Rosenwald Building in Albuquerque got its start as department store

ABQ’s historic Rosenwald Building got its start as a turn-of-the-century department store

The ground floor of the long-vacant Rosenwald Building in Downtown Albuquerque will soon become an APD police station. ( Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Editor’s note:

The Journal continues “What’s in a Name?,” a once a month column in which writer Elaine Briseño will give a short history of how places in New Mexico got their names.

The city announced recently that it would establish a police substation at Fourth and Central Avenue inside a vacant building bearing the name Rosenwald.

One glance and it’s obvious the three-story building is historic and even more obvious that it didn’t start out as a police station.

When the railroad came through Albuquerque in the late 1800s, commercial activity formed around it to provide services for its passengers. Initially, the commercial buildings were relatively simple one-story structures but transportation wasn’t the only sector undergoing a metamorphosis. As machinery and engineering became more advanced, so did buildings. What followed was the rise of, quite literally, Albuquerque’s Downtown when multi-story buildings were erected.

The Rosenwald was one of those buildings. It was constructed in 1910 to house the Rosenwald Brothers department store, named for brothers Aron and Edward (sometimes spelled Eduard) Rosenwald who founded the business in 1871 in Trinidad, Colorado. The legacy of the siblings lives on today in a sign stripped across the front of the Albuquerque building reading Rosenwald Bros.

A newspaper page from Aug. 14, 1921, Albuquerque Morning Journal. (Courtesy of newspapers.com)

The brothers, according to an Aug. 14, 1921, story in the Albuquerque Morning Journal, loaded up all their “goods in cumbersome wagons drawn by plodding oxen” and traveled along the Santa Fe Trail to Colorado. They set up shop inside a little adobe structure and would begin building their small empire.

They opened their Albuquerque branch in 1879 in Old Town, but soon after relocated to New Town on the northeast corner of Third Street and Central Avenue (then called Railroad Avenue) in a small building for which they paid $1,400, a price that was considered extravagant at the time. Upon their arrival, it was not yet certain that Albuquerque would become the metropolis it is today. But the brothers, according to the 1921 story, never wavered in their faith that Albuquerque was where they would prosper. And prosper they did.

A few years later they sold off their Colorado store and shifted all operations to New Mexico. According to advertisements published in the Albuquerque Morning Journal throughout 1882, the store carried boots, shoes, hats, caps, dry goods, clothing, furnishings and groceries. Business was booming and when the brothers retired in 1903 they passed management of Rosenwald Bro. to Aron’s sons Sidney and David Rosenwald.

This second generation ushered the business into a new era. They moved into a larger building at the southwest corner of Third and Central in 1907 and would stay there until their move to the current day Rosenwald Building.

Construction on the building, designed by architect Henry C. Trost, began on Valentine’s Day in 1910. The Rosenwald Building was the city’s first reinforced concrete structure and was billed as fireproof.

The project was not without some danger. About four months into the construction, a worker plummeted nearly two stories as he tried to descend from the building. He lived, but had several broken ribs and bruising. In July, a cement worker named Joe Romero became entangled in the scaffolding and also fell, dislocating his hip, according to an Aug. 2, 1910, article in the Albuquerque Morning Journal.

Opening day finally came on Oct. 1. The Albuquerque Morning Journal praised the innovative three-story building (four if you count the basement), calling it the “handsomest, most up to date and most complete department store in the southwest.”

“… the statement is made without fear of contradiction that not a department store in Denver, El Paso or any other city of prominence in the Rocky mountain region, nor in the valleys where the land begins to slope to the seas, is housed in a better building, nor houses a more complete and up to date stock of merchandise within its walls than the house of Rosenwald.”

The building had three elevators, which was also a first for Albuquerque.

A 10-piece orchestra welcomed the reported 5,000 visitors who passed through its doors on opening day. Customers in those early days would have found dry goods, jewelry, toiletries, shoes and men’s clothes on the ground floor. The second floor was home to women’s “ready-to-wear garments, millinery and corsets” along with dressing rooms, an alteration room and a bathroom. A trip to the third floor revealed carpets, rugs and furniture.

Rosenwald Brothers Building, 320 Central SW, Albuquerque, Bernalillo County. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

The store also had something else that was relatively new – public telephones in each department so visitors could “telephone to friends in the city and will also prove a valuable means of communication between patrons and the heads of the different departments.”

But nothing was for sale that opening day. Visitors had to return the following Monday if they wanted to actually purchase goods. The store prospered for more than a decade, but trouble did come for the Rosenwald family.

Although supposedly fireproof, a mattress on the third floor caught fire in 1921 and caused extensive smoke and water damage, requiring a complete renovation that took six years.

David Rosenwald died of a heart attack in November of 1927, at the young age of 49. According to his obituary he was born in Trinidad, Colorado, in 1878. As a youngster he was sent to attend school in Germany. He returned to Albuquerque and graduated from high school.

He wasn’t just an entrepreneur. He was also extensively involved in the community. He served as secretary of the State Fair association, as director of the Commercial Club and Albuquerque Hotel Co., and as president of the Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club.

Sadly, according to newspaper reports, Sidney Rosenwald died by suicide in 1932. It was reported he was depressed over financial worries.

McLellan Stores moved into the ground floor of the Rosenwald Building in 1927 and would remain there for 50 years, but the Rosenwald name stayed on the building’s storefront. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

According to Albuquerque Journal clippings, crews worked to restore the building to its original form in 1980. They converted the upper floors into office space. The city purchased two floors of the building in 2008 and recently sold it to a private developer with an agreement to lease a portion for the APD substation.

The reporter present on the building’s opening day in 1910 made this prophetic observation:

“The magnificent Rosenwald building will stand for many years as a monument to the enterprise of the Rosenwalds, as an indication of their faith in Albuquerque and in Albuquerqueans. That the name of Rosenwald may live long and that the store of Rosenwald Brothers…may prosper always, is the best wish of all those who were guests at the opening yesterday.”

Curious about how a town, street or building got its name? Email writer Elaine Briseño at ebriseno@abqjournal.com.

 

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