March 25, 2012

Fresno County Public Library, California History and Genealogy Room

Then: When completed in 1914 at Kern and J (Fulton) streets, the Gottchalks department store, shown in a photo postcard, was said to be one of the largest and most modern of its kind on the West Coast.

For one of Fresno’s visionaries, opportunity knocked during a chance encounter in a barbershop in 1904.

German immigrant Emil Gottschalk came to Fresno in 1890 to work in the dry goods business after honing his skills in Sacramento. Known for his keen merchandising ability, he rose to the position of manager but quit after his employer broke a promise to make him part owner after 10 years.

Later, while getting his daily shave, he overheard a conversation that would change his life. Developer T.W. Patterson was looking for a tenant for the ground floor of the four-story Forsyth building he was constructing at Tulare and J (now Fulton) streets. Gottschalk seized the opportunity to lease the 30,000-square-foot space and open his own business. (The Forsyth building was destroyed by fire in 1922, and replaced by the Patterson building we see today.)

With great fanfare, he launched his own business, E. Gottschalk & Co., on September 17, 1904. His motto was “the store that cares.” The store quickly became known for quality merchandise and exceptional customer service. It would remain open often, sometimes until midnight, until the last customer went home. Horse and carriage delivered even the smallest item to a customer’s front door.

His flourishing business quickly outgrew the space, and he envisioned something bigger: a full-fledged department store providing a shopping experience unlike anything outside of San Francisco.

Fresno, then a fast-growing city of 35,000, was in the midst of a major building boom.

By selling stock to manufacturers he did business with and and getting family and friends to invest, he raised enough money to buy property at the outskirts of the business district, a quarter block at Kern and J streets, the site of the Armory Livery Stables.

Famed San Francisco architect Conrad Alfred Meussdorffer designed the two -story building in the elegant Beaux Arts style.

About 10,000 were present for the grand opening on September 12, 1914. And grand it was. One of several full-page ads proclaimed: “This Magnificent Modern Structure is a Monument to Fresno’s Industrial Enterprise.”

Display windows were cased in English Circassian walnut, and the store boasted elevators and the first air conditioning system in Fresno—coiled water pipes and huge electric fans. The temperature inside could be lowered 20 degrees from outside.

In 100,000 square feet of floor space, shoppers found fine merchandise from the East and Europe. Employees wore hats and gloves as they greeted the first customers, with a 12-piece orchestra in the background. Small metal trays, bearing embossed picture of the store, were given as souvenirs.

Hundreds of French mirrors, illuminated showcases, inlaid floors of Hawaiian hardwood, and mahagony fixtures finished with antique brass added to the elegance.

Departments included clothing, home goods, jewelry, cosmetics, toys, furniture, a candy shop, soda fountain and a beauty salon.

Gottschalk died in 1939 at age 77, but his legacy lived on and the company grew for decades, with family members carrying on in leadership roles.

The elegant building was extensively remodeled in late 1940s, and ‘60s, and the Beaux Arts features were stripped away. The store remained the company’s flagship location until its closure on the Fulton Mall in 1988.

Gottschalks grew, becoming one of the largest, publicly traded, independently-owned department store chains in the western United States.

Born in a chance encounter in a barbershop, it lasted 105 years, surviving the Great Depression, two world wars, and other national tragedies, to become a part of the fabric of the Central Valley. But it couldn’t survive the recession, and went bankrupt in 2009, closing its nearly 60 stores. The 98-year-old building is now home to Fresno Discount Mall.

John Walker/The Fresno Bee

Now: The nearly 100-year-old building, extensively remodeled in the 1940s and \'60s, is home to a discount mall.