Like many other structures in Covington, the Coppin’s Building has had a long and varied life. Constructed in 1910, it was first a fashionable department store, and was even touted at one time as the largest in the state. In 1990, it became Covington’s city hall. As of 2014, developers have made plans to make it a boutique hotel and residence.
John Roberts Coppins (1848-1913), was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and attended Cincinnati Public Schools as a youth while working summers as a bundle boy for H&S Pogue Co. As a young adult, Coppin’s gained valuable experience in the dry goods business while serving as a deparment head for the company. At the age of 23, he decided to establish his own dry goods business in Covington, and in 1873, opened the California Dry Goods Co. at 607 Madison Avenue.
By 1880, his store had outgrown its location, and moved to a larger building at 538 Madison, which he originally leased from its owner, M.C. Motch, before purchasing the property for himself. By the 1890’s, a large 2-story addition was added to the building, and the store became the first structure in Covington to be wired with electric lighting.
By 1903, the company’s growth demanded more space. This continued growth called for a new location for the department store. The property at 7th and Madison Avenue proved to be the most suitable.
Coppin purchased the property in July 1906 with $33,000 he won while betting on a horse at Latonia Racecourse. In September 1907, he incorporated his business as the John R. Coppin’s Co., and began the construction of a new department store.
Designed by James Gilmore and completed in 1910, this 7-story structure became the first reinforced-concrete skyscraper in Kentucky. The contractor was the Ferro Concrete Company of Cincinnati.
Three years later, Coppin’s died. The store was in massive debt at the time. In 1915, Frank Thorpe and Henry Sterne purchased 51% of the company, and eight years later bought the remaining outstanding stock from the Coppin family to acquire full ownership.
By now the store was a part of the Arkwright Merchandise Corp., a New York based merchandise service which kept patrons up-to-date on the latest fashion. When Thorpe died in 1932, the management of Coppin’s passed to William and Fred Macklin. Under the Macklin’s, the department store became successful during the 1940’s, 50’s, and ’60’s.
During this period, Jim Crow laws in Covington made downtown a less than accommodating place for African Americans. The most visible forms of racial discrimination were in the use of public utilities, such as restrooms, water fountains, and dining tables. At Coppin’s, a protest led by civil rights leader Alice Shimfessel (1901-1983), succeeded in making a “whites only” bathroom in the store open to all races.
Mrs. Shimfessel, a longtime president of the Covington chapter of the NAACP, the L.B. Fouse Civic League, and official of the Congress of Racial Equality, held organized community protests to end Coppin’s policy, as well as many other racial issues in Covington. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended racial discrimination for good.
In 1965, downtown Covington was a popular shopping district for many in the Northern Kentucky region. A variety of businesses, such as Coppin’s, Sears and Roebuck, JCPenney, and Montgomery Ward thrived here. Coppin’s was the largest of these department stores in Covington.
As the flight to the suburbs escalated during this same time period, the central business district of Covington began a slow business decline. Coppins continued to be one of the most popular stores in Covington, but sales were not good. In 1976, the Florence Mall opened for business in nearby Boone County. This led to a downturn in shopping at Coppin’s department store. A year later, Coppin’s was closed.
In March 1988, the old Coppin’s Department Store Building was purchased by the city of Covington for $1.5 million. The building was remodeled and in September 1990, it officially became the Covington City Hall.
Until 2014, it served as the Covington City Building but city leaders agreed to move to another historic building on Pike Street when developers proposed building a hotel and residences on the site.
The Covington-based business and real-estate investment company, known as the Salyers Group plans to develop the building into a luxury boutique hotel.
The Coppins Building is on the Historic Tour.