With all the office and residential new construction that has taken and is taking place in downtown Brooklyn in the past two decades, we’re wondering if it’s time to restore Fulton Mall to its past glory as Brooklyn’s equivalent to Manhattan’s Ladies Mile. Dozens of residential buildings have risen above the mall, on Willoughby and Livingston Streets, and all along Flatbush Avenue from the Manhattan Bridge to the Barclays Center at Fifth Avenue. Others are on the rise, and more, including two mega risers, are coming at 80 Flatbush Avenue, 138 Willoughby Avenue, and 9 DeKalb Avenue, on Fulton Mall behind and rising way above the famous dome of the Dime Savings Bank building.
With all these residential apartments a stone’s throw from the mall, there has been a big uptick in national chain stores moving onto strip, including the Gap, H&M, Banana Republic, Nordstrom’s, Adidas, and more. We’d like to see more large, upscale department stores to complement the newly renovated Macy’s store there. This might be a pipe dream, but the fact is that, beginning in the 1890s or so and lasting into the 1970s, Fulton Street from City Hall to Flatbush Avenue was full of department stores and large dry goods companies, theatres, and restaurants.
As few Brooklynites need to be told, Macy’s does business out of the former Abraham and Straus department store. A&S evolved from a dry goods store, Wechsler & Abraham, that began in 1865 and operated in the old commercial district in and around Adams, Tillery, and Washington Streets. The company moved to the Fulton Street location when the Brooklyn Bridge opened, and it soon became the largest store in New York State. The Straus name came in 1892, when brothers Isidor and Nathan bought out Wechsler’s interest. A&S remained an anchor of the strip until 1995, when its (and Macy’s) long-time parent Federated Department Stores retired the Abraham & Strauss nameplate and made it a Macy’s. A&S was of a class equal to Macy’s, and outlasted all its competitors on Fulton Street, including Spear’s, Loeser’s, Korvettes, Oppenheim & Collins, Liebmann Brothers, and others.
The lot where Cookies Department Store is today, on Fulton Street between Bond Street and Hanover Place, has a history of large commercial enterprise, beginning in 1895 with the opening of the New Montauk Theater, which presented live shows from Broadway as well as original productions. It was demolished in 1925, and the new three-story building built there became the home of the Spear & Co. furniture store (1928 until the mid-1950s), one of the early innovators of allowing customers to buying furniture “on time.” It then became and remained a May’s department store into the 1980s.
Witness to many of those changes was the Loeser Department Store across Bond Street, which took up the entire block between Bond and Elm Streets and from Fulton to Livingston Streets from the 1890s until 1950. Loeser’s operated several stores, all in Brooklyn, but the Fulton Street location was the flagship. In the late 1930s a concourse was built in the subway station at Hoyt-Schermerhorn station that connected the station and Loeser’s, a block away at Livingston Street. Take a walk eastward along that concourse today and you’ll see large wall tiles with the Loeser logo, a “memorial” of sorts to the department store.
Liebmann Brothers for a short time sat at the corner of Hoyt Street, near A&S. Originally a partner of Loeser when located in the old shopping district near Adams and Tillery Streets, Liebmann’s moved to Fulton Street in 1890. They closed shop before the end of the decade.
One of the most successful stores on the strip was that of A. I. Namm, who had moved from Manhattan to the corner of Fulton and Washington Streets in 1885 and then, after a fire, to 452 Fulton Street. Selling trimmings and embroidery supplies, floor coverings and such, the company grew and grew, eventually taking over virtually the entire block from Elm to Hoyt Streets and Fulton to Livingston Streets. By the 1920s it was one of the largest departments stores in the country. It redesigned its space into one large building in 1924-1925. The new store included an entrance to the subway and was one of the tallest buildings in Brooklyn. Today, it is miniscule compared to the condos towering above it. Namm’s remained successful into the 1950s, eventually buying the Loeser store name. The Fulton Street store closed 1957, but if you look closely, you can still see the name inscribed in ninety years of grime on its façade.
Further down Fulton Street, at Lawrence Street, is another former department store building. Now home to the Children’s Place, Dr Jay’s, and Banana Republic, this once housed the Oppenheim Collins department store. Oppenheim and Collins had both been major players at A&S before leaving to start their own ladies clothing business. At its zenith, the company had stores in and around Brooklyn, Manhattan, Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Maryland.
The company was sold to City Stores and was eventually folded into the Franklin Simon brand. City Stores went under in 1979. By that time, the Fulton Mall store had been occupied for years by another retail chain, the discounters E.J. Korvette’s, which went out the same year. Walk pat the building today and you can still see the company’s logo at the top of the rounded corner of the building.
More successful was Martin’s, a specialty shop for women’s clothes and bridal gowns, which moved from the corner of Bridge Street into the Offerman Building across Fulton Street from A&S in 1924 and stayed until 1979, a key year, it seems, in the history of Fulton Street’s department store history. The company at its peak had six stores in the New York area.
Forty years later, Brooklyn’s renaissance has brought thousands of new residential units to downtown Brooklyn, and a flock of retail chains are following. We shop online now, and so the age of the giant department store will probably never return, but it’s great to see Fulton Street thriving as it always seems to, but with a bit more pizzazz today than during those intervening years.