As a window re-opens on one former Milwaukee department store, it appears likely to close for good on another.
Work has begun to transform the former Schuster’s – which also briefly bore the Gimbels name – on King Drive and Garfield Avenue, which has begun to shed its metal cladding, into a new home for a number of area nonprofits. (Take a last look inside here.)
At the same time, the former near West Side Schuster’s building, owned by Milwaukee County since the early 1960s and now called the Marcia P. Coggs Human Services Center may be torn down.
The three-story building, 1220 W. Vliet St. currently houses offices for agencies like the county's Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the State of Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Enrollment Services, as well as a food bank in the lower level.
Two floors of state offices will soon be vacant as those agencies relocate later in the year, leaving just one floor – the third – occupied by county employees.
According to Supervisor Shawn Rolland, while the county remains committed to providing services at the 12th and Vliet site, at least four of eight potential solutions to ongoing issues of funding and deferred maintenance include tearing down the 1910 building. Two others would see the building sold.
“Initially, the county investigated options to lease space elsewhere, but quickly determined that the cost to lease the space we need would create significant financial challenges for the county in the future, likely leading to cuts in services and staff,” Rolland says. “So, they began to imagine renovation and rebuilding.
“We’re assessing more than just renovation vs. rebuilding. We’re evaluating which proposal would deliver the best outcomes for the county, for our staff, and for our constituents. Which proposal would provide the best layout for our residents? Which would meet people’s needs for parking? Which proposal would deliver the most efficient use of taxpayer funds? Which other leases could we end by relocating departments beyond DHHS into the Coggs building? We’re taking the time to do our homework and get this right.”
Those eight options include a varied mix of renovating the building, tearing it down or selling it to a developer and building a new, smaller building with parking.
“At this point, DHHS is recommending building a new facility, demolishing Coggs, and locating DHHS staff in the facility,” Rolland says. “This option would enable us to minimize costs, deliver on our strategic plan and deliver on our ‘no wrong door’ philosophy, while also solving for the need for staff parking without spending tens of millions of dollars on a new parking structure.
“The county may ultimately recommend option 6 (demolition) if our staff determine that it makes good financial sense and strategic sense for other county departments to end their leases elsewhere and consolidate in the new Coggs building.”
However, if the county ultimately chooses one of two options that include selling the building to a developer, the Brust & Philipp-designed former Schuster’s could get a new lease on life. There is one option that also calls for renovating and continuing to use the existing building for DHHS staff.
“The county’s goal is to deliver a wide range of services – the Aging and Disability Resource Center; Children, Youth and Family Services; housing services; veterans services; Milwaukee Enrollment Services, etc. – to residents who need them, all in one location,” says Rolland.
“This strategy supports our ‘no wrong door’ philosophy, helping to ensure that residents don’t have to drive to one facility, then another, then another for the resources they need. Re-investment in this Coggs Center could also be a catalyst for change in this underserved neighborhood.”
As if often the case at the cash-strapped county, the decision will likely come down to money.
“Every Milwaukee County decision needs to be a financially responsible decision,” Rolland says. “Everyone knows about the county’s fiscal challenges. There are hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance in our parks, parkways, and facilities, and each year, the annual county budget starts with $10-plus-million deficit that we on the board need to close.
“The county expects to save a significant amount of money over time in operating and maintenance costs by razing the Coggs building, and building anew. Additionally, county staff believe they can provide more access to parking more affordably by razing the Coggs building and building a smaller building with fewer square feet.”
Rolland says that the availability of federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding makes a decision on the future of the building a time-sensitive one.
“We have a unique opportunity to allocate ARPA dollars we’ve received to help the county cut future costs and deliver better outcomes to residents,” he says. “ARPA dollars must be allocated by the end of 2024, and spent by the end of 2026. That makes rebuilding now a more strategic and attractive option, because we can address all known and unknown maintenance issues right now.
“If a major issue arises in the future, there will not be ARPA dollars available to help us solve it.”
A little history
Although the 213,000-square-foot building dates to 1910-11, Schuster’s history in the West Side neighborhood dates to much earlier.
