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Savannah Business Then & Now: Remembering Broughton Street Through the Eves of Julius Edel

Category: Historic Businesses "Then & Now"

By Catherine Rendón

SBJ Staff

Julius Edel’s memories of Broughton Street are intertwined not only with his family’s history in Savannah but his own childhood, youth, and 81 years. Julius Edel was named after his grandfather, Julius Edel, who landed in Charleston in the late 1870s and was a peddler who ended up in Richmond, Virginia. The younger Julius’s father, Herman Edel, came to Savannah’s milder climate from Richmond, Va., at age 16 to recover from a terrible fever. He was named after his uncle, Herman Myers, an entrepreneur and prominent Savannah figure of the early 1900s.

As a young man, Herman Edel rode the Habersham trolley since he rented a room at the Isle of Hope home of Johnny Mercer’s parents. Herman Edel later recalled how he used to play with the young baby Mercer and that is perhaps why Julius Edel feels such fondness for Susie Chisholm’s new sculpture depicting the composer on Ellis Square.

The Edels came from Bavaria and although there already was a Jewish presence in Savannah dating to 1733, the German Jews, made their mark in Savannah before the Eastern Jews. The German Jews had their own club, the Harmony Club, on Jones Street, once Savannah’s Harley Street. The former Harmony Club building is now painted green and sits on the corner of Jones and Bull and now houses SCAD’s Illustration department. Julius Edel’s mother’s was a Levy and the family originally hailed from Alsace Lorraine. These Levys owned the second largest department store (with their name) in Savannah after Adler’s. In its heyday, Levy’s filled much of the white building that now houses SCAD’s Jen Library.

But it was on Edel’s father’s side, particularly through the vision and work of his great uncle, Herman Myers, that a strong link with this city was established. Myers was not only the first Jewish Mayor of Savannah but he also built the present City Hall. Myers put in Savannah’s first artesian wells and served as mayor “off and on” for 19 years. “He was wise on money,” Edel said, “and he didn’t increase taxes.”

Julius Edel himself was born on September 24th, 1929, about ten days before the great Wall Street crash. He was the third child in his family and the only son. For some time, his parents didn’t have a car and they lived with his mother’s family, the Levys, on E. 31st Sreet, which was then considered remote from the town center. When Edel’s father bought his first car it was from Critz’s Buick Agency, then on West Broad and Bay Streets. The Edels moved to 49th Street in 1930 which was then “considered the end of the earth.” Edel’s oldest sister, Helen, was among the first graduates in 1939 of the then new Savannah High, followed by Edel in 1947.

As a child, Edel belonged to the Christ Church Boy Scout Troop. The troop often met at the Christ Church Parish House (at 18 Abercorn St.) near Reynolds Square. The Parish House had once been the property of his great uncle Herman Myers. The building that still stands there today began its existence as a cigar factory. Myers had branches manufacturing cigars in Tampa and Havana, and for a long time the extensive glass roof of the Christ Church Parish House was used to dry tobacco leaves.

Myers also built what was to become Savannah’s tallest building in the early 1900s. When a neighboring businessman, one Mr. Blum, heard about Myers’s plans, he decided he would build a taller building, with six stories instead of five. Blum boasted he’d be able to look down on Myers’s building from his perch at Bull & Congress Streets. Myers said nothing and kept on building ‘til his building reached ten stories in height. Myers’s high-rise dwarfed Blum’s project. The elegant white building which then dominated Broughton St. had little of the 19th century fussiness and suggested a more streamlined world.

A large black plaque identified it as: The National Bank of Savannah. Myers, its founder, directed it for 24 years. After being the National Bank of Savannah it became the Liberty Bank before The Trust Company of Georgia acquired it. This eventually became known as the Sun Trust of Savannah and although Myers original building no longer stands the Sun Trust’s garage now occupies its space.

Myers’ boldness and business acumen not only miffed Blum but many other locals. Across the street from the bank (but on the same side of Broughton St.), stood another long vanished structure: a fine brick building with balconies and ornate details like a filigree fan. This was the home of the Oglethorpe Club, an exclusive bastion of “old” Savannah, with a membership of white, Christian men often complete with a colonial pedigree. It has only been in the last three years that the Oglethorpe Club has invited and admitted Jews to its membership.

After Myers’ death, c. 1908, his building continued to be a coveted address. For example, the law firm Bouhan, Williams & Levy which is celebrating its 125th anniversary, moved into the building after WWII. During the late 1950s even TV station WSAV came to have its headquarters on the top floor of Myers’s building. Edel recalled how this television station was able to film the terrible fire that burned Adler’s Department Store straight from their windows across the street as the flames engulfed it. That fire became the turning point that destabilized what had been a prosperous and rich urban world. This and the rise of the automobile’s popularity and other factors led to an exodus to the south of the city, what today is considered mid-town Savannah, but which then still had dirt roads strewn with oyster-shells.

Edel also remembered how Adler made little of Atlanta developer Scott Huggins’ talk of the new Oglethorpe Mall. Adler said he’d never leave downtown, although in fact, he had already acquired space at Savannah’s first mall even before fire decimated his own establishment. Broughton Street would not begin to recover its vitality until the late 1990s when merchants and SCAD began to return to its buildings and revitalize Savannah’s main street.

