Yesterday’s Milwaukee

T. A. Chapman Late 1860s

Long before Gimbel's and Boston Store, T.A. Chapman was the city's department store. This is its first location.

By - Jan 28th, 2015 10:10 am
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T. A. Chapman & Co., Late 1860s. Photo courtesy of Jeff Beutner.

The dark building in the middle is T. A. Chapman & Co., late 1860s. Photo courtesy of Jeff Beutner.

Remember Chapman’s department store? The downtown location was at the southeast corner of Milwaukee St. and Wisconsin Ave. for nearly a century, until the company closed its doors in 1981. Sadly the venerable building would be demolished and replaced by the 411 Building.

This, however, is a photo of Chapman’s first department store building, on Water St., taken in the late 1860s. The building in the foreground should look familiar as it is the Iron Block Building which still stands today. The dark building, just to the right, has a sign announcing T. A. Chapman & Co. To its right is Matson’s jewelry store.

T.A. Chapman was started in 1857, decades before stores like Gimbels and Boston Store would be established. It was founded by Timothy A. Chapman who had moved from Boston to Milwaukee in 1857. He soon joined a partnership which opened the dry goods store of Hassett & Chapman. By 1865 he would be in business for himself, a very opportune time as commerce would boom in Milwaukee after the Civil War.

Indeed, Chapman did so well that in 1872 he would build a new and much larger store at the Milwaukee St. and Wisconsin Ave. location. After a fire destroyed that building in October, 1884, Chapman rebuilt within six months at the same location. His third building, constructed in 1885, was the one that was demolished a century later to make way for the 411 Building.

Iron Block Building Today (next door)

Jeff Beutner is a collector of photographs, postcards and stereoviews of old Milwaukee. This column features these images, with historical commentary by Beutner.

7 thoughts on “Yesterday’s Milwaukee: T. A. Chapman Late 1860s”

  1. Kent Mueller says:

    Ah, memories. I worked there in the last years, up to and immediately after it closed. First in the parking garage, then some maintenance work as well, including as part of the shut-down crew after the store closed. It was quite the glimpse of old money Milwaukee for a blue-collar beatnik kid from the south side. I remember Kenneth Schermerhorn, his family among the oldest of NYC money, then MSO Conductor, parking and exiting his car, walking the length of the garage playing “air conductor” with his hands and arms until he saw me watching with a bemused grin. That was the year his image appeared on the White Pages phone book cover and his comment about being “a big fish in a small pond” hit the press. Just one of many memories.
    To this day I have a souvenir in the form of a sign that was posted above what might have been the only copier in the place, set in an alcove off the employee break room on the top floor (which had original murals at either end, sadly lost to the fire). I keep it as a monument to bureaucracy, although the place wasn’t overly bureaucratic. The sign reads “This copy machine is not to be used to copy numbered forms. If you need additional numbered forms, please submit a form 973 to the Forms Committee.” If I recall, the “Forms Committee” met once every five weeks or so. Woe to he or she who ran out of numbered forms!
    It was a magnificent institution. I think they took the opening of Grand Avenue Mall as sign to wind down and go out of business.

  2. mark says:

    Milwaukee Street was an incredibly fashionable shopping district. Chapmans,Lou Fritzel,Harry J.Sinski,Peacock Shoes,Reckemeyer Furs,Robert Hyman,Dryer Meyer, and of course Heineman’s.

  3. Marianne Platz says:

    The first stop made shopping for my wedding dress 1955….the 1st and last stop….definitely the store and the dress! Let’s not forget the fireplace!

  4. Mary McMillan says:

    I left Milwaukee for San Diego in 1980, only to come back and find Chapman’s closed. And don’t forget Smartwear – Emma Lange’s was right next door or down the block … that was the first retail place I worked when I was 16, in 1951.. I was paid 50 cents an hour and can remember getting a raise to 55 cents and I was thrilled!
    Also, I remember the elevator operators and best of all, the creaky floors … it was a beautiful store.

  5. Wendy Comerford says:

    This may sound a little strange but I happened to be in possession of a very intricate seed pearl necklace that was made by the Rowe Brothers, Chicago but was sold to my Great-great Aunt some time between 1833 and 1927 by T.A. Chapman Co. Jewelry Department, Milwaukee, WI. My grand father was Arthur Chapman married to Beatrice Morgan. My grandfather died when I was six and no one ever mentioned he may have had a brother. Is it possible that Tommie Chapman was my Uncle or great uncle? If you have any historical value for the necklace just let me know as I am getting ready to donate it to the J. Earl Morgan Museum in Oshkosh WI.

    Please contact me:

    Wendy Comerford
    321-303-3141
    motorqueen@cfl.rr.com

    Very truly yours,

    Wendy’

  6. Dennis Bohn says:

    The description of the Chapman location is in error. While T.A. Chapman may have been located next to the Iron Block building, the Iron Block is still on E. Water St. & Wisconsin Ave. The northeast of the picture, which I determined from the uphill grade of the road, says that this cannot possibly be the location in the description. The 411 building is indeed on Milwaukee St. and Wisconsin Ave but unless the building slid downhill, the location is errant.

  7. Dave Reid says:

    @Dennis “This, however, is a photo of Chapman’s first department store building, on Water St., taken in the late 1860s.”

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