Explore the story behind an icon in Oakland, from its construction as the H.C. Capwell Department Store to becoming Uptown Station, a bustling mixed-use development
1858-1926: H.C. Capwell Company Beginnings
Harrison Cebert “H.C.” Capwell (1858-1929) relocated from Michigan to San Francisco in 1880 during the economic downturn and worked in various mercantiles. During his many excursions across the bay, Capwell began to see a vision for Oakland.
In 1889, Capwell opened the Lace House, an 18 square feet “woolens and ribbons” shop, on Washington & 10th Streets in Oakland. “Capwell saw the explosive growth of Oakland, where the railroad brought thousands of steady jobs, and the Mediterranean landscape invited growing numbers of affluent homeowners.” Historians point to Capwell’s commitment to high quality goods and hiring personnel who were well-suited for conscientious service as the catalysts for the company’s growth. Rising above vacant lots, and bordered by nearby cable car lines, the H.C. Capwell Co. moved to a larger space at Washington & 12th Streets in 1891.
In 1897, A.S. Lavenson, a well-known Oakland businessman, joined Capwell as a Partner. Capwell moved to Oakland with his family in 1902 and began to take part in civic activities, including taking initiative in establishing Oakland’s Chamber of Commerce. Capwell had been formulating plans for relocation and expansion, and in 1908, he selected a new site on Clay Street between 14th & 15th Streets, with frontage facing City Hall. He selected premiere architect C.W. Dickey and set to work creating what he wanted to be the world’s most modern store. The store opened in 1912 and flourished. The four-story building featured a roof garden and children’s play area, becoming a family-friendly destination. In 1914, over 500 employees staffed the business making it one of the largest providers of jobs in Oakland. In 1917, Capwell’s son Cebert joined the business, where he would remain employed until retiring as President in 1944. H.C. Capwell became the President of the Security Bank and Trust Co. as well as Director of the both the Oakland Bank and Oakland Title Insurance Co. In 1927, he bought out his partner, A.S. Lavenson.
1927: The Emporium of San Francisco merges with the H.C. Capwell Co.
In 1927, The Emporium of San Francisco and the H.C. Capwell Co. merged and created The Emporium-Capwell Company. This merger allowed the new company to join the Associated Merchandising Corporation, which permitted them to purchase larger volumes. The marriage of the two department stores also allowed the H.C. Capwell Department Store to move into planning stages in Oakland, developing two acres of land to make Oakland “one of the great retail store centers in the West,” predicted A.B.C. Dohrmann, head of the Emporium Store of San Francisco.
“We are very happy to have come out to your beautiful city of Oakland to be associated in the erection of this great department store. In my brief stay here, I have had the opportunity to see considerable of your city and the splendid back country it serves, and I am very much impressed by the progressive spirit of the community and your strategic commercial position.” - Frank Gaertner of the architecture firm Starrett & Van Vleck upon visiting Oakland to meet with the Emporium-Capwell Company to discuss the new store, which would occupy the entire block between Broadway, Telegraph Avenue, 19th & 20th Streets
1928: The Emporium-Capwell Company breaks ground at Broadway & 20th Street
The Emporium Capwell Co. broke ground on its iconic building on Wednesday, February 15th, 1928. The event drew a crowd of thousands to welcome a new era of downtown Oakland development. The architectural firms Starrett & Van Vleck and Taussig & Flesch were selected for the project due to their expertise in department store planning for clients such as Lord & Taylor and Saks & Company. The architects were tasked with creating a haven for shoppers that would also benefit the store’s employees with a 500 seat auditorium for lectures and theatricals.
“A project of this magnitude is of course a concrete and unmistakable expression of the confidence of the H.C. Capwell Company in the future of Oakland. The new store will also be an expression to Oakland of the appreciation of Capwell’s for the loyal support, which has been accorded the store by the East Bay Public.” H.C. Capwell reflected in a letter while traveling abroad
1929: H.C. Capwell passes away from a heart attack
Less than a month before the H.C. Capwell Department Store was set to open, Capwell suffered a heart attack. While he was unable to see the opening of his grand store, his name lived on in the company that continued to expand through the 1929 Stock Market Crash, Great Depression, and World War II.
1929: The long-awaited H.C. Capwell Department Store opens
The store opened on Broadway & 20th Street on Monday, August 5th, 1929, with a barber shop and clinic. One of two restaurants topped the fifth floor, a roof garden restaurant providing panoramic views of downtown Oakland. The store also featured two subterranean basements, filled with state-of-the-art machinery to clean, ventilate and power the building. Every level featured marble floors including the basement. On the street level, there were six entrances from the sidewalks and 44 show windows.
1939-1945:World War II promotes expansion and the streamlining of Contra Costa and Alameda Counties
As employment increased to produce goods for the war effort, World War II jumpstarted the American economy and pulled industry out of the Great Depression.
1946: The Emporium-Capwell Company plans store expansion
Plans for an expansion were announced including the addition of a mezzanine floor. New elevators and escalators were installed to give the shoppers a more effortless shopping experience. The company also announced plans to build new warehouses both locally and in San Francisco to accommodate the growing inventory of merchandise. Construction would commence as soon as materials, then scarce from the War, became available.
1966: Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Construction begins in Oakland
BART’s first day of revenue service was September 11, 1972.
1980: The H.C. Capwell Co. Department Stores rebrand as “Emporium Capwell”
1989: Structural damage from the Loma Prieta earthquake forces the addition of a reinforced concrete shell
The Loma Prieta Earthquake shook the Bay Area from its epicenter in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The 6.9 magnitude quake leveled highways and brought down buildings. The H.C. Capwell Co. Department Store suffered significant damage to its façade, with patches of the original exterior shaking loose. The rehabilitation process that followed involved applying concrete to the exterior and infilling some of the original windows. In the process, the original façade was lost; however, the building itself was saved.
1995-2014: Sears is open in Oakland
In 1995, the Federated Department Stores purchased the Emporium-Capwell Company and sold the Broadway location. After the closing of its original store on Telegraph Avenue, Sears reopened at Broadway & 20th Street, filling the need for a large department store in downtown Oakland. Sears remained in the space until it closed in 2014.
The H.C. Capwell Department Store building reopens as Uptown Station
Work began on bringing the building into its former resplendence. A public retail arcade filled with local vendors and restaurants welcomes local business, while office space accommodates large businesses above. The building’s long history is honored by revealing the original structure and opening up the long covered windows throughout the façade.
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