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The Real Story of the Sakowitz Department Store Empire

A Look Back at a Houston Institution That’s Gone

BY // 12.27.18

Flashing back 67 years to Sakowitz Bros.’ downtown Art Moderne, marble-clad palace, architecture by Alfred C. Finn, interiors by Brochsteins Inc.

Long before the arrival of out-of-town rivals Neiman Marcus of Dallas, and Frost Bros. and Joske’s of San Antonio, Sakowitz Bros. downtown department store, doing business in Houston since 1911, defined luxury shopping in Houston.

At mid-century, signature departments were spacious chambers for browsing and acquiring: a shoe department with a mural depicting exuberant tropicals worthy of Palm Beach; an epicure counter brimming with delicacies, most notably boxes of luscious Sakowitz chocolates; the intimate apparel shop stocking lingerie and corsets; a bridal salon arrayed like a theater set; the accessory bar for mid-century Lucite and leather handbags; the Coronet Shop for fine ladies’ sportswear; an oak-paneled Red Coach Room for gentlemen’s accoutrements; a fabric shop boasting the latest textiles and Vogue and McCall’s patterns; and a toy shop with its own Tom Thumb Theatre for screening kiddie films while parents shopped.

This department store appealed to the wealthy and those interested in a cossetted retail experience that usually lasted all day. Sakowitz was designed in the Art Moderne style with wide, open spaces and much of the merchandise behind niches and counters, to be proffered at the customer’s request.

The client was the star who moved across the retail theater with calm confidence, timeless elegance and glamour.

The Couture Department drew the booming, mid-century city’s elite to its aerie interiors, where exquisite designer garments were showcased. A devoted, solicitous sales staff completed the experience. (Courtesy Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library, Alfred C. Finn Collection, MSS0019-1570)

A day at Sakowitz — often the province of mothers and daughters — was an experience to be savored and recalled years later, topped off by a noontime respite at the fifth-floor Sky Terrace, a  28,000-square-foot dining retreat.

Discover

Lunching at the Sky Terrace restaurant — often complemented by informal modeling —  was de rigueur for a proper shopping outing. The restaurant was designed in a Gulf Coast Colonial style. (Courtesy Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library, Alfred C. Finn Collection, MSS0019-1606)

The Dorothy Draper-esque Gulf Coast Colonial decor included life-sized plaster trees by San Antonio master Dionicio Rodriguez, who was acclaimed for his faux bois work in Texas and beyond. Tearoom fare was served amidst an al fresco-inspired portico alongside midday style shows. The day might end with an appointment at the beauty salon for the latest coiffure.

History of a Storied Texas Retail Family

Ukrainian immigrants Tobias and Simon Sakowitz founded their emporium in Galveston in 1902. The entrepreneurial brothers added a Houston location nine years later, establishing a store for men and boys at Main and Preston.

In 1929, ladies’ apparel arrived at their next location, the main floor of the Gulf Building (a Deco-era skyscraper at Main and Rusk developed by Houston kingmaker Jesse Jones). The Sakowitz brand weathered the Depression, then flourished in the post-war boom.

In 1951, the retailer erected a 254,000-square-foot temple to luxury shopping at 1111 Main Street — a confident response to the more middle-American Foley’s across the street, which had opened in 1947.

Sakowitz Bros.’ third Houston location — and its most luxurious — heralded a new age of retail in town. The Alfred C. Finn-designed building, unveiled 1951, still stands, but is a parking garage now. (Courtesy Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library, Alfred C. Finn Collection, MSS0019-1538)

The five-story, reportedly $8 million, marble-clad Sakowitz Bros. flagship was designed by Alfred C. Finn, Jesse Jones’ go-to architect. Finn designed the Gulf Building, as well as the San Jacinto Memorial, the world’s tallest war memorial — a project also propelled forward by Jones.

Houston-headquartered Brochsteins, which is still going strong today, was tapped for the interiors, which were lavish in their use of sculptural space, including wall niches for coveted articles of clothing, millinery and handbags. Hand-painted murals enlivened departments ranging from the candy counter to the layette shop that offered tony baby gifts.

An Italian hand-carved marble fountain sculpted by Butini reigned over the Sky Terrace restaurant. On each floor, exquisite millwork set the stage. A brochure from the era details floor-by-floor the handsome, often rare, American and exotic hardwoods employed throughout to achieve an effect of  sumptuousness: avodire from the French Ivory Coast of Africa, Japanese and Korean Tamo, and, closer to home, Wisconsin birch and pecky cypress from Louisiana.

The Mad Men-era men’s department made an impact with its dramatic pecky cypress walls milled from Louisiana. (Courtesy the Brochsteins Inc. archive)

Per the brochure, “moving fixtures from Brochsteins’ plant required a total of 177 van and truck loads” to bring forth the completed Sakowitz with its 122 private fitting rooms, 2,322 lineal feet of imported marble on the first floor, and 8,073 square feet of polished and antique mirrors.

The democratic temple of Sakowitz represented a time when shopping was both empowerment and escape for women — getting out of the house, meeting other like-minded ladies, brandishing financial power, forsaking prosaic daily drudgery for the siren call of civilized beauty and fashion, creating community.

The Millinery Department was strategically placed adjoining the Couture Salon. (Courtesy Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library, Alfred C. Finn Collection, MSS0019-1572)

Employment at Sakowitz represented a respectable and highly enviable career for a woman as well. Famous clerks included such fondly remembered personages as Miss Josephine, who held court in the store’s iconic millinery department and made hat buying a ritual edged with grace and importance.

As a working career woman, I’m in no hurry to return to the stifling Mad Men era when department stores reached their apex, but I wish Sakowitz at 1111 Main Street — that great behemoth to mid-century dreams, design, and architecture — continued to flourish today.

The building still stands, but sadly is a parking garage now.

See this recently discovered film clip for a TV ad touting the family legacy, circa 1968.

Read more about the glory days of store scion Robert Sakowitz in this 1974 People magazine feature.

These vintage photographs in our slideshow and above, sourced from the Houston Metropolitan Research Center at the Houston Public Library’s Julia Ideson Building and the Brochsteins Inc. archive, document what Sakowitz Bros. downtown was like in its halcyon heyday.

Home, chic home.

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