Backtrax: Downtown’s Martin’s Dept. Store & Offerman Building

As the Landmarked Romanesque revival Offerman Building along Fulton Street Mall continues buildout of TJ Maxx and a bevy of boutique stores—alongside H&M’s new-construction two-story glass modernist structure—it’s high time to take a look back at the history of the storied location at 505 Fulton Street.

Its life began in 1891, commissioned by mogel Henry Offerman, who owned the Brooklyn Sugar Refining Co., on the waterfront in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His Downtown “highrise” opened as one of the tallest buildings in Brooklyn. The Wechsler Department Store operated in the space until 1897; with Darlington’s Department Store scheduled to take its place in 1907, until developer Kingston Realty went belly up before the location ever opened.

But its fortunes were soon to change for the long term. Hyman Zeitz, who had emigrated to the U.S. in 1882, opened a coat & suit department in an existing blouse shop called Martin’s at Fulton & Bridge Street. The business burgeoned and in 1924, Zeitz bought out Martin’s owner and moved next door to the seven-story Offerman Building, comprising 225,000 square feet. The cutting edge locale offered its own electrical generator and pneumatic tube system for moving cash through the store.

As Brooklyn’s Downtown Fulton district flourished, Martin’s ushered other major department stores to the neighborhood, including A.I. Namm & Son and Abraham & Straus (today, Macy’s). In the 1950s, Martin’s opened additional locations in the New York suburbs: Garden City, Babylon, Suffolk County, Hackensack, N.J., and Huntington. The latter store was 75,000 square feet and offered a 500-seat community room for civic meetings, making it the largest branch store at the time.

In October 1977, with annual sales of $30 million, Martin’s was sold to the Seedman Merchandising Group, operator of Times Square Stores. Unfortunately, their vision for the future differed, and in 1979 the Fulton Street store was closed because of “long-term unprofitability.” In hand, the downtown Brooklyn shopping district, which once catered to the borough’s affluent, “was no longer related to the surrounding shopping area,” the company surmised.

Soon after, the remaining Martin’s either closed or changed names, while the Offerman Building was designated a New York City Landmark in 2005. Throughout that decade, it housed job agencies, the MTA adjudication Bureau and discount retailer Conway (which moved to a new location on Fulton in 2010). Its last retailer was a temporary seasonal Christmas discounter in late 2010, before it was sadly boarded up.

And then came new life to the Downtown Fulton shopping district. An interconnected three-story annex to the east along Bridge Street was demolished to make way for Swedish retailer H&M’s first Brooklyn location in a new shiny glass two-story structure. Offerman, meanwhile, will house TJ Maxx, with hints of such upscale retailers of Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Giorgio Armani on signage outside. The upper floors are said to be going residential, with rumors of interest by hipster Justin Timberlake.

Meanwhile, Downtown Brooklyn’s City Point up the block continues to take shape, first to comprise a four-story 50,000sf retail building on Albee Square across from the landmarked Dime Savings Bank building. In all, that project intends to encompass 1.5 million square feet of retail & residential.

It’s gratifying to see this beautiful 120+-year building find new life, as one of the most beautiful architectural triumphs on Fulton. Long live the Offerman Building.

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  • knitwit

    Kudos once again to Chuck. Great research and it has invoked my memories of Fulton Street of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

    My grammar school white graduation dress was purchased it Martin’s. It was such a lovely experience for a little girl from East New York. My junior high school dress was also purchased in Martin’s. It was so upscale for us. I remember my best friend being brand conscious at 13 showing off her Martin’s label of her new winter coat.

    My big brother took me to me see Dean Martin and Jerry when the Fox still had stage shows along with the movies. As a teenager, I went to the Rock and Roll shows at the Fox. Saw Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper just before the plane crash.

    Wow! Really feel old now but great memories.

    Thanks Chuck. Keep up the great writing.

  • yoohoo

    Chuck, thank you for the historical overview of the handsome Offerman Building. By the way, Brooklyn Heights resident Otis Pearsall who, with other civic-minded residents was instrumental in obtaining historic district designation for Brooklyn Heights, also played a role in getting the Offerman Building landmarked.

  • http://n/a Barbara Shernoff

    i remember Martin’s in the late 1960’s, early 70’s. It was a wonderful department store. i still miss it. A&S was a wonderful store also- was sorry to see it go.