Old department store in Louisiana

Muller's Department Store, Lake Charles Louisiana
Date added: February 02, 2023 Categories: Louisiana Retail Department Store
East-northeast (2006)

The mercantile establishment that opened in its new three-story, 45,000-square-foot home in 1913 was founded in 1882 by a young window, Julie Muller. In 1870, at the age of sixteen, Julie Kaufman left her home in France to join her brother in Labadieville, Louisiana. She soon married, only to lose her husband in the yellow fever epidemic of 1878. Her brother was also deceased and she was left to care for herself and two small children. Her first mercantile endeavor was in New Orleans, where she opened a millinery shop. Soon she moved to Lake Charles, where in 1882 she established a mercantile business in a small one-story frame building with commercial space in the front and living quarters at the rear. A 1921 history of the company published in the Lake Charles American Press shows a photo of the original Muller's and indicates that the mercantile space was 18 by 20 feet. By the late 1880s the one-story frame building had been replaced by a two-story frame building. In 1893 Julie Muller married Simon Marx, and in 1894, Muller's advanced yet another step by moving into a two-story brick building, which was expanded at least twice before the present building was constructed in 1913. The company had incorporated in 1909 with Julie Muller Marx listed as president and her son, J. M. Muller, as manager. (Mr. Marx, Julie's second husband, had died in 1901.)

There is no doubt that the owners as well as the public considered the construction of the present building in 1913 to be the pinnacle of the firm's career. This is borne out in newspaper accounts celebrating the milestone as well as retrospectives written in the 1920s and '30s, also in the local paper. The newspaper coverage also testifies to the special place of Muller's in Lake Charles' commercial history.

In two articles covering together about one-and-a-half pages, The American Press bragged effusively about its hometown success story. A quite large rendering of the building, which was then almost ready for occupancy, led the coverage. An article beneath entitled "Store Most Conveniently Arranged for Shoppers" boasted: "The new building is one of the finest of its kind to be found anywhere in Louisiana, and in few cities of this size in the South with equipment so thorough and so in keeping with modern ideas of mercantile management. There is nothing that is modern and convenient needed in the store that has been left out in its design and construction." Much was made of its department store status, clearly something new in the city and of great interest. The physical character and amenities of the building and its departments were described in some detail, including a separate two column listing bearing the title "Where the Various Departments Will Be Found." Much was made of a ladies' restroom to be "furnished as a parlor." "Here ladies can meet and rest or await attention to business matters as they may desire. Writing facilities will be provided in this room; a maid will at all times be in attendance here." It was also of great import to the reporter that the owners had traveled to large department stores throughout the country as they formulated plans for a new Muller's. The importance of Muller's as a department store was echoed in a 1921 article on the company in which an employee spoke of the days before departments-when "a salesman waited on a customer without regard to departments" - when there were no specialists for different types of merchandise.

The May 1913 coverage of the new Muller's also contained a long history of the company. Particular tribute was paid to Julie Muller Marx, who "laid the foundation for this magnificent business in the little one story frame building on Ryan Street." "Her energy, good taste, and perseverance made the business a success from the start, and her cooperation and the benefit of her business experience form one of the chief factors that have been instrumental in bringing about the erection of the new home, which is shortly to throw open its doors to its large following in Southeast Texas and Southwest Louisiana."

The company matriarch apparently remained active until her death in 1924 at the age of 70. A lengthy article in the May 5, 1921 issue of The American Press covers a banquet given in Mrs. Marx's honor by the Muller Employees Welfare Association. Various tributes were paid to "her many fine qualities of womanhood, for her great devotion as a mother and for the wonderful business abilities she possesses." Speakers emphasized that the business she founded "has long been a boast of Lake Charles and Southwest Louisiana, both in point of size and the number of employees the store carries on its payroll." The only year for which employment figures are available is 1939, when the number was 103. By this time Adolph Marx, a son by the second marriage, was managing the business.

By the late 1940s business was good enough to warrant a major expansion of the building toward the rear. A 1950 photo shows quite a crowd of people lined up to attend the grand opening of the expanded Muller's. One imagines customers being quite amazed by the blue and silver "motor stairs." Adolph Marx remained at the helm in the 1960s, and the store remained in business until 1986, over one hundred years after the family enterprise was founded by a young widow.