In fact, this long-vibrant shopping area was where German immigrant merchant Edward Schuster got his start in Milwaukee.
Born in Driburg, Westphalia in 1831, Schuster went first to Australia, then returned to Germany before shipping off for Milwaukee in 1883, where he bought into Jacob Poss’ store on 12th and Walnut, which became Poss & Schuster.
The following year, Schuster opened his own store on 3rd and Brown Streets, bringing along 19-year-old clerk Albert T. Friedmann, who would run the business after Schuster’s death in 1904.
That store expanded in 1888 and was expanded with a new building next door in 1889. But that new building was consumed by flames in 1892 and replaced with the current building on the site – long home to Fein Brothers – designed by Schnetzky & Liebert.
In 1895, Schuster returned to his roots and opened a west side store – run by his brother Charles Schuster – in the former Poss & Schuster location, Poss’ store having just closed. By 1899 it had doubled in sales volume and was too small.
By 1909 Katz’s department store at 1043 Winnebago Street – occupying one of the five points at the intersection of 11th, Vliet and Winnebago Streets – was vacant and Schuster’s moved in, filling its two floors plus basement. When the adjacent Manasse store opened up, Schuster’s annexed that space, too.
Still, demand exceeded available space and a 150x150-foot site on the northwest corner of 12th and Vliet was purchased. In 1894, the site had been nearly full of structures, including houses and retail spaces for a saloon, a tailor and more.
Those structures were removed and respected architects Peter Brust and Richard Philipp (whose firm lives on today as Zimmerman Architectural Studios) were tapped to design a new Neoclassical showpiece of a department store.
According to a Schuster’s newspaper ad from March 5, 1911 – the eve of the new store’s opening – Schuster’s, “aimed to give Milwaukee an institution that she may well be proud of.”
It also noted that it planned no big grand opening affair, focusing instead on sales, noting that it would “celebrate ... in a fitting manner.”
“There will be no decor or other outward display on this occasion, Our efforts were directed toward making this a memorable event from a merchandising standpoint.”
On the same day, the Sentinel carried another ad for the new store but this one placed by The Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company.
“Schuster’s, Milwaukee newest big store opens tomorrow, its management alert for every practical improvement which would add to the convenience, comfort and ultimately the economical advantage of their patrons have included The Electric Company’s service in their equipment,” the read the text that accompanied a rendering of the building’s exterior.
“The Schuster Co. know the waste and worries of an independent plant. In their store at Third St. and Garfield Ave. they have operated their own light and power plant, and adoption of Central Station service for this new store is in line with their progress and with what enterprising merchants in other cities are doing every day.”
Before it opened the new store, however, Schuster’s wanted to clear out its old place, opting to order all new merchandise for the 12th Street store, rather than shift its inventory over from Winnebago Street.
“We now stand upon the threshold of another important move in our business career,” read an ad placed in the Sentinel on Feb. 19, 1911. ”In 10 days more our West Side Store will be housed in the magnificent new structure just completed by us at the corner of Twelfth and Vliet Streets.
“Already hundreds of busy hands are preparing for the opening – but in the mean time a very important task lies before us – moving. When we first planned to move, we took into account the uncertainties of the weather at this time of the year and we then decided that it would be far better to dispose of our present stock right here in our present location, even at a great loss, than to attempt to move in a possible March blizzard, and so our buyers were instructed to proceed with the purchase of an entirely new stock for the new store – and they did. This, therefore makes it all the more important that we displose of every dollar’s worth of goods in our Winnebago Street store – right here – and now.”
Some of the inventory was, however, shifted over to the 3rd Street store, as one later ad noted, so that shoppers there could have access to similar, and often the same deals and prices, without feeling left out.
It bears noting here that while the locations today may seem close to each other, when the Vliet Street store opened, transportation was much slower and the shop felt much more distant.
When the store closed for good in 1961, the Sentinel noted, “Sixty-six years ago when the 12th Street store was opened, it was 40 minutes removed from the 3rd Street. location by the ‘horse-and-buggy’ transportation facilities then available. Now it takes less than four minutes driving time to go from one store to the other.”
