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San Rafael History: The Man Behind Albert Field

Rags-to-riches immigrant Jacob Albert donated a park to San Rafael for the benefit of children and sports.

for a North American League baseball team could bring new life to San Rafael