Thursday, September 25, 2008

Department Store Building of the Week, Vol. 15


The Tepper's Inc. building at 107 W. Front St. in Plainfield, N.J., has been turned into housing and shops. Tepper's was one of three large department stores in Plainfield, which was both a small regional city and an upscale North Jersey suburb. Rosenbaum Bros. eventually became part of the R.J. Goerke operations referred to in many of these past department-store posts. Later, Bamberger's also opened a downtown store there. Plainfield was the largest downtown in North Jersey west of Newark. Racial rioting in the 1960s led white middle-class shoppers to shrink away in fear. Even the Plainfield Courier-News famously moved to Bridgewater Township and tried for years to have as little identification with Plainfield or Union County as it could.

In many department store families it is clear that there was one member of the family who either wanted to strike out on his own, or was encouraged to do so. Perhaps he wanted to be the leading partner and the other relatives did not agree; perhaps the other relatives simply thought he was a doofus. A family feud of this sort split the Kaufmann family that owned Pittsburgh's largest store, and renegade Kaufmanns started their own store, Kaufmann Looby and Baer Co., which later became Gimbel Bros.' Pittsburgh outpost. Edgar Kaufmann, who emerged in control of the original Kaufmann's, was the one who engaged Frank Lloyd Wright to build Fallingwater.

I have no idea what happened within the Tepper family except that while Max and Adolph Tepper established and ran what was then called Tepper Bros. in Plainfield -- Joe stayed in New York City -- Jacob Tepper removed to Fort Wayne, Ind., in the 1910s. Fort Wayne was a city that attracted migrants from the East; it was the last big city before Chicago on the direct train line from New York, so quick connections with Manhattan were available. (The Latzes, who for decades owned Wolf & Dessauer in Fort Wayne, were also migrants from New York City.) Jacob Tepper tried to make a go of it with a department store in Fort Wayne, but it did not work out. The Tepper family also briefly had a store in New Brunswick. Eventually Jake Tepper returned to New Jersey and started the Tepper Bros. store in Asbury Park in the 1930s. But that was not part of the main Tepper operation in Plainfield.

Tepper's had a furniture and home furnishings store on Route 22 as well. Ben Tepper, son of Adolph, led the store into the 1970s.

Downtown Plainfield was in a curious location. You can see a small creek right behind the Tepper building. The buildings on the other side of that creek, which appear to be an extension of downtown, are actually in the separate community of North Plainfield, in Somerset County. So the center of downtown Plainfield was one city block away from not being in Plainfield. There are lots of adjacent twin cities -- Lewiston-Auburn, Benton Harb0r-St. Joseph, Fargo-Moorhead -- but usually the line between them is more than a creek one could jump over. Even in Champaign-Urbana, where the line is simply a line on a map, the downtowns are a mile apart. This is about as close as you can cut it.

19 comments:

Carol said...

I remember Teppers well....my parents recently passed away and I have found an original credit card plate. Anyone interested in it?
Carol...swim51@aol.com

Anonymous said...

I remember it too. When I was in grade school in the mid-60's, my friends mom worked at Tepper's. On the weekend, we used to pay 35 cents for the bus ride down route 28 to go to the "big city" of Plainfield to hang out in the stores, and then have lunch at the Capitol Cafe.

Do you remember the trolley tracks that were still on Front Street back then? I've been trying to remember the name of the Chinese Restaurant on Front Street, it was fairly nice. Back then, it was the only one around. We never ate at the restaurant, but I remember we got take out from there on a rare occasion.

SandorMax said...

Poor old man Tepper ran me off the road back in the 80's on the border of Middlesex and Bound Brook, on Route 28. I ended up in a hydrant - the man must have been pushing 90. Nice guy though.

MarieR said...

I grew up in Plainfield and also remember Teppers' well. That's where my Brownie uniform came from. And I remember the trolley tracks and the chinese restaurant, although the name escapes me. Plainfield used to be a lovely place to live. I'm still angry over the fact that they got away with destroying an entire city. What an awful waste.

Anonymous said...

The name of the Chinese Restaurant was Lechee's. I too worked at Teppers during school years. My parents were good friends of the Teppers. It was always special to buy and receive a gift from Teppers.

Rose said...

Much of my youthful memories are tied up with downtown Plainfield, and, especially, Teppers. I only have a pair of earrings left, of the many things I bought in Teppers. They're antique gold and turqoise. The shoe department was great and I'd walk in through the back entrance. Of course there were two Chinese restaurants, Lechee's being the newer, and my father was friends with the manger whose name was Roger. The man was very dapper. Also, there was the French School of Music where I took piano lessons for years and also the ballet school on Front Street where I got my first high school job accompanying on the piano. And what about those Halloween paintings. Just great. Rose

Rose said...