Upon his return from the Korean War, Edel found his friends congregating at “Anton’s,” which flanked his uncle’s building. “Their sandwiches cost 97 cents, plus 3 cents tax,” Edel recalled. “Anton’s” was Savannah’s first real Deli complete with dill pickles on every table. Its owner, Andy Andrews, was a Greek-American who invariably visited customers (before they took their final bite), saying: “I hope you enjoyed it.” Everyone knew this meant, “Ok, now that you’ve eaten, get out and make room for the next customer.” Andrews had a particularly sharp-tongued waitress who would “sass everyone.” She was as much part of the experience of going to “Anton’s” as the sandwiches and Mr. Andrews himself.

Broughton St. was a microcosm of many things: businesses ranging from car dealerships to clothing emporiums and a variety of five & dime shops as well as department stores. Many merchant families’ lives were intertwined through friendship and often knotted through marriage. Broughton Street businesses can be looked on as a diagram of an elaborate hopscotch game of old and new entrepreneurs which introduced and defined Savannah fashion. Stores like Levy’s and Adler’s predated the arrival of national chains like Sears & Roebuck, J.C. Penney and Kress, all of which eventually (after WWII) took their places on Broughton Street. Firestone Tires has always dominated the west end of Broughton Street.

The Levys and Friedmans competed with one another on opposite sides of the street. Morris Levy stood where Primary Art stands today and was the men’s shop. Once a year (during the Christmas sales) Edel’s father would buy him a suit there. Schwobilt’s on Drayton and Broughton Streets, also catered to men and was more akin to today’s Joseph Banks rather than Brooks Brothers. Men’s Quality Shop belonged to Joe Lesser and stood where 24E is today. His brother, Saul, owned the Globe Shoe Store across the street, which continues to be run by his grandson, John Sussman, today. The fourth men’s shop was called “The Hub” and was started by Lester Harris.

Broughton Street was also home to Hogan’s Department Store (now Banana Republic) across from Silver’s five & dime still recognizable today because of its red and gold signage and now a shop of imported furniture. Behind Kress’s, today’s Gap, stood the City Market (destroyed c. 1960 and now Ellis Square), a favorite destination for Edel’s mother on shopping days. The Groceteria, Savannah’s first supermarket, had the novelty of shopping buggies in aisles wide enough for only one customer. As for the City Market, it was the filthiest and liveliest part of town and the Rosenzwag family owned “The Bargain Corner,” a food store on Bay & Jefferson Streets. Then there were the Meddins, the butchers, who had a place in the City Market and “would sell you the whole picking cow if you liked.”

As Broughton Street neared West Broad, (today’s MLK) the clientele changed as did the businesses. Many of these were still owned by Jewish merchants but catered to African Americans. Yachum & Yachum, Uncle Sammy’s Boys, formerly Perelman Brothers, a department store, was perhaps the best known. During WWI the Perelmans volunteered and closed shop. The brothers were sent out to the Mexican front, and since there wasn’t much to do there they opened a pawn shop which they named after a nearby Mexican town called Yachum. So, when the brothers returned and reopened the shop they christened it as Yachum & Yachum. Although the shop survived Martin Luther King’s assassination, it was not longer after this that the shop was destroyed by a Molotov cocktail.

Saturday was the busiest day on Broughton Street. In those days everyone who attended the same schools and belonged to the same Boy or Girl Scout troop or clubs, irrespective of religion, would gather on Broughton Street to socialize, shop, go to the movies, window shop, or just meet up. Persons from the outlying counties and from “across the river” would also fill Savannah’s sidewalks. This was not only an opportunity to buy goods and visit with friends, but to partake in some of the flamboyance of some of Broughton Street’s merchants. Undoubtedly the most spectacular show on Saturdays went to Julius Kaminski, owner of the Nash dealership on the east end of Broughton, on Lincoln Street. Kaminski would time his outing for the moment the crowd was at its peak and then he’d take a Nash with a long banner and drive it down Broughton with one wheel removed, thus proving that “you could drive a Nash even with a flat tire.”

From the 1930s to the 1950s there were five movie theatres in a one and a half block radius. Their names: Arcadia, the Bijou, the Lucas, the Odeon and Wise. One of Edel’s classmates, Albert Wise, was the son of the owner of a picture palace, now SCAD’s Trustee’s Theatre, which Edel considered “the greatest thing I’d ever seen.” The boys concocted all kinds of tricks in order to be able to get as many of their friends in and they also chased after and “pulled” the B & A tram (that is the Barnard and Abercorn line) thus disrupting their runs, much to the conductor’s annoyance.

After Edel graduated from UGa and married, he ran “Alexander Brothers,” a blue jean factory that his father, Herman Edel, had inherited in part from one of the Alexander brothers, a bachelor. Edel considers himself fortunate that the jean craze of the late 1970s and 80s added to the demand of his goods. The factory was housed in the substantial pink building at 508 East Bay Street that his father had bought in the late 1920s for approximately $15,000. When Edel sold the same building in 1985 he was glad to be rid of it even though he can’t recall a better-built structure than that Factor’s Walk building.

In 1989 Edel also helped found a bank, also by the name of the Savannah Bank. Since his retirement, Edel and his wife, Danyse (née Greenwald), have been active Savannah philanthropists particularly in education, supporting institutions such as the Savannah Country Day School, the Telfair/Jepson Museums and the Savannah Music Festival. In keeping with the family tradition, Julius Edel lives in one of the tallest buildings in Savannah. From there he can see City Hall’s golden dome and every night he looks out from his bedroom window and sees the lights come on across the expanse of the Talmadge Bridge.

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