OAKLAND — On Aug. 5, 1929, a crowd of 10,000 people gathered in downtown Oakland for the long-awaited opening of the H. C. Capwell department store in a massive, brick-fronted building adorned with terra cotta and hailed as a gem of Beaux Arts design.
Today, the six-floor store, renamed the Emporium a year ago but still Capwell to many longtime Oaklanders, will reopen after almost 10 months of massive restoration to repair damage from last October's Bay Area earthquake.
Once again, the city's anticipation is great, even if far fewer than 10,000 well-wishers are expected this time around.
"The reopening of the Emporium is wonderful," said Allen Michaan, a preservation-minded entrepreneur who has saved many movie palaces, including Oakland's Grand Lake Theater. "The city needs it. And I need some new pants."
For Oakland's struggling downtown, it would seem that the rebirth of its largest department store is almost as significant as the original christening.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 11, 1990 Home Edition Business Part D Page 2 Column 6 Financial Desk 1 inches; 16 words Type of Material: Correction
Herb Brandt--In some editions of Friday's paper, Oakland Emporium manager Herb Brandt's name was misspelled.
With the main magnet for shoppers out of commission, many small merchants that depended on foot traffic have seen their business slashed in half since Oct. 17. And beleaguered Oakland has suffered the loss of needed sales tax revenue.
A few stores, in fact, couldn't hold on and now sit boarded up and empty on the stretch of Broadway south of the Emporium, bringing a sense of blight to an already troubled area.
"Since October, Broadway has been quite dead," said Angela Blackwell, president of the Urban Strategies Council, an anti-poverty organization in Oakland. Blackwell, who missed the Emporium particularly during the holidays, has been doing her shopping in San Francisco and San Leandro, just south of Oakland.
Irene Sargent, the chic, 81-year-old owner of a boutique that bears her name south of the Emporium, said business since the day after the quake "has been awful," off as much as 50%. During the post-quake period, Sargent has often called an old friend, Jack Richardson, chairman of the Emporium, to urge him to "open that damn store."
It didn't help Oakland merchants any that the earthquake occurred as retailing in general was heading into a slump. As a result, retailers have found it difficult to assess how much of their sales decline can be attributed simply to the loss of foot traffic from the Emporium. But all are eager for the doors to open again.
"Having them up and running will be a great benefit," said Marc Riskin, whose family owns a jewelry store across the street.
Riskin said many shoppers will undoubtedly miss the brick facade and fancy terra cotta details. City officials ordered them stripped off after the earthquake in the name of seismic safety.
The Emporium replaced them with concrete sprayed on to form "a skin," said Carl Stein, construction manager for Carter Hawley Hale Stores, the Los Angeles-based owner of the Emporium chain. The exterior has been painted a pinkish-sand color.
Inside, workers removed a mezzanine level that largely collapsed in the 15-second temblor, reinforced interior walls, replaced fallen stairways and improved the sprinkler system. All told, according to estimates used by the city, the repairs cost $10 million, most of which was covered by insurance.
Carter Hawley Hale also had "business interruption" insurance that covered the loss of some sales, cushioning the blow to the 22-store Emporium chain and its parent, which nonetheless reported losses it attributed in large part to the earthquake.
According to retailing analysts, the 350-employee Oakland store accounts for $40 million of the Emporium's $750 million in annual sales and is the chain's second-largest producer, after the downtown San Francisco store.
One Oakland institution eager for the reopening is the Tribune, the city's cash-strapped daily newspaper.
"Everybody in downtown Oakland since the quake has reduced their ad linage in this newspaper," said Robert C. Maynard, the Tribune's publisher and majority owner. Shrinking advertising revenue, on top of competition from other East Bay newspapers, forced the paper recently to lay off more than 120 staff members and take other cost-saving steps.
The paper is getting a boost from several pages of special advertising by the Emporium to trumpet the reopening.
Julia Brown, director of the Office of Economic Development and Employment in Oakland, estimates that the city will have lost $500,000 in sales tax revenue by the time the first anniversary of the quake rolls around.
Brown noted that the Emporium at least had its corporate owner's deep pockets and insurance coverage. Many smaller merchants had no insurance, and about 20 buildings downtown remain closed because their owners cannot afford to fix quake damage.
The earthquake also further delayed progress on a long-planned downtown mall that Rouse Co. hopes to develop. The Emporium would be a cornerstone for a retail center that would include such tenants as Macy's, J. C. Penney and, possibly, Nordstrom.
The project is something that city officials view as vital for any downtown revitalization.
Clearly, Oaklanders recognize that the Emporium cannot solve downtown's problems single-handedly. But the reopening is a start.
Reiterating an oft-voiced sentiment, Maynard said: "We're hoping this is the harbinger for better times in downtown Oakland."