Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Goldmann's Department Store

As was heavily reported a month or two back, Milwaukee classic Goldmann's Department Store will be closing its doors in October, The independent department store has operated since 1896; in recent decades it has lost noticable business to big box stores and department store chains. Its owners, both in their late 70s, have chosen to retire and wish to close the store while it remains a profitable venture.

The store's interior has remained virtually unchanged since the 1950s, and even then it wasn't massively altered. The exterior was given a Modernist facade in the 1950s, including a handsome clock and a fabulous neon sign.

Goldmann's Department Store

I was passing by this weekend, and stopped in for a lengthy look around. Normally department stores are loathe to have people roaming about with cameras -- but I wasn't the only one at Goldmann's. I explored every inch of the place -- basement, first floor, a mezzanine, and second floor -- and found it packed with oddities, relics, and delightfully mismatched odds and ends.

Goldmann's Department Store

Even with the 1950s interior renovations, the place retains much evidence of its Victorian origins. Exposed steel beams, an old staircase and modestly elaborate railing, and a prevalence of wood construction speak of a building much older than its facade.

Low Pipe!

The building's plumbing and HVAC systems are a mishmash of haphazard accumulations, added piecemeal over the decades. Some of the pipes in the mezannine area are actually at forehead height -- a condition that would never pass muster with today's building codes. Cooling is provided by massive free-standing air conditioners the size of refrigerators, dating from the 1960s. Heat comes from radiators scattered randomly about, some right in the middle of the sales floor.

Goldmann's Department Store

It is these systems that more than anything doom the interior space as a whole -- they'll never pass code today. The building will surely be gutted by its new owner for renovations.


That sales floor is home to a vast array of merchandise -- clothing in a huge array of sizes, suits in a rainbow of colors. The men's department is presided over by a tailor in his 70s who has worked in the store for decades and has known it since childhood. Alterations and pressing are done in-house.

Goldmann's Department Store


Cash registers throughout the building are vintage analogue machines, the kind that disappeared several decades ago from most other businesses:

Goldmann's Department Store



Long-dated "modernizing" touches are scattered here and there. They give the strong impression of being installed in the mid-1960s, when the New Formalism movement was at its peak -- particularly these faux concrete thin shell arches, complete with hanging globe lamps:

Goldmann's Department Store

The diamond backgrounds for the Men's Wear sign create a similar effect of intended Modern elegance, though they could also date from the Googie excesses of a decade earlier.

Goldmann's Department Store


At the other end of the first floor, the lunch counter is a slice of 1950s diner streamline, against a backdrop of Victorian decorative touches. Three walk-in counters with curving ends offer seating to diners perched on fixed, round, green-cushioned stools.

Goldmann's Department Store


(Victorian? Yes -- note the floral column capitals:

Goldmann's Department Store


When it comes time for fixtures to be sold off, I'm sure someone will pay a hefty price for the slick daily specials sign and its integrated clock:

Goldmann's Department Store


On the mezzanine level, in addition to a wide selection of lamps and shades, the store contains its own mini-museum of photographs, old newspaper ads, and antiquated calculting equipment:

Goldmann's Department Store


Of particular interest is a photo of the building prior to its modernization:

Goldmann's Department Store

(Personally, I find it more interesting with its current facade!)


The store's Going Out of Business sale has begun. In the basement, a corner has already begun accumulating empty clothing racks, and spaces in the 2nd floor are emptying out as well. The time to go see this amazing retail time capsule is now -- it won't be the same for much longer, and very soon it will be gone forever.

6 comments:

gedward said...

Great photos of the Goldmann's store. Amazing it lasted as long as it did. Indeed, any reuse will certainly lose all the oddities.

Btw, its "modern" facade, which covered up the second story windows, is very similar to a mid-century makeover that was recently removed in downtown Riverside, California. Behind the false-front in Riverside lurked a 1930s art deco facade (which surprisingly is in good shape).

Anonymous said...

I love Goldmann's! Just an excellent old place. The diner serves good cheap lunches. I was down there that same day taking photos of the old place.

Although interesting and filled with character, the store will need to be gutted in order for a new store to come in. Its more of a loss of a cool old thing than an architectual atrocity.

Anonymous said...

Goldmanns should have been saved. Why not sell the business instead of closing it. Who in their right mind would close something that is 111 years old. The goldmanns owners are fools. This is the finest department store in Milwaukee. It blows aways anything you find at the sorry malls we have.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of an old store that stood on (ironically) Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago's Jefferson Park neighborhood, called Anne's Department Store. I was there about a year before it closed, and this store reminds me a lot of it. A classic 1940s-50s neighborhood department store.

I never knew about Goldmann's...wish I'd been there.

Anonymous said...

Talk about slow on the uptake. I just read an old article I'd been saving from the San Francisco Chronicle from July 4, 2004 (lost in a pile of todo's). We travel to Minnesota every summer and upon reading this article, started planning a stop in Milwaukee (have never seen the sights there anyway) to see Goldmann's Department Store. Thanks for the pictures. It's closing is a heartbreak for the people of Milwaukee and for all of us who appreciate life beyond the mall track.

goldenrail said...

I miss Goldmann's. My daddy used to take me there often as a little girl. It was the best place to find old-style undergarments, overalls and fun colored suits. In college, I took many of my friends there for the unique experience, always stopping for a bite at the lunch counter and leaving with some candy raisins and Choward's Violets.

I just happened to be in town during the going out of business sale. I had no idea the store was closing; stumbled upon the fact when taking an out-of-town visitor there as I always liked to do. I felt lucky to have one last chance to romp around the store. It was a great Milwaukee landmark. I especially loved how their were signs in English, Spanish and Polish.