Joske’s Department Store was founded in 1869 by Julius Joske, a prominent Jewish merchant from Germany who came to San Antonio to escape religious persecution. Just after his arrival, he opened J. Joske Dry Goods on Main Plaza near the store of his brother-in-law. Business boomed, and a few years later Joske decided to return to Germany in order to bring his wife and children back to San Antonio with him. In 1874, Julius Joske reopened his store near the military supply depot at the Alamo and found loyal customers in government employees and teamsters. The store was once again very successful, and just a year later, business had increased enough that a larger building was necessary. In 1875, the store was relocated to the west side of Alamo Plaza, which at the time had sparse yet growing business activity including the Menger Hotel, the new Galveston, Houston, & San Antonio train depot, the Alamo Plaza Post Office, and competition from other dry goods stores. At this time, Joske also changed the store name to Joske and Sons Dry Goods and added high-end fashions as well as bargain bins to the store inventory (Alves n.d.).
By the late 1880s, sales had increased so that once again Joske and Sons Dry Goods was in need of a larger building. In 1888, with the sons of Julius Joske at the helm, the business moved across the street to the corner of East Commerce and Alamo Streets and was renamed Joske Brothers (Unknown n.d.). Referred to as the “Big Store,” the new building encompassed two floors and a basement. Designed by San Antonio architects James Wahrenberger and Albert Beckman, the store had a cast iron frame with brick and limestone veneer. With the move, the Joske brothers also devised a new sales strategy by increasing prices in one cent increments instead of five cents, which was the lowest standard in most stores at the time (Alves n.d.).
The store continued to expand its merchandise and departments, which once again necessitated a larger building. However, instead of moving to a new location, the existing building was expanded in 1889. The addition was designed by local architects Alfred Giles and Henri Guidon who expanded each floor. Changes to the exterior of the building were heavily influenced by Giles’s travels to England. These included a 300-foot storefront of striped brick and stone, repeating arches over each second floor window, and an onion-domed turret over the corner entrance (Alves n.d.).
By the turn of the century, Joske’s had become the largest store southwest of the Mississippi River, having a large variety of merchandise and an increasingly affluent clientele of San Antonio residents and visiting tourists. Under the ownership of Alexander Joske, another expansion project began in 1909 designed by local architect Leo M. Dielmann. Dielmann added two floors to the building and expanded each by 30 feet toward St. Joseph’s Church. In 1939, San Antonio Architect Bartlett Cocke covered the 1909 façade with a streamlined Art Deco façade with Spanish Colonial Revival details, and the building was expanded by 100,000 square feet (McCullar 1979). The Art Deco style is expressed in the rounded, streamlined corners of the building and repeating vertical columns and geometric shapes. The Spanish Colonial Revival detail is expressed in the decorative ironwork surrounding the building’s name and in the railings and in the first floor windows designed after the famous Rose Window at Mission San José (Grubbs 1987). Additional modifications at this time included the bolstering of the building’s cast iron frame and wooden floors with concrete slabs and columns (Urbantech Inc. 1990).
The size of the store was then doubled under a 1953 building program overseen by Barlett Cocke, which encompassed the St. Joseph Church on three sides (McCullar 1979). Residents began to jokingly refer to the church as St. Joske’s. The last major change to the exterior of the building coincided with Hemisfair in 1968. At this time, horizontal fiberglass screens were installed along the Commerce Street façade that hid the windows of the top three floors. In 1987, Joske’s was sold to Dillard’s, which occupied the building until 2008 when it was purchased and later occupied by the Rivercenter shopping mall. The building is part of the National Register of Historic Places-listed and City of San Antonio Alamo Plaza Historic District and is an individual City of San Antonio local landmark (Urbantech 1990).
For more information on the Joske’s Department Store Building see the article on the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas Online. The University of Incarnate Word’s Journal of Life and Culture of San Antonio website has an article that provides an in-depth discussion of the first 50 years of Joske’s Brothers Store. Finally, the San Antonio Conservation Society also provides information about the facility in their historic walking tour of downtown.