Yesterday’s Milwaukee

Chapman’s Biggest Department Store

The third Chapman's store was built in 1885 and would remain in business nearly a century.

By - Feb 24th, 2015 02:51 pm
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Chapman’s Department Store, 1880s, stereoview by H.H. Bennett

As our story last week noted, the second T.A. Chapman department store, built in 1873 at the southeast corner of Milwaukee and Wisconsin, was a great success. But in 1884, a fire destroyed his dry goods emporium, and Chapman would quickly rebuild, creating a new store that would open in a quick six months, in 1885.

This store was taller and longer than the second one, which in turn was larger than the first one, which had been located on Water St. next to the Iron Block Building. Although the exterior of the third store would suffer from various remodeling over the years, this is the same Chapman’s that survived until the early 1980s when it was demolished to make way for the 411 Building. Though this third store lacked some of the character of the second one, it was still an impressive structure.

The photographer here is H. H. Bennett and this is one of the very last of his published stereoviews of Milwaukee. He did some 200 stereoviews of 19th century Milwaukee. After this period local stereoviews would become very scarce, first getting supplanted by photogravure souvenir books, while in the late 1890s the picture postcard would make even these obsolete.

Chapman would soon find rivals for his business. Espenhain’s Dry Goods had already opened a department store at 4th and Wisconsin in 1879, which would last until the early 1930s, and in 1887 the first Gimbels store would open just a few blocks to the west of Chapman’s and would last exactly 100 years, until 1987. Its end was preceded by that of Chapman’s, which closed in 1981. The two closings ended a long era in Milwaukee’s retailing history.

The Site Today

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

3 thoughts on “Yesterday’s Milwaukee: Chapman’s Biggest Department Store”

  1. Patty PT says:

    I bought my very first pair of Levi’s at Chapman’s in 1981. That place was awesome!

  2. J. McGee says:

    I remember watching that beautiful building being torn down. It was in the early 80’s. There was nothing wrong with that building that couldn’t be fixed simply. But it was fashionable to tear down old beauties… mostly for parking lots for suburban commuters. Every day on the bus, I’d watch them struggle to knock it down… it was so disturbing. In it’s place they built that hideous cement behemoth.

    And now some talk about tearing down the beautiful, art deco Journal Sentinel Building and Boston Store!! Same mistakes as 35 years ago. Developers have learned nothing!

  3. Bill Kissinger says:

    The store that was torn down in 1982 may have been unlovely to the writer, and it was somewhat marred by bad attempts to modernize, but it was loaded with fabulous terra cotta cartouches, rosettes and scrolls. Even as late as 1982, I was able to enter the demo site afte work had finished for the day and rescue a dozen or so of these beauties.
    It was necessary to bring a mallet and chisels to the debris site in order to remove hundreds of pounds of bricks and mortar that clung to the salvageable pieces before they could be moved and retrieved.
    Within a few years commercial salvagers got wise to the value of preserved terra cottas and demo sites became closed & all the nice stuff carted away for resale.

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