That nearness led to the store’s demise.
The Sentinel quoted a Schuster’s statement that said, “it makes little business sense to maintain two giant stores within arm’s length of each other by today’s shrinking-mile standards,” and so consolidation moved forward.
But first, there was a 1923 addition to the 12th and Vliet store, extending it to 13th Street, and the structure was completely modernized and updated and re-dedicated 14 years later.
But the post-war building boom changed the demographics of the city and massively expanded its footprint. Less important than having two big stores a mile-and-a-half apart was having stores serving the new neighborhoods springing up.
And so in the four years before 12th and Vliet closed, new shops were opened at Cudahy’s Packard Plaza and in Capitol Court, which was developed by Schuster’s. Two more stores were planned for completion within a year.
“These will be the Schuster’s Wildwood store at Hwy 100 and National Avenue where construction is to be started soon and a new store at the west end of Madison for which plans have been completed,” noted the Sentinel.
“Expansion of the store at Capitol Court is also part of the program and an additional 20,000 square feet of space will be open for business in April ... New departments have already been added to the Packard Plaza store in Cudahy and a major improvement project for redecorating and interior expansion at the West Mitchell Street store has just been completed.”
And so, on Jan. 28, Schuster’s on Vliet closed its doors for good, it’s employees offered jobs at other locations.
The following year, Gimbels bought Schuster’s – operating briefly as Gimbels-Schuster’s – and in 1963, the Milwaukee County Department of Welfare bough the former department store building and began using it as office space.
It has been known as the Marcia P. Coggs Human Services Center since 2003, when it was renamed in honor of the first Black woman elected to the Wisconsin Legislature, who was also a local Civil Rights leader fighting for fair housing, education issues and more.
Today, on the outside, the building looks more or less the same, although the big first floor display windows have long since been covered up.
There are still lions and shields and other decorative elements above the entrances and if you look out back you'll see the remains of a pilastered entrance that's been partially obscured by a newer foyer addition (below).
There is still a low-key cornice along the roofline, though a decorative parapet decoration (which can be seen in a photo higher up in this post) was removed sometime after 1979.
Inside, there are only minor traces to be found and you have to look pretty hard to find them.
The one obvious element that survives from the Schuster's era is the bank of escalators that still carry guests between floors.
In some stairwells, there are iron railings that clearly were in place when Schuster's was open and in the basement terrazzo floors survive, as does at least one sleek chrome Art Deco railing, near the bottom of the escalators.
Behind the scenes, you'll find the insides of the original windows up on the fourth floor, where there is also an original staircase to get out to part of the roof, as well as early Johnson Controls gauges and dials in the basement (there are at least two sub-basements, too!).
The most interesting Schuster's-related thing I found was painted on a fourth floor wall in a relatively small space stuffed with old furniture and big plastic garbage carts.
Here, two rows of four colored dots, perhaps four inches across, with another row of just three dots are painted on the wall. Written in pencil in most dots is the name of a department, such as "Bakery dept.," Junior miss shop 2nd," "Records and radio dept. 2nd floor," "Elevator front 2nd floor" and "Men's washroom." Nearby were a couple small painted decorative motifs.
Perhaps departments in the store were color-coded for staff reasons and this was an identification chart.
Nearby, there's a small shingled turret peak that looks like it might've been part of a store display, though it's unclear what its purpose really was.
Otherwise, the interior has been completely remodeled. Interior walls were built to create offices and corridors and the place looks nothing like a former department store.
Will it stay or will it go?
While renovation always sounds preferable to preservationists, those who love historic buildings and the nostalgic, Rolland believes the building simply remains too big for the county’s needs.
“If we renovated the building, we would have 70,000 square feet of unused space in the Coggs building,” he says. “Even if we moved every appropriate county department that’s leasing space into the renovated Coggs building, we would still have 24,000 square feet of unoccupied office space.
“It’s a massive, aging building, and it’s more space than we need. Building anew gives us the opportunity to right-size our footprint and construct a ‘Goldilocks’ building – one that’s not too big, not too small, but just right for our needs.”
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.