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Corpus Christi History
By Murphy Givens

Wednesday, Feb. 3, 1999

Lichtenstein's grew up with the city


   I have been looking at old negatives, holding them up to the light, squinting to try to decipher what the shot was or where it was taken. Many shots I've looked at in recent days were taken at Lichtenstein's Department Store, which was a focal point of this city for a century. This pioneer mercantile establishment played a big role in the history of Corpus Christi.
    Morris Lichtenstein came to this country from Germany in 1852. He lived in St. Louis, which had a large community of German immigrants, before moving to Texas in 1857. He worked as a clerk in Galveston, then operated stores in Victoria, Goliad and Indianola. In 1872, he and his partner, L. Alexander, had a bad year during the panic of 1873. The partnership was dissolved and Lichtenstein decided to try his luck elsewhere.
    Lichtenstein loaded his goods on a shallow-draft boat and set out for another coastal town -- Corpus Christi. It was a fortunate move. The following year, after the great hurricane of 1875, Indianola had almost ceased to exist.
    Lichtenstein set up his business in a rented wood-frame building at Chaparral and Peoples. (I had it wrong in the historical Q&A in last Sunday's edition. I thought it was at Water and Peoples because it was on the site of the old Nueces Hotel. But that hotel stretched between Water and Chaparral, along Peoples. Lichtenstein's first store was on Chaparral.)
    This was a small but busy town. Goods were brought from the east in steamers and sailing vessels that stopped at New Orleans and Galveston before docking at Corpus Christi. The year Lichtenstein began his store was the year the Morris and Cummings Cut was finished, which dredged an eight-foot channel across the bay to allow the larger Morgan Line steamships to visit Corpus Christi.
    This was when the city's front yard looked more like its back yard; the town in those days faced mudflats, humming with mosquitoes.
    The streets were clogged with big-wheeled Mexican carts and most of the street palavers were in Spanish. The standard of exchange was silver dollars and gold eagles; paper money was not trusted.
    When he began operations in 1874, Lichtenstein hired three clerks. There were wooden sidewalks in front of the store. He sold linsey-woolsey, calico, fine ladies' and men's apparel shipped from New York, and guns and ammunition. After the famous Nuecestown Raid by border bandits in 1875, a company of Texas Rangers led by Leander McNelly stopped at Lichtenstein's on their way to clean up the border. Lichtenstein supplied the rangers with Sharps rifles and told them not to worry about paying him. He said he'd rather give his merchandise away than have bandits steal it.
    During the 1880s, Lichtenstein's and the city grew. By 1890, the city's population had tripled to more than 9,000. The store had outgrown its quarters on Peoples and Lichtenstein moved his stocks into the Uehlinger building.
    In the early '90s, Corpus Christi was booming, brought on by the ideas of promoter Elihu H. Ropes. Streets were graded, subdivisions laid out, and land sold at outrageous prices. But even after Ropes' plans failed and the city dwindled to its pre-Ropes status, Lichtenstein's continued to grow.
    In 1903, Morris Lichtenstein formed a partnership with his two sons, S. Julius and A. Albert and the store was renamed Lichtenstein & Sons. The founder died in 1904, 30 years after he left Indianola for Corpus Christi. Julius and Albert managed the store until their deaths. Julius died in 1923 and Albert in 1929.
    In 1911, the store was moved from the Uehlinger building into a new three-story building on Chaparral at Schatzel. Like the new streetcars that went clanging by on Chaparral, the new brick store was a marvel. It featured the city's first elevators and was one the first buildings in town with a sprinkler system.
    In 1932, in the depths of the Depression, Morris L. Lichtenstein, the grandson of the founder and son of Albert, bought the business from the assorted heirs. He had been employed in the store as a buyer of men's clothing. He raked up enough money to buy the store for $50,000. The deal was concluded on a Sunday and he had a big sale on Monday to bring in enough cash to make payroll.
    Morris persuaded his younger brother Albert, who had been in the insurance business, to join the firm. Albert took over the financial end of the business, while Morris looked after the merchandising. Morris would walk the floors each morning to greet employees and shoppers. Albert hated the smell of tobacco smoke; when people lit up in his office, he would take out a bottle of Air-Wick he kept in his desk.
    The next big move came in 1941 -- seven days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor -- when a new store was opened a block south, at the corner of Lawrence and Chaparral. A tea room on the fourth floor opened in 1942; it became a popular meeting place for lunch.
    Albert Lichtenstein decided in 1953 to run for mayor. After announcing his candidacy, he and his wife departed for a 60-day Mediterranean cruise. Despite the fact that he did not campaign, he won the election as part of what was called the Better Government Party. But he did not finish his term.
    Albert was a fierce supporter of a toll tunnel under the ship channel to relieve the traffic bottleneck caused by the bascule bridge. When the City Council on March 24, 1954, voted to go for a high bridge instead -- mainly because the state highway department would pay for it -- Albert Lichtenstein stood up and resigned. He left his seat at the council table and took a seat in the audience.
    Morris L. Lichtenstein Sr. died in 1970 and Albert died in 1976. Lichtenstein's was sold in 1972, two years short of the 100th anniversary of its founding. The name was changed to Frost Bros. in 1977 and closed several years later.
    At the ribbon-cutting of the last Lichtenstein building, Morris Lichtenstein Sr., grandson of the founder, said, "We like to feel that this store is more than a store -- that it is a part of the lives and hopes of Corpus Christi."
    It was that. It was the city's oldest continuing business entrerprise, a household word for a hundred years. It played a big role in shaping the history of Corpus Christi.


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  © 1998 Corpus Christi Caller Times, a Scripps Howard newspaper. All rights reserved.


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