Robertson’s Department Store
Location: 207-217 S. Michigan St., South Bend
Robertson’s Department Store was the anchor of a once lively downtown shopping area in downtown South Bend. It would ultimately become the victim of a collapsed industry and a failed urban renewal plan that would set the area back for years.
Originally founded in 1904 by George A. Roberston at 127 S. Michigan St., the original Robertson’s Department Store was a simple, one-room operation. Robertson’s offered quality goods at reasonable prices. By 1910, business had grown so much that Mr. Robertson was able to purchase the building next door and expand the store into that location.
By 1923 the store had outgrown the space and was moved too the 200 block of S. Michigan St., at a location that once held the Studebaker Brothers blacksmith shop.
The Robertson family would sell the store in 1932 to a pair of brothers, Will & Sig Welber. The Welbers would make Robertson’s a huge success. In 1938, the Welber brothers would purchase 7,500 square feet in the building just to the south of the store.
Later that year, Robertson’s introduced a new concept to Indiana called “Chargea-Plate.” The idea was to provide a charge account system for customers to buy goods on credit. The store was the first in Indiana to offer anything like this.
By 1941, Robertson’s had become a South Bend institution. The famed tea room, located on the sixth floor, was the premier social spot in North Central Indiana. World War II would slow the store’s momentum for a few years.
Robertson’s wasn’t just for the white social elite of South Bend, the store was considered the best place in town to shop if you were African American. Most of the downtown shopping area was considered either unwelcoming or not available for non-white shoppers. Robertson’s actually allowed African Americans to try on clothing before they purchased. Barbara Brandy was one of the first African American secretaries hired downtown at Robertson’s.
In 1948, Robertson’s installed the first escalator in the South Bend area, further making the store a fixture in downtown. The year 1950 would see another renovation that included adding air conditioning to all seven floors (which included the basement).
In early 1951, Robertson’s would add a new revolutionary feature for the time called “U-ASK-IT.” Customers would press a button, wait for the operator, ask a question about any item in the store and get an immediate answer.
Throughout the 1950s, Robertson’s would continue to provide service to shoppers, brides, and everyone in-between. The department store was always looking to be at the forefront of changes in technology and customer service. In 1962, Robertson’s, at a cost of over $250,000, installed an IBM system called “the Mechanical Brain.” The “brain” allowed anyone who entered the store to find the perfect gift. A shopper would tell the woman behind the device all of the characteristics of the person for whom they wanted to buy for and the device would find the ‘right’ item.
Business would take a hit as the Studebaker Auto Corporation would close its South Bend factory in December of 1963. With that closure, other industries would leave town and South Bend would be hit by a giant recession. Any new buildings or businesses were built in the new mall area in South Bend’s neighbor town, Mishawaka. The move created a drop in traffic along the Michigan Street shopping corridor and gave further reasons for people to not come downtown.
After years of struggling sales and a bankruptcy by their parent company, the giant store became a financial burden. In 1982, Robertson’s Department Store closed its doors. However, South Bend mayor Roger Parent would work with the owners of the store and Robertson’s reopened a month after its initial closing.
Nevertheless, the big building was too large and financially burdensome. In June 1982, the decision was made to move into the smaller, now vacant J.C. Penney’s building across S. Michigan Street. The original Robertson’s building would remain vacant for several years.
The move didn’t help. After two years Robertson’s closed, this time for good. The last day of operation was June 14, 1986. The original large Robertson’s building was converted into apartments for seniors.
Smith, Jordan, and Bill Underly. “Robertson’s Department Store – South Bend, Indiana.” CARDBOARD AMERICA, 1 Oct. 2016, cardboardamerica.org/2016/12/13/robertsons/.