway, going to the backyard. That was before the remodeling. The store was made a little larger, I guess, with the remodeling, because afterward there was no walkway.

Q. Did you tell me that the Fischer store building was once a bank?

A. It was a bank at one time. In the basement there was a stone extension that might have been their vault at one time. It was solid. We talked about tearing it down, but we never did. We thought it might have been a vault, but there was no entrance. It was all stoned up. They didn't use bricks in those days. It was stone.

Q. How did you know it was a bank? Did your parents tell you?

A. I think so. I don't think it was the same as the Southern Commercial. It was a different bank.

Mrs. Alexander comments further while viewing the older photo:

These were bars on the windows on the second floor so people wouldn't fall out.

Pointing to the second floor window on the left:

This was a separate room that my father had rented out before the renovation. It was occupied by a woman maybe in her 40s or 50s, and she had a young girl staying with her. She was maybe in her teens. It wasn't her child. Her name was Molly, but no relation. People used to question that. Who was that girl after all? But we never knew. We minded our own business.

 

(According to the U.S. Census, the small three-story building at 7209 S. Broadway was housing eight people in 1920--Ernestine Fischer, the owner who occupied the first floor; an unrelated family comprising a 35-year-old man, his 30-year-old wife, and their 13-year-old son, 6-year-old daughter and 1 1/2-year-old son, probably living on the second floor; and a 55-year-old man with an 18-year-old "boarder," probably occupying the smaller third-floor apartment. All seven of the boarders were Spanish, according to the census.)

End of an era
 

After Henry and Martha Fischer retired from the dry goods business in the early 1950s, they rented out the store building to a series of tenants, including the neighboring Southern Commercial Bank. The family sold the property to Southern Commercial Bank on July 11, 1974, according to the Recorder of Deeds office. The bank needed the land to expand its parking lot.


In 1974, Carondelet local historian Ernest E. Winkelmann, whose family owned a pharmacy in the neighborhood, writing in his "Winkology" column in the Carondelet Bugle, lamented the loss of the Fischer building and others to the bank's need for parking.  By 1974, the bank had expanded to take in 7201-03-05-07-09 S. Broadway and was renting the Fischer building (then renumbered 7211) and using it as their loan department. Winkelmann noted the demolition in October 1974 of the C.W. Mueller Grocery at 7229 and the Todt, Weik & Kortanek Tailors at 7227.


"Also marked for demolition," he wrote, "are the buildings which housed the Herz Hat Shop at 7213, where once stood the Menendez Saloon and Boarding House. It was to this location that many of the Carondelet Spanish people migrated and had their first accommodations in America. Also [demolished was] the Southern Commercial Bank's Loan Department, earlier occupied by Fischer's Dry Goods store.


"This block, in the early 1900s, was a true example of American private enterprise," Winkelmann wrote. "Now gone are the buildings that housed other institutions: At 7225-23 stood the shop of H. Erkman-Watchmaker, and his domicile upstairs. At 7221 was the Carondelet office of Laclede Gas Co., which was earlier the store of W.A. Graeper, who specialized in carpets and oilcloth. 7215-17-19 was the Carondelet Hotel.

 

"Part of the present bank building at 7209 was occupied by Mrs. Paul's Millinery Shop, and at 7207 was the Carondelet post office. In those days the bank was 7201-03-05. Earl Hammer [had his 'Walton's Mountain']. We in Carondelet have our South Broadway where we walked and shopped and played and met our friends," Winkelmann wrote.

 

Advertisement from May 12, 1933, Carondelet News. Fischer's Dry Goods store generally did not advertise in newspapers. This is a rare exception that was included on a page with other merchants' Mother's Day ads.

Economic changes

 

The razing of the Fischer store was one small example of the shift in the nation's economy away from "mom-and-pop" neighborhood entrepreneurship toward huge chain businesses that were able to offer wider choices and lower prices.


The circa-1930 building renovation may have been partly an attempt to stave off the beginnings of those inevitable trends. It does not appear to have been prompted by any increase in competition with other nearby "mom-and-pop" dry goods stores. The Gould's directories identify 10 dry goods stores in the immediate neighborhood in 1924, but 9 such stores in 1930. In fact, the Weisman store that had been next door to the Fischer store in 1924 had by 1930 left the Carondelet neighborhood.


But a Sears, Roebuck & Co. store opened in 1928 at Grand Boulevard near Gravois Avenue, about 4 miles from the Fischer's store, and in December 1928 the chain department store ran a full-page advertisement in the Carondelet News that was just the start of years of regular advertising in the local paper. In April 1929, a J.C. Penney Co. outlet opened at Gravois Avenue and Morganford Road, less than 3 miles away from the Fischers. And, in July 1931, a J.J. Newberry 5-10-25-Cent Store opened just blocks away at 7525 S. Broadway, featuring low-priced ready-to-wear and hosiery items.


All three chain stores carried dry goods items and regularly purchased advertising in the Carondelet News, which also covered their special sales events in news articles, often on the front page. The Fischers generally did not advertise in the newspaper. Only one Fischer's ad turned up during our search through back issues of the Carondelet News, a small horizontal rectangle that was part of a Mother's Day page in 1933.
 

Instead of advertising, the Fischer Dry Goods store relied on passersby and word-of-mouth. Their modernizing building renovation undoubtedly gave neighborhood residents something new to look at and something new to talk about.


Notes on Sources

For identification of architectural features, see Blumenson, John J.-G., "Identifying American Architecture: A Pictorial Guide to Styles and Terms, 1600-1945," (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1981).

For an explanation of historical design trends in commercial architecture, see Longstreth, Richard, "The Buildings of Main Street: A Guide to American Commercial Architecture," (Washington, D.C.: The Preservation Press, 1987).

For architectural terminology with illustrations, see Harris, Cyril M., "Dictionary of Architecture & Construction," (New York: McGraw-Hill Inc., 1993); or Harris, Cyril M., "Illustrated Dictionary of Historic Architecture," (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1977).

For photos and illustrations of Victorian architectural features, see Guild, Robin, "The Victorian House Book," (New York: Rizzoli International Publications Inc., 1989).

For examples of Art Deco typefaces, including Broadway and the similar Broadway Engraved font, see Solo, Dan, "Art Deco Display Alphabets: 100 Complete Fonts," (New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1982) and Heller, Steven, and Fili, Louise, "Deco Type: Stylish Alphabets of the '20s and '30s," (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1997). Also, see the Web sites  www.fontexplorer.com  and www.myfonts.com

For information about earlier Jewish merchants in the Carondelet neighborhood, see references to Adolph Abeles, Isidor Bush and Charles Taussig, who had established stores in the neighborhood at least a decade before the Civil War, in Ehrlich, Walter, "Zion in the Valley: The Jewish Community of St. Louis, Volume I, 1807-1907," (Columbia and Paris: University of Missouri Press, 1997)

 

 

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