By the time Muller's closed, downtown Lake Charles regrettably had suffered serious losses of integrity. Muller's itself had been modernized, but fortunately, it was largely a matter of covering up rather than removing. It is against the serious loss of integrity experienced by downtown Lake Charles that Muller's takes on additional commercial significance as one of a limited number of recognizably historic buildings remaining. The enormity of the loss can be documented in the city's historical development, old photos, and Sanborn maps. Lake Charles experienced a huge lumber boom in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The population grew significantly and building proceeded at a furious pace. Given the prosperity and the size of the city, one would expect a large and impressive CBD, and such was the case. Sanborn maps show some one hundred business houses in the 1920s, and old photos show a truly grand downtown with an urban character. Sadly, although the city retains a significant and large collection of historic residences, its downtown has been largely destroyed, due principally to a relentless campaign of demolition and modernization waged in the prosperous 1950s, '60s and '70s. The relatively few survivors share the space with altered historic buildings, new construction and gaping holes where historic buildings once stood.

Building Description

Muller's Department Store is a three-story brick commercial building built in 1913 and enlarged at the rear in 1949. It is located on a prominent corner in downtown Lake Charles. Although the building has a pronounced character, the term "no style" is most appropriate.

Constructed in 1913, Muller's Department Store is a massive 45,000-square-foot block with a window display shopfront stretching across the 100-foot facade and all the way down the 123-foot side elevation. Like many a commercial building, Muller's was significantly "modernized" in the 1960s/'70s, including unsightly metal panels over the windows, panels over the shopfront transoms, large modern panels added to the fixed awning, etc.

The second and third floors of Muller's are divided into bays by massive two-story piers surmounted by a belt course and an entablature strip. The bays are taken up largely with groupings of one-over-one sash windows. Each bay also contains a series of belt courses to accent the brickwork between the second and third-story windows. The bays are set off prominently by strips of blond brick accenting the piers and windows and contrasting with the reddish-brown brick body of the building. As originally built, Muller's was capped by a stepped parapet in front and small elements at the corners and along the side elevation which gave the impression of continuing the piers. These decorative elements of the parapet were removed in the 1949 remodeling.

The central entrance opens into a huge 19½ foot-high shopping hall with a single-story mezzanine at the rear. But like the exterior, the original interior had been drastically modified. Various sheetrock and wood partition walls had been built, celotex dropped ceilings had been installed in the shopping hall, and the steel columns had been encased in sheetrock. All of these modifications have been removed.

The first-floor shopping area is a hypostyle hall with two rows of round stripped-down Doric steel columns supporting structural beams formed of reinforced concrete. The beams are finished off as entablatures with boldly formed wood moldings. Along the party wall side is a metal catwalk. The mezzanine and the second and third floors feature plainer concrete posts supporting structural beams without decorative molding. All of the ceilings are finished off with narrow gauge beaded board. Work is in progress to subdivide (partially) the ground floor for offices and the upper floors for apartments.

The display shopfront is divided into bays following the pattern of the previously mentioned piers. While the original large plate glass windows have been removed, the rear walls of the display windows and ceilings survive. The rear walls are richly articulated with wood paneling stained to resemble mahogany and frosted glass. The ceilings are coffered.

In 1949, a large addition was made to the rear of the building, increasing its size by approximately one-third. To make the addition complementary, the brick was matched to the original and the upper and lower brick belt courses were extended. The side elevation shopfront was extended to the rear. However, the addition, as built, had no windows and hence no piers, no contrasting blond brickwork, etc. The second major change made in 1949 was the removal of the parapet (making the original building match the addition). On the interior, sets of escalators bearing the brand name of Pelle Motor Stair were installed. These distinctive Modernistic "motor stairs" feature blue moving handrails with silver bands.

In February 1943, the company, wishing to expand further, acquired 619 Ryan, which shared a party wall. Built circa 1930 (per Sanborn maps and the architectural evidence), 619 Ryan housed Berdon-Campbell Furniture. In commenting on the purchase to the local newspaper, general manager Adolph Marx indicated that Muller's wished to enlarge its services to its customers, especially in household furnishings and that the addition of Berdon-Campbell will make it possible to expand the household furnishings department and to add other departments."

Various openings were cut in the party wall to facilitate the two buildings functioning as one commercial entity. (The openings are now filled in.)