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White House Department Store: Elegance and Service
By Margarita Hernandez and Melissa Marquez. Additional research by Linda Esparza
“He is ready,” announced an ad in the September 11, 1900, edition of the El Paso Daily Herald.“Felix Brunschwig – the importer – will be pleased to show you his immense stock of European and domestic dry goods and up to date merchandise. Doors will be thrown open for the inspection of the people from 6 to 9 p.m.
On a Wednesday evening, El Pasoans got a sneak peek of the new White House Department Store that prospered for decades. Amidst music and flowers, there was merchandise the likes of which customers had never seen in El Paso.
Image caption: The White House Department Store, designed by Henry Trost, was one of the most luxurious department stores in El Paso. Photo courtesy of Henry Quintana, Jr., Manager of Public Relations, El Paso Electric Company
Immigrants from Alsace-Lorraine, Felix Kahn and his nephew, Felix Brunschwig, came to the United States-Mexican border in the early 1880s. Together they founded La Ciudad de Londres, the City of London, one of the largest stores in Ciudad Juárez. Brunschwig’s nephews, Gaston and Myrtil Coblentz, also came to Mexico to assist their relatives in the store.
In 1884, Mexico extended its free trade zone or “zona libre” to the border area, allowing European goods to enter the country duty free. Until the mid 1890s, Felix Kahn lived in France and served as buyer for the store, ordering fine Parisian fashions and other French goods.
However, as C.L. Sonnichsen said in his book Pass of the North , “the ‘zona libre’ was a political football which was forever causing resentment and protest, sometimes on one side of the border, and sometimes on the other.” Felix Brunschwig, now sole owner of the store, closed the Juárez store and opened one in El Paso.
The White House opened for sales on October 13, 1900, in 3,900 square feet of a building built by A. P. Coles on the corner of San Antonio and Oregon Streets. When Brunschwig incorporated his business in 1903, he became president. Myrtil and Gaston Coblentz were named vice president and secretary-treasurer respectively. Brunschwig began to sell his shares to his nephews, and in 1908, Brunschwig stepped down as president and Gaston Coblentz assumed the position.
The popularity of the White House exceeded the size of its selling floor, even though in 1905 it had added a space equal to its original size. According to a 1953 Texas Western College history seminar paper by John Guice , the Central Building and Improvement Company, whose members included Felix Martinez, J. J. Mundy, L. L. Mundy and Zach White, began the construction a seven-story building in 1911. Designed by famed architect Henry C. Trost , the building was completed in 1912. The White House leased the first three floors, and the McCoy Hotel occupied the remaining four stories.
“Wait for the Opening,” boasted a newspaper ad in March 1912. In this advertisement, management described new facilities, in addition to the much bigger main store. A “toilet articles” department had been added, carrying “Parisian ivory novelties” as well as perfumes, powders and much more. The ad made a point of announcing – especially for the ladies – a corset department, whose “specially designed corset fitting rooms entered into the plans of the new store.”
The store also boasted a tea room run by the Potter Confectionery Company that sold French pastries, chocolates, sandwiches, salads, and coffee and tea. Adjoining the tea room were a rest room, the retiring room and a gold and white French parlor, designed especially for trying on clothes.
The ad also announced the opening of a millinery department run by M. Posener, the owner of a prosperous hat shop who had been persuaded to continue his business for the White House. The department would feature the “world’s best” hats.
Leon Metz wrote that at the opening of this store, “regally uniformed doormen assisted customers descending from their carriages.” The store was such a success that two years later, the White House had outgrown itself again. In May 1914, the company transformed the basement into an Economy Store and added the Girls’ Department in 1916.
In the months before Christmas 1916, 144 wooden dolls were shipped to the store by mistake. Management decided to price them at 50 cents each, and in 24 hours, they all sold. The White House had a toy department from then on. These dramatic additions ultimately resulted in the lease of the building’s entire seven stories.
Many other departments were added during the 1922 expansion, changing the store’s earlier emphasis on women’s ready-to-wear. Much to the delight of its employees, a roof garden was added, along with improved break rooms. Many employees worked at the company for decades.
Another costly expansion announced in 1928 called for a one-story building joining the White House and the Mills Building, with the store occupying portions of the first floor of two buildings. The completed project also increased the number of display windows to 32. In 1900, Brunschwig hired Frank Fillmore as the store’s window dresser, the first in El Paso. For decades, the windows displayed the elegant fashions the store was known for and delighted adults and children alike with holiday lights and scenes.
Guice tell us that renovation occurred again in 1937, when the White House modernized its mezzanine and made it accessible by elevator. In 1946-1947, the installation of an escalator and new elevators, a complete overhaul of three selling floors and another connection to the adjoining Mills Building , this time on the second floor, were completed. The escalator had the longest single span of any department store in the country. In 1949, as people depended more and more on their automobiles, the White House acquired a parking lot for customers on the corner of Santa Fe and Main Streets, offering two hours of free parking
In 1942, President Gaston Coblentz died in New York, where he had worked in the store’s offices since 1904. Founder Felix Brunschwig had died in Paris in 1922. Jake Miller, one of the store’s original employees, became president. A Russian immigrant born on April 4, 1879, Miller arrived in Philadelphia at 10. With little money to his name, he traveled to El Paso by train in 1895.
The young man had no selling experience, but Nathan Diamond, operator of the New York Dry Goods store on San Antonio Street, took Miller under his wing. According to Guice, from the time of its opening in 1900 to 1943, Jake Miller served the White House as a salesman as well as “delivery boy, porter, window trimmer, sign writer, advertising man, bill collector, floor walker, buyer, department manager, general manager, vice president and finally president.”Image caption: Children and adults from all over the Southwest came to the White House Department Store to ride on the escalator, one of the first in the region. Photo courtesy of Deanne Miller
It was Miller who had the escalator installed – before any existed in Dallas or Los Angeles! His daughter-in-law Deanne Miller said, “People from all over El Paso came to the White House just to ride it.” By the time of his death in 1955, Jake Miller had witnessed the evolution and success of a department store that had prided itself on its service and place in the community for over half a century.
His son, Dick Miller, entered into a lease in 1962 with the first enclosed shopping center in El Paso, the locally owned Bassett Center Mall . Leon Metz stated that this White House was the biggest in the Southwest, with a selling floor of 100,000 square feet. Four years later, another branch of the White House Department Store opened in the Northgate Shopping Center. However, as customers began shopping at suburban malls, they left downtown El Paso, and one after another, stores closed, including the original White House in 1977. The store, sold in 1972 to the family-owned Dunlap Corporation, would compete with an influx of national chains and large specialty stores for a few more years before the Bassett store closed in 1983.
From 1900, the White House store always maintained the principle of quality customer service. The store sponsored the first fashion show in El Paso on September 23, 1908. It added a beauty salon in 1918. “Baby Week” was sponsored in cooperation with the El Paso Woman’s Club in 1922. Doctors, nurses and specialists instructed interested citizens on the essentials of infant care. Classes in art, needlework, sewing, pattern cutting and dressmaking were some of the services offered in the 1920s.
According to Guice, throughout World War I, the White House donated its fourth floor to the Red Cross as they made bandages and garments. In October 1941, the White House won first place in the city for its window display designed to boost morale as the country entered World War II. Home delivery, a shopping service, a phone system for efficient processing of accounts, the “Charga Plate” for credit customers were all introduced by the store to save its customers time and effort. Older El Pasoans will remember that the White House called itself “The Store of Service,” an idea that is rarely at the forefront of marketing techniques of today’s stores.