Yesterday’s Milwaukee

When Boston Store Was Big

It's the end of an era for a downtown department store whose history dates to 1897.

By - Apr 18th, 2018 12:43 pm
Boston Store, Mid-1920s. Image courtesy of Jeff Beutner.

Boston Store, Mid-1920s. Image courtesy of Jeff Beutner.

The demise of the Bon-Ton Stores means the end for Boston Store, the last surviving downtown department store in Milwaukee. The liquidation and going out of business sales for the company’s more than 200 stores, including Boston Store, is expected to take place during the next few months. It’s the end of an era for Milwaukee, where Boston Store always had a big presence, and where Bon-Ton maintained a corporate office in Downtown.

Until the 1980s downtown Milwaukee still had three vintage department stores: T.A. Chapman’s, whose origins began in the 1850s; Gimbels, which opened here in 1887 and grew to become the world’s largest department store chain; and Boston Store. Boston Store is the newcomer of the three with origins beginning in 1897 and first using that name in 1900. It also is the last of the “big three” stores still in operation.

According to the Milwaukee Landmarks Commission, the Boston Store had its origins with dry goods merchant Julius Simon. City directories list his business as “Julius Simon, Dry Goods” until 1900 when its name was changed.  One account says the Boston Store name was chosen because the city of Boston was then considered the center of American fashion and commerce, but a Journal Sentinel story says it was actually named after a particular Boston department store. Back then Milwaukee had a population of 292,000 people, the story noted, and many in town also called Boston Store “The Big Store.”

In 1906, Carl Herzfeld and Nat Stone purchased Simon’s interest in the business. Milwaukee’s Herzfeld Foundation has assets that came from the Herzfeld family’s Boston Store-connected wealth.

Boston Store moved to its current site at 4th St. and Wisconsin Ave., with a five-story building constructed in 1911. Business was so successful that a major addition was added in 1920. Throughout the 1920s and 30s the Boston Store was run by Philip Irving Stone. His nephew, Irving Stone, worked as a manager and in the late 1920s dated Broadway ingenue and later MGM movie star Jeanette MacDonald.

This is a photo from a postcard that was taken in the mid-1920s. Much of the exterior is the same but take note of the two fine ornamental entrance canopies. Also notice the “Boston Store” name emblazoned in electric lights on the building’s corner. At this time Wisconsin Ave., west of the river, was the site of many movie theaters, all of them with abundant exterior lighting.

Boston Store was ideally located for public transportation with streetcar lines on Wisconsin Ave., the Milwaukee Road railroad depot just a block south and the Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Co. electric railway terminal even closer. That building survives as the Public Service Building and the company was a forerunner of Wisconsin Electric.

Local ownership of Boston Store ended in 1948 when it was purchased by Federated Department Stores. Later, complicated ownership changes occurred and Boston Store is today part of the Bon-Ton chain. in 2014 the city approved a subsidy for the Boston Store to assure that it remained in operation in Downtown.

It is sad to see the end of Boston Store. These grand old department stores have character that a suburban shopping mall will never attain.

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: When Boston Store Was Big”

  1. MKE Kid says:

    This is so sad. I so well remember taking the bus Downtown to go to Gimbel’s and Boston Store to look at the fantastic Christmas decorations, as well as those in the windows of The Electric Company. There was a separate “secret shopper” area in either Gimbel’s or Boston Store for kids to do their Christmas shopping for presents for their parents. I still have the bread basket I bought for my mother centuries ago.

  2. Steve says:

    I remember shopping in the Boston Store in the Grand Avenue Mall when it first opened up in 1982 and back then that Mall really rocked.Also in that Mall on the east end was Gimbel’s.Both offered high quality merchandise.Many will blame Boston Store’s demise on Amazon or Walmart and even Kohl’s.Consumers will go where they will save money and Boston Store just did not offer the lower priced merchandise.Yet again does that lower merchandise offer better quality?Not always.I am one of those who prefers to spend a little more money for better quality merchandise.If I wanted to buy a new Bicycle I go to a good Specialty Bike Shop Like Wheel And Sprocket over getting a cheap Bike at Walmart that would most likely end up in a landfill in a few months.Boston Store also took over I believe two former Gimbel’s Stores with one in the former Southgate Mall on the south side and Mayfair in 1986.

  3. TransitRider says:

    None of the Boston Store obituaries I’ve read has mentioned “Boston Village”—which opened in the 1960s at 5300 W Fond du Lac (across from Capitol Court).

    Boston Village had 2 stories and Boston Store occupied 3/4 of it; a supermarket (A&P, I think) took the rest (the east half of the first floor, I remember). Besides mixing a department store with a supermarket, Boston Village was unique or ahead of its time in several other ways:

    • It was the only free-standing (non-mall) non-discount department store Milwaukee ever had beyond the central city (bounded roughly by Center St, 27th St, and Mitchell).

    • It had Milwaukee’s first parking garage attached to a store.

    • It was Milwaukee’s first department store open Sundays (even shopping malls closed Sundays back then—which is why people spoke of “shopping days” left until Christmas).

    • Instead of escalators, it used a moving rubber-covered ramp (like the old County Stadium “speedramp”) that allowed super-market-style shopping carts. Somehow the carts avoided rolling down the ramp, perhaps because of a large circular piece—said to contain a magnet—underneath each cart.

    The building still exists, now housing Jack L. Marcus.

  4. Sharon Rich says:

    Jeanette was still on Broadway when she dated Irving Stone. But even after they broke up they still corresponded until around 1937. More details about him and The Boston Store; and all her letters to him that he saved until his death are transcribed and presented in this book:

  5. MKE Kid says:

    TransitRider: I very well remember the Boston Village store on FDL. The architecture was so early 1960s. It was considered to be a store a notch above the rest. That’s when Capitol Court was booming. So many fond memories!

  6. Lipton says:

    1912 Boston Store sponsored an Air Show at the fair park. F. Fish set record for longest flight over water. He was carrying a bolt of silk for the Boston Store. Same air show first airmail here from State Fair to WA Post Office–a load of circulars for the Boston Store.

    1939 Television. Nobody knew what its potential would be. First broadcast station WTMJ in the post war years. In 1939 Boston Store put a camera in the Ladies Department. Employees modeled clothes and it was shown in the radio department.

  7. Paul in New York says:

    TransitRider: Great info!

    My aunt and uncle lived on 54th and Keefe and I remember my cousin and I would ride our bicycles over to Boston Village and buy 45 rpm records (My tastes ran to Joni Mitchell’s ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, his was Edwin Starr’s ‘War’). Loved riding on those moving ramps!

    Truth is, I preferred Gimbels at Capitol Court because they sold the best popcorn. When T.A. Chapman closed their Capitol Court store, didn’t Boston Store move there from Boston Village?

    In the words of Joni Mitchell, ‘Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone’

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