Time Machine

Time Machine: Big windows, skylights marked new Cedar Rapids store in 1897

The Coventry Lofts at 211 First Ave. SE in August 2017 in Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
The Coventry Lofts at 211 First Ave. SE in August 2017 in Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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Three men from St. Louis — August C. Reps, Herman N. Craemer and Adolph H. Jungk — turned their eyes to the north and decided to open a dry goods store on Feb. 18, 1893, in the fast-growing city of Cedar Rapids, population 21,845, which had grown by 4,000 people in five years.

The Reps, Craemer & Co. dry goods store sold fabric, yarn, combs, soaps and, for 25 cents, “real bristle hairbrushes.”

The business operated on a cash basis — buying supplies in cash, selling for cash. “They thereby saved the discounts and, at the same time, had no bad accounts to work against,” according to the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette.

Jungk remained in St. Louis working for Ely Walker & Co., the large wholesale dry goods firm that supplied the Cedar Rapids store, but Reps and Craemer relocated to Cedar Rapids.

The store at 211 First Ave. East grew quickly and, four years later, it leased the larger, brand-new building next door at 213-15 First Ave. SE, built in 1895 by contractors Maresh and Grissell.

NEW STORE

The new store, which was “lighted from First Avenue by two immense French plate glass windows, at the rear by a number of large ordinary windows, though of artistic design, and from above by four immense skylights of Florentine glass,” was 122-by-49 feet. It had an ornamental steel ceiling painted light green with gold trim, with 20 bronze chandeliers.

Four counters of Southern pine ran the length of the store, meeting in a horseshoe at the front, with more counters along the side. Cross aisles allowed shoppers to cut across to another counter. The new cloak, cape and wrap department had carpets and mirrors.

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Above the cloak department was a mezzanine where the cashier, bookkeeper and bundle wrapper worked. At the west end was a dressing room for women.

The store’s massive oak doors opened to the public Sept. 9, 1897. While shoppers filled the store, a mandolin and guitar orchestra, conducted by Cedar Rapids College of Music instructor Aubrey O. Nicholson, played on a raised platform at the rear of the store.

When the store closed for the day at 6 p.m., the owners treated employees to a banquet at the Grand Hotel at First Avenue and Third Street.

Two months later, on Nov. 16, a Gazette story announced that Craemer was retiring. His failing eyesight was listed as the reason. The partnership was dissolved Dec. 1, and the firm became Reps & Jungk.

Craemer then opened his own business in 1898 at the company’s old address at 211 First Ave. SE, working side by side with his wife, Mary, to get the company off the ground. The first year they saw a substantial profit was 1905, the year Craemer died. His widow continued to operate the store, joined by their son, Nicholas, when he was old enough.

BASEMENT ADDITION

Reps & Jungk continued to expand and added a 40-by-80-foot room in the basement. An architect designed a double stairway, with four posts topped with unusual light fixtures, so customers could descend to the new space filled with muslins, prints and blankets. In a few more years, a well-stocked toy department was added.

After just 10 years in business, in 1903, the store underwent a major renovation to convert it into a Chicago-style department store. A clerk was assigned to each department. When a customer made a purchase in one department, a transfer slip followed him or her to the next department. The last clerk to wait on the customer tallied the total and wrapped the purchases.

In 1908, Jungk left the partnership, and the firm became Reps Dry Goods Co., with August Reps as president.

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Charles S. Knox and D.W. Warren took over Reps Dry Goods in 1916. Warren had been connected to the store for several years, and Knox, raised in Cedar Rapids, was a traveling salesman for Marshall Field & Co. of Chicago. The pair operated the store under the Reps name until 1932, when the company dissolved during the Great Depression.

neisner bros.

The store stood empty until 1934, when Neisner Bros. Inc. of Rochester, N.Y., signed a 20-year lease negotiated by local brokers Malcolm V. Bolton and Henry S. Ely.

Neisner Bros. operated 5-cent-to-$1 stores nationwide, with the Cedar Rapids store its 84th. Local contractors updated the store, building two main entrances on either side of display windows, adding elevators and covering the building’s front in white metal.

The store opened with the address of 213 First Ave. SE on Dec. 1. The store was a popular place to work, often giving full-time employees Christmas bonuses of up to $100.

Neisner Bros. lasted until 1962.

coventry gardens/lofts

The empty building served as a temporary sales space until January 1965, when Peoples Furniture Co., headed by Joe Sindelar, moved in after being displaced by the Roosevelt Hotel parking ramp across the street. John E. Bishop became owner and general manager by 1972.

Sam Becker bought Peoples Furniture in 1974 and combined it with his own furniture business. Becker was killed and his wife seriously injured when they were struck by an automobile in December 1977.

In 1979, the building was remodeled into Coventry Gardens, an Old World-themed mini-mall with space for 17 stores. Two floors and a mezzanine were decorated in Olde English and Olde German motifs. The mall was connected to the Roosevelt Hotel parking ramp by a skywalk over First Avenue.

Today, the building still stands. It was converted into the Coventry Lofts apartments in 2013 by High Property Management.

l Comments: (319) 398-8338; d.fannonlangton@gamil.com

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