The Upscale Department Store
When construction of the Brighton Building completed in 1903, it was the city’s first skyscraper. The eight-story building is an Art Deco interpretation of the popular Italianate architectural style as seen in its Renaissance-inspired cornices, striped stone work, and neoclassical window moldings.
Empsall’s history starts in 1907 when local dry goods merchant, Frank A. Empsall, purchased the Florintine D. Roth store in the Brighton Building. Empsall spent months renovating the building before he reopened it later that year, adding a new wing off the back of the building and sculpted terra cotta masonry, glazed brickwork, and red mahogany interiors. When it opened, the first three floors housed the Frank A. Empsall and Co. Department Store.
Empsall’s business model was similar to department stores like Sears & Roebuck. Empsall’s offered upscale tailored-clothing, home furnishings, bedding, a photography studio, and a tearoom that served 275 people a day at its height and was famous for its pecan pie. The department store had branded goods, for example, porcelain dinner services from Limoges, France. Empsall's also published season style catalogs through which it conducted a popular mail-order business. The store had a total of 33 departments until 1938.
Frank A. Empsall ran his department store for 13 years before retiring at age 53. He sold the majority of his shares to Frank B. Clark a resident of nearby Dexter, New York, and a man named Henry A. Hickok. Frank Clark, operated the business until his death in 1937, after which point management of Empsall’s transferred to his son, Edwin S. Clark. Edwin S. Clark managed the company with his mother Mrs. Frank B. Clark serving as vice president.
In 1938 Edwin Clark remodeled and expanded Empsall’s. The front of the building was remodeled with black granite, bronze grills for the windows, and a new main entrance. Edwin Clark also added 17 new departments, bringing the total from 33 in 1923 to 50 by 1938. The new departments includied interior decorating, a drapery workroom, furniture, picture framing, carpeting and linoleum sections, and an optical department.
Edwin Clark operated Empsall’s until his death in 1948. His widow Lucille Clark Matthews then became president and owner until the store was sold to three partners in 1990: Geno E. Martini, Marion A. Capone, who served as the store’s general manager in 1986, and Shirley R. Gilbert who ran the department store until it closed in 1993. Once the cornerstone of commerce in Public Square, Empsall’s succumbed to a lack of financing after the February 1993 collapse of Jefferson National Bank.
Since Emspall’s closing, the Brighton Building has gone through a series of changes. In 1992, Neighbors of Watertown, the city’s housing authority, raised $3.2 million to renovate and convert the top six floors of the Brighton into 36 apartments. In 2015, they received an additional $792,000 which allowed an expansion to 44 apartments. The units were designated for low-income households, with nine units allotted for use by the city’s homeless residents. The buildings bottom floors have served as a night club and music venue called the Dungeon, and two different family fun center’s similar to Discovery Zone: Velocity, and the current business, Fun Xcape.