Last of the classic department stores
“Krauss is gone so you can’t try on / No queen-size lingerie …” “Ain’t Dere No More,” by Benny “Grunch” Antin
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY THE HISTORIC NEW ORLEANS COLLECTION
A veritable trade palace” – that’s how The Times-Picayune described Krauss and Company in 1903 when the department store opened in a cavernous building in the 1200 block of Canal Street. The Krauss brothers – Samuel, Leopold and Max – followed the lead of successful local retailer Leon Fellman (who was also initially their landlord), and set up shop with a huge department store offering everything women might want, plus a full men’s section. It closed in 1997, and it’s still missed and remembered fondly.
The décor was mainly utilitarian; trendy displays weren’t apparent. The interior was notable for the Art Deco escalator from the 1939 New York World’s Fair (and will be remembered for its wooden treads), but a renovation had removed what was a show-window lined vestibule facing Canal Street.
Krauss was, at heart, “like a country store – it didn’t have that sophisticated look,” says Judy LaBorde, director of publications at Louisiana State University School of Dentistry and a longtime Krauss patron. She fondly recalls shopping with her mother and getting dressed up to go to Canal Street. “Community Bargain Days – they’d put a coupon on the front page of the paper, you could clip it out and ride the bus. We’d get off at Woolworth’s and walk to Krauss.”
Hugo Kahn is still president of the company. He came on board in 1967. “I was working at a department store in Omaha, Neb. A head hunter called me for a job as a comptroller, and I came to New Orleans,” he explains.
Kahn was experienced in merchandising, and found that Krauss’ secret weapon was its vast selection. “Once the customer found what they wanted, they’d buy three or four.”
But Krauss also had something that stores today seem to lack: the old-fashioned language of retail. As LaBorde notes “The word ‘foundations’ – if you ask a 20-year-old ‘Did she want to go buy her foundations?’ she wouldn’t know what you were talking about. Corsets, a waist cincher, garter belts – that’s all gone.”
“I remember thinking, ‘Did Madonna get her bustier at Krauss?’” LaBorde laughs. The“queen-size lingerie” was popular. “Intimate apparel. When we moved that department up to the mezzanine, we made those fitting rooms really first-class,” Kahn recalls proudly.
LaBorde also regrets the passing of “the word ‘domestics’: sheets, towels, napkins, tablecloths, bedspreads, curtains. And ‘notions’ – all those little extra things.”
One of Krauss’ longtime patrons was the Baptist Rev. Irvin Morgan. He and his wife, Ethel, also owned an alterations and tailoring shop on St. Louis Street.
Rev. Morgan notes, “We bought a lot of crepe material at Krauss when we were making choir robes. We miss it. It was convenient, and they had all kinds of fabric: cotton, crepe, wool.” His wife also shopped at Krauss. “I bought lots of material and sewing machines, parts for machines, my crochet needles.”
People who sewed went to Krauss for good reason. “We had a $30,000 inventory of zippers and buttons,” Kahn says. And those sewing customers were loyal. “When Ultrasuede fabric came in, it was $30 to $40 a yard. We sold tons of that stuff!”
JoAnn Clevenger, owner of Upperline Restaurant, was also a fabric customer at Krauss. “I bought some lace there in 1986, and made some curtains for Upperline. They lasted until 2007,” she says.
Among the Krauss specialties were hats; they were found in the millinery department. “‘Millinery’ – that’s another word you don’t hear anymore,” notes LaBorde. Morgan remembers. “You could find beautiful hats at Krauss. I used to buy all my hats there. We don’t even have a decent place to buy hats now.”
Morgan had another favorite Krauss product: “I bought a beautiful set of dishes there, but Katrina took them. Those dishes had every pastel color, including lilac. I would use different tablecloths with them, for Easter I would use yellow or pink. And I got the tablecloths at Krauss.”
Clevenger fondly recalls the mezzanine area stocked with uniforms and aprons. As costumer for the One Mo’ Time show and its sequel, she made use of a Krauss apron.
Best of all, says Morgan, “Krauss was a comfortable place to go shopping. If you got hungry they had a counter.”
The counter was run by Eddie Baquet, of the restaurant family and, as Clevenger knew, it served authentic New Orleans food. That is why, when the American Institute of Wine and Food local chapter had Julia Child in town as an honored guest, she knew right where to take her.
“I brought her to Krauss, and Eddie was thrilled. She went back in the kitchen and talked to the ladies and stirred the pots.” Hugo Kahn says Child went home with the Baquet red beans recipe, too.
Krauss always had hard-to-find items, including kid gloves. Kahn recalls that one Mardi Gras season the store sold out of the long 14-button white kid gloves used by debutantes. A frantic call came in looking for a pair, but there were none left. “I told them they could try Saks,” Kahn says. “And the voice on the phone said, ‘This is Saks.’”
There were other special things about Krauss – “’Till the day we closed we used those pneumatic tubes, even when they went to the operators at the computer screens,” Kahn says. And, when the downtown Senior Center operated by the National Council of Jewish Women needed a new location, they moved in to a room at Krauss.
“We had a piano in there for them,” Kahn says. “I had to quit stopping in because all the ladies wanted me to dance!”
After the store closed and the building was empty, a Jewish Carnival organization, called Krewe de Jieux at the time, asked him and his wife to be their 1998 king and queen. Then, they suggested the ball be held at Krauss and Company. With the krewe providing the insurance and rented portable toilets, “We had 2,000 people, with Irma Thomas. It was a blast; it lasted until 2 in the morning. The acoustics were great!” Kahn remembers.
With that perfect New Orleans send-off, Krauss was ready for its next incarnation.
Developer Elie Khoury has put $70 million into the 1201 Canal St. complex, with 233 residential units in the combined main building and the building behind, once used as Krauss’ warehouse. There are 20,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor (which would be perfect for a restaurant/bar entertainment complex to complement the reinvigorated Saenger Theater). Khoury and his family are residents, and about 400 people currently live on-site. Khoury says only about 35 units are unoccupied at present.
When Hugo Kahn first arrived in New Orleans to work for Krauss, he noticed a different feeling from that in Nebraska. It was the familiarity, he says. “It was ‘Hi, babe’ and ‘Mr. Hugo’, and ‘Mr. Jimmy,’” (the late Jimmy Heymann, longtime Krauss president and nephew of the original Krauss brothers). Kahn quickly took to “the warmth and the immediate good feeling.” He never went back to Nebraska. Obviously, there was just something about Krauss.