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Landmark Legend: Cohen Brothers "The Big Store"

4:44 AM, Jul 10, 2013   |    comments
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- For those of you who have lived in Jacksonville a while you may remember when downtown Jacksonville was home to five or six department stores. 

There was no better place to shop than downtown and no better store to find what you needed than at Cohen Brothers.

Jacksonville's City Hall has occupied the St. James Building across from Hemming Plaza for 15 years but the historic building has had a storied history. 

The St. James Hotel was built in the same spot in the 1870's. It was destroyed during the Great Fire of 1901, along with the Windsor Hotel across the street.

The Windsor rebuilt and bought the city block where the St. James once stood to prevent competition. The Windsor then persuaded the city's premier department store, Cohen Brothers on Bay Street, to buy the lot and expand its store. 

Famed architect Henry Klutho was commissioned to design the new building in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright. "The St James building is the largest prairie style building in the world," said local historian Wayne Wood.

It's exterior was decorated in terra-cotta ornaments and is considered Klutho's crowning achievement. "It was an incredibly complicated building that was highlighted by a 75 foot octagonal dome that lit the Cohen Brother's merchandise at the corner of the building," said Wood.

Architects and critics came from all over the world to witness the grand opening of what would be the ninth largest department store in the nation. "This building was a major metropolitan complex which included doctor's offices, professional, lawyers as well as little drug stores within a department store and candy stores," said Wood.

It also featured a soda fountain and fashions straight from Paris. 

The elevators were open and gave customers a commanding view of the store. The building was so huge it promoted itself as "Cohen Brothers, the Big Store" and brought a new level of sophistication to Jacksonville. 

The Cohen Brothers sold the Store to May Department Stores in 1958, renaming it May Cohens. The store closed 30-years later.

The building was restored and renovated and at the end of 1997 City Hall moved into the St. James. 

So the next time you're taking care of a city matter, remember another form of commerce use to occur in this same building years ago.

First Coast News

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