Hub 640 in the old Boston Store building
Like most American cities, Milwaukee was once a hive of department store activity.
Many of us remember Gimbels and Schusters, maybe even TA Chapman, although few of us know Espenhain other than as a name from Brew City history. Then there were the smaller ones like Goldmann and Miller.
The last breath of Milwaukee department stores was the closing of the Boston Store at the corner of Vel R. Phillips and Wisconsin avenues on August 29, 2018, after nearly 125 years on the site.
The complex of buildings stretching all the way south to Michigan Street – built, starting at the north end and working south, in 1895, 1911, and 1920 – now houses Hub 640, a complex that aims to mix offices and businesses over nearly 300,000 square feet.
Mandel Group developed residential units on the top floors of one of the buildings a few years ago.
Hub 640 is a project of North Wells Capital of Chicago, which purchased the building in 2017 and leased the lower two floors to Boston Store, which was trying to stay afloat there, with help from the city, and from also maintain its headquarters on the site.
A little history
The first iteration of the Boston Store dates back to 1897, when Julius Simon opened his dry goods store in the beautiful brick Lipps building in the Cream City, which still sits on the northwest corner of King Drive and Highland Avenue.
In 1900, Simon changed the name to Boston Store and moved into the Plankinton Block that the Plankinton Estate had erected at the corner of 4th Street and Grand Avenue in 1895 according to plans drawn by Frank N. Bugbee and Marshall & Ryder.
The land became available after a fire on March 26, 1895 that broke out in the Tanner Furniture building on the site and spread rapidly, causing an estimated $ 1 million – $ 32 million in today’s money – in losses.
According to historian Yance Marti, the store in the new five-story $ 120,000 block, “was originally divided into different departments which were rented out by merchants under the umbrella of the Boston Store Company.”
Simon – whose personal specialties were clothing, fabrics, shoes, and rugs – enlisted the Stone Brothers of Chicago, specialists in leather goods and jewelry, to operate in his department store in 1902, also recruiting Herzfeld-Phillipson. Company, hosiery and underwear suppliers.
The following year, Nathan Stone and Carl Herzfeld took control of several departments and completely bought out Simon in 1906 and gradually acquired other leases as well, until the last of them was finally available in 1928. .
In 1911-12 a five storey addition, clad in beautiful white terracotta with ornamental details and designed by HC, Koch & Son, was started. Another story was added and the whole thing extended south in 1920 (photo above).
Ultimately, that addition would grow to nine stories.
A penthouse was added in 1925 and further modifications took place in 1927 and beyond. Frankly, trying to figure out which parts were built at what time is hard work.
“The southern section of the store is the most architecturally interesting,” notes the Wisconsin Historical Society, “with its classic stylized cornice and Chicago school windows.”
As it was originally drawn by Armand Koch, son of Henry, the building included an eight-story clock tower on the corner, but this dominant feature (photo above, courtesy of the Library Milwaukee Public Building) was never erected.
Particularly noteworthy is the entrance to Michigan Street, with its terracotta vessel, peacock, and caduceus (now a symbol of the medical profession).
The facade also includes urns, medallions, floral elements and other details.
The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the West Side Commercial Historic District.
For many years, Boston Store was, along with Gimbels, a downtown element, until the 1980s when the two stores (Gimbels was replaced by Marshall Field) became the anchor points for the new Grand Mall Avenue.
Many people remember buying everything from clothes to cosmetics, furniture to rugs and more.
At least a generation of children would grow up enjoying the monorail through Toytown on one of the upper levels during the Christmas season.
Phillip Irving Stone operated the Boston Store in the 1920s and 1930s, and over the following years it was sold several times, first to Federated Department Stores and then to PA Bergner (who later acquired Carson Pirie Scott and took this name). It later merged with Proffitt’s, which bought Saks and later took that name. Saks then sold Boston Store to Bon-Ton Stores.
As the Grand Avenue Mall – later The Shops of Grand Avenue – breathed its last, there seemed to be no future for the Boston Store and this institution was over.
Today most of the old store is vacant, vast expanses of space illuminated by numerous windows – many of which offer a beautiful view of the city center – interrupted only by the rhythmic repetition of the supporting pillars of weight. On the first floor, these pillars still have their decorative capitals.
On the upper floors you can find original hardwood floors and remnants of old wallpaper.
On floors four and five, there is evidence that what might appear to be an addition to the 1895 building – a five-story structure on Phillips Avenue with a pointed gable roofline and different window arrangements – is in fact prior to this one.
Inside, on the brick walls exposed after the Boston Store closed, are billboards painted on what were once the exterior walls.
The signs promote the Metropolitan Storage and Forwarding Company, which was incorporated in 1895 and located on 4th Street in a building that managed to escape the flames of that year’s fire.
It’s a little strange to be in what used to be a bustling department store – a store I remember shopping at – and seeing it as a bare shell.
But seeing the spaces that are occupied, renovated into amenities and framed in white for future use, offers a vision of one’s new life.
Founders 3 is now marketing space in the building, which has a tenant on the second floor.
North Shore Healthcare signed a 10-year lease in 2020 and moved its 55 employees to a 23,000 square foot location adjacent to a range of equipment, including a fitness center with lockers and showers, a few meeting rooms of different sizes and an employee lounge (with beer!) which has a garage door opening onto a large and beautiful terrace.
The building remains linked to the 310W building across the street via a walkway, and another walkway connects to the parking lot on the other side of Vel Phillips Avenue.
As Founders 3’s Ned Purtell points out, Hub 640 is also just a short walk (inside) from 3rd St. Market Hall and the The Avenue complex it inhabits. Tenants of Hub 640 can get as far east as the Two-Fifty Building on Broadway and Wisconsin via a walkway without exiting.
Bipolar ionization air purification has been installed.
Architects Engberg Anderson and Kelly Construction & Design are also working on the Hub 640 project, which is one block from the future Milwaukee Tool headquarters on 5th and Michigan.
John Davis of Founders 3 says another tenant appears to be on the verge of signing a lease and that there has also been an effort to attract a large retailer, like Target, to the 67,000 square feet of the first floor.
There would be some poetry to Target’s opening in the old Boston Store in Milwaukee, given that there’s also one in Louis Sullivan’s iconic Carson Pirie Scott building on State Street in Chicago.