Ask McGehee: What is the history of Hammel’s Department Store?

Black and white photo of Hammel's Department Store
Above The 1902 home of Hammel’s on Royal Street grew to have 120,000 square feet of floor space in “palatial” surroundings. Customers entered under a barrel-vaulted ceiling of glass. The site now holds a parking deck. Courtesy Tom McGehee.

Every major American city was once defined by its fine department stores.  Mobile originally had two: Gayfer’s and Hammel’s. Since Gayfer’s lasted until 1998, more Mobilians have memories of it. But the older and grander of the two was definitely Hammel’s.

In 1864, 17-year-old Leopold Hammel arrived in New York from his native Bavaria with plans to join his cousin, Leopold Strauss, who had made his home in Mobile.  Hammel discovered that, with his newly adopted country embroiled in the Civil War, there was no way to get to the Gulf Coast and he had to postpone his travel plans until April of 1865.

L. Hammel & Co. 

Hammel then appears in city directories as working as a bookkeeper in the Dauphin Street dry goods firm Goldstucker, Strauss and Agnew while residing with his cousin on St. Louis Street. In 1872, Hammel ventured out on his own and started what would become L. Hammel & Co. He was 25 years old.

- Sponsors -

Strauss joined Joseph Leinkauf and opened a new dry-goods firm on North Water Street while his cousin occupied a storefront on the south side of Dauphin Street, a few doors east of Royal Street. At the time, this portion of Dauphin held the city’s leading retailers, and Hammel’s was first listed as offering “Dry Goods, Hosiery and Notions.”

The two cousins were obviously close despite no longer being in business together. City directories indicate that the two lived together even after Strauss got married in 1873. In the 1890s, the Strauss family included five children, and they, along with cousin Leopold, moved into a brick house still standing at 404 Government Street. It was during their ownership that the sparkling leaded glass door was installed along with additions.

Over the decades, Leopold Hammel’s business flourished, and additional Dauphin Street frontage was acquired. An 1898 advertisement stated the firm had expanded its offerings to include “wholesale and retail dry goods, clothing, notions, carpets, millinery, etc.”

A “Palatial” Replacement 

By the end of the century, it was obvious the business had outgrown its space. In 1901, Hammel obtained lots on Royal Street mid-block between Dauphin and Conti streets. Another German transplant, Adam Glass, had recently moved his furniture business into the former Odd Fellow’s Hall on Royal Street and Hammel would build his new department store right next door.

The architectural firm of Stone Brothers, based in New Orleans, was selected. In 1902, that firm designed four commercial buildings in Mobile: the Masonic Temple on St. Joseph Street, Southern Hardware & Supply and Henry Piser & Co., both on North Commerce Street and the grand new home of L. Hammel & Co. on Royal Street. Sadly, none of these has survived.

A reporter termed the new structure as being “palatial,” and noted that the height of the five-story building would be equivalent to a 10-story office building since the upper stories were 18 feet high while the first-floor ceiling height was 20 feet. He concluded that this was a “building which in architecture — exterior and interior — has few, if any, equals in the South.”

The firm always provided an elegant atmosphere. The sales ladies were to wear navy or brown skirts and white shirtwaists. In many departments, customers were seated as they were shown merchandise. Each evening at six, various chimes sounded. The first indicated it was time for dust covers to be placed over counters and displays. A second sounded when it was time for the female staff to exit the building and the third indicated when the male employees could follow.

In July of 1897, Leopold Strauss died at the age of 58, leaving behind his widow Matilda and five children. According to his obituary, he had been “in failing health for several years.”  

A year later in August of 1898, Leopold Hammel married his cousin’s widow. The marriage ended with Leopold Hammel’s sudden death in 1914 from an apparent heart attack. His obituary appeared in newspapers throughout the South. 

The Growth Continues 

Hammel’s remained in family hands as the decades progressed. In 1945, the store merged with neighboring Adam Glass & Co. and the buildings were joined and modernized between 1955 and 1959, with entrances from Dauphin, Royal and now Conti streets. The 120,000-square-foot store offered the typical department store staples of clothing and cosmetics, but the additional space held housewares, china, linens, furniture, floor coverings, major appliances, TVs, a fine gift shop and even hardware.

In 1965, Alabama’s oldest department store sold out to the P. N. Hirsch Shoe Co., which operated 170 “junior department stores.” Matilda Strauss Hammel’s grandson, John, remained on as a vice president and general manager, and plans proceeded in adding another location to be an anchor store in Bel Air Mall which was in the planning stages. That location opened in 1967.

In 1973, Hammel’s was sold once again. The new owner was D. H. Holmes, a New Orleans department store, and it was their decision to close the Royal Street store. Five years later, the wreckers tore down the once-palatial structure, leaving a vacant lot that today holds a parking deck.  Ironically, both D. H. Holmes and Gayfer’s were absorbed by Dillard’s later on.

Get the best of Mobile delivered to your inbox

Be the first to know about local events, home tours, restaurant reviews and more!