Vertin’s Department Store

The Vertin family immigrated to the Copper Country from Slovenia in the 1870’s, a small country south of Austria more recently identified with communist Yugoslavia. Instead of mining the enterprising family chose a career in retail instead, selling household goods door to door under the name of M. Vertin & Sons. Business was good, so good in fact that the two sons – John and Joseph – were able to open their own retail store in Red Jacket. The brothers bought up the old Provincial Hotel at the corner of Oak and 6th, and erected in its place a handsome two story sandstone block to sell a variety of goods. The business was known as the Vertin Brothers & Co Department Store. The year was 1891.

In the 1890’s the department store was a relatively novel convention, a marked departure from the specialized stores of the time that sold only one type of product. Department stores sold almost everything and anything under one roof, categorized into several specialized areas known as departments (thus the name). The concept was so new, that when the Vertin store opened its doors it joined a very limited group in the Copper Country that included only the Gartner store in Hancock, the Vivian store in Laurium, and the Ruppe store around the corner on 5th. But the Vertin store would quickly surpass them all , thanks to three important advantages: location, location, and location.

The Vertin brothers would have no way of knowing it at the time, but their choice of location couldn’t be any more advantageous. Oaks street’s role as the epicenter of all transportation routes to the village put the Vertin store up front and center, and led to some incredible growth in it’s first two decades of operation. So much so that by the turn of the century the brothers had to add two additional floors to the old building to meet demand. The end result would be the largest business block in all of Red Jacket, and one of the largest department stores in all the Midwest.

With the renovations complete, the old Vertin Brother’s & Co Department Store would become a household name, from then on known simply as Vertin’s. The store sold everything, including clothing, furniture, appliances, home decor, and even groceries out of its basement. The department store boasted 31,000 square feet of display space spread out over five floors, including a grocery department in the basement. The store employed over 60 clerks and featured a pair of elevators and it’s own dedicated phone number (44 if you’re interested). It was the epitome of metropolitan shopping, and it was right here in Calumet.

For over a hundred years the Vertin Department store continue to be a Calumet landmark, managing to outlive even the C&H mine by several decades. But even the Vertin’s advantageous location couldn’t save it from a community that was nearly abandoned, and the company was forced to close its doors in the mid 80’s. In the ensuing decade the old building would become home to several short lived enterprises including a teen center of all things. But in a village of under a thousand residents, such a massive building was no longer desirable nor sustainable. Luckily the building has been recently given a third life, this time as home to an art gallery and studio. It is under this new role that we find it today.

Though not necessarily stunning architecturally, the Vertin building’s immense size and scale are a spectacle all on its own. The building is so large that you have to go clear across the street just to get a good shot of it. From even this distance the building’s two halves – the original bottom two floors and the upper two floors addition – are easily discernible. While the first floors are faced with opulent sandstone, the upper floors utilize a more simple brick facade instead. While this could have been done to save money I subscribe to the theory that it might have had more to do with engineering issues, considering the extra weight two floors of sandstone would have added to the building’s skeleton and foundation.

The building was originally graced with corner entrances, one facing the neighboring alleyway and another here facing the intersection of Oak and 6th. Those entrances we’re later converted into display spaces, as seen here.

The building’s current entrance sits along Oak now, consisting of a trio of double doors placed under a 50s looking awning. I don’t know when this entrance was constructed, but all the details seem to hint at mid century. But I’ve been wrong before.

Around the corner – back on 6th street – we find what at first appears to be a boarded up window. This is actually the Vertin’s freight elevator, which exits both within the building and out onto the street. This was the equivalent of a modern loading dock, used to bring freight into the building and up to the floor on which it would have been sold.

The Vertin’s first floor is all business, consisting primarily of large plate glass windows most likely originally used as display space. As far as architectural flourishes there aren’t many. Most notable are these large sandstone footings used to support the building’s steel skeleton.

Moving up to the second floor brings a few more refinements along with a bit more architectural detail. The windows are smaller here, but are framed by sandstone and topped with graceful arches.

While missing sandstone, the upper floors are intriguing in their own right, thanks to the use of capital topped pilasters and decorative drip stones over the arched windows. The use of sandstone atop the third floor windows and those arched fourth floor windows help to tie the upper floors and lower floors together.

And up top we have an oversized cornice with large brackets that unfortunately looks to have seen better days, though a fresh coat of paint would do it wonders.

He’s another look at the Vertin’s facade, showing all these individual components as they appear together:

The building is remarkably in good shape, considering it’s age. The fact that it’s been relatively vacant for so many years makes its condition even more impressive. I just love the fact that the windows are still intact and have not been “shrunken” down or boarded up to conserve heat.

Even with five floors and over 30,000 square feet of space, the building still wasn’t enough for the growing department store’s needs. By as early as 1908, the massive building was added to yet again, this time with a one story wing attached to its south side (seen in the photo above). Besides sales space on the main floor, the addition also housed the building’s overhauled heating system in the basement which included three boilers and even a steam powered engine and dynamo for electrical production.

The ad seen splashed across the Vertin’s backside is for Lee Overalls – “union made”.

Before moving on we take one last look at the old building, this time peeking through its windows to appreciate the intricately detailed tin ceiling that is still intact inside. The present owners have done an amazing job bringing back the old department store’s feel in its current art gallery. A stroll through the gallery feels like a stroll through the old department store itself. Some day I hope to procure a tour of the building’s interior and share it with my readers. But until then you’ll have to visit the gallery yourself to get a look.

Discuss…

  1. debra makolin schmidt

    great to see the old home area. Miss Everything about it.

  2. My Grandfather worked as a stock and delivery boy in the grocery dept. around 1914-16. This gave him the access to the roof to take the photos that appear in Copper Country Reflections. When groceries or store stock arrived at one of the railroad depots, teamsters (or draymen) would deliver the items to the elevator door on 6th Street. It was this operation that gave my Grandfather an aversion to smoked fish. The fish were baled, 100 lbs each; during one such delivery the teamster was in a hurry and really didn’t care about quality assurance, he just pushed the bales of fish into the street. This went beyond getting the bales dirty, the street was also the horse latrine. The bales were duly sent to the basement where, it is hoped, they were hosed off.
    My Grandmother’s sister Kate was hired as a seamstress at Vertin’s, they provided services for the things they sold. It was there that she met John Vertin. The workplace romance resulted in marriage.

  3. What a great trip down memory lane! My family did a good share of shopping at Vertins. Thanks for sharing.

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