Much of my youthful memories are tied up with downtown Plainfield, and, especially, Teppers. I only have a pair of earrings left, of the many things I bought in Teppers. They're antique gold and turqoise. The shoe department was great and I'd walk in through the back entrance. Of course there were two Chinese restaurants, Lechee's being the newer, and my father was friends with the manger whose name was Roger. The man was very dapper. Also, there was the French School of Music where I took piano lessons for years and also the ballet school on Front Street where I got my first high school job accompanying on the piano. And what about those Halloween paintings. Just great. Rose

Gene said...

I worked in Tepper's Department store from October 1973 until January of 1976. I worked on the loading dock (Receiving Department). I have to say I had a lot fun of at Tepper's and have many fond memories. It would be interesting to here from anyone else who there.

Gene said...

I worked in Tepper's Department store from October 1973 until January of 1976. I worked on the loading dock (Receiving Department). I have to say I had a lot fun of at Tepper's and have many fond memories. It would be interesting to here from anyone else who there.

lake_walker@hotmail.com

Bart said...

My grandfather, Sam, was the founding brother of Rosenbaum Brothers. In his later years, he and my grandmother Dora lived down the street, I believe, from Ben Tepper and his wife. What was notable was that the were fierce competitors, but also comrades in arms and more than simply cordial with each other.
During those years, there was enough business for everyone who put out an honest product. Both families and stores did that and both prospered for many years.
I fondly remember going to Teppers each time I took the bus or rode my bike from Watchung. It was a welcoming, professionally run business that from a kid's eyes did things differently enough from Rosenbaum Brothers to make it interesting. I think my boy scout uniform was from their scouting department which Rosenbaum's did not have.
I have many memories of Rosenbaum's, of course, which was sold when I was 12.
My favorite dish at Leechee's was oddly enough, tuna fish.
Concerning Green Brook, which divides the towns, just behind both Rosenbaums' and Tepper's. For many years, Sam would take a lunch time walk from his office on the third floor of Rosenbaums's, down Front St to his home on East Front. Once there he would grab some quick food, and spend most of his hour sitting at the edge of his back yard, fishing pole in hand, fishing in the brook and thinking about his business. Being a driven business man was a little different in the 40';s and 50's.

Dorrie Neisel Johnson said...

Wonderful to read about Tepper's and Rosenbaurm's. There are two FaceBook pages that discuss Plainfield. One is "I grew Up in Plainfield, N.J." and the other is "Tepper Brothers, I either shopped there or worked there." Anyone have a coat hanger from these stores?

Al Radzik said...

I worked at Tepper's in 1969. Receiving Dept. with Charles Stevens. Eve was our boss.

Max Tepper said...

I am a distant relative of the owners/operators of Tepper Brothers and would love to have the credit card plate that Carol spoke of or any other memorabilia that may be out there. please contact me at maxtepper@hotmail.com

Wim said...

I worked at Tepper's as a display man in the years '60 and '61, by telling this I'm showing my age ;-)

WillW said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
WillW said...

Born in '59, in Plainfield, we lived in an old apartment house on Grove Street (in North Plainfield) just two blocks off of Front Street, Plainfield. I remember walking along Front Street with my mother. She usually let me get some penny candy at Woolworth's. One Saturday, while in my older sisters' charge, I fell into Green Brook. They caught hell for that.

We moved to South Plainfield when I was still very young, but Tepper's and Bam's (Bamburger's) still beckoned, and we drove into Plainfield to shop quite often. I remember the sporting goods store at the corner of Front and Somerset. Was it called Dreyer's?

Plainfield truly was a wonderful city at that point in time. And I too remember the street car tracks in the streets.

Jim Dunn said...

galvirotimpirodcgoisPlainfield was a great place to grow up. I went to PHS from 56-60. Remember Teppers from several perspectives. My Little League team was Tepper's Tigers. Those old flannel uniforms were awful hot and itchy. We played at Sani Field. In 8th grade I "dated" Ann Tepper...always said whe was my first girlfirend, but she'd probably disagree if she even remembers my name. My first job was as a stockboy at Christmas in 1957. Think I made $1 per hour. Not bad in those days. Finally, the University Shop. That was the place to shop back in those days. And then there was Archie, the salesman who used to get quite a kick out of making sure the slacks fit well, especially in the crotch, if you get my drift.

Jim Dunn PHS 1960

Comments welcome to

Plainfield Garden Club said...

Please check out www.plainfieldgardenclub.org to see recently recovered images from 1967 through 1980 from the archives of Barbara Tracy Sandford. Images are posted by year under "HISTORY" on the main page.

CCC said...

Rose, if you are still reading this, there is now a French School of Music FaceBook page; pls go there and take a look; we are looking for alums of FSoMusic and trying to connect with as many as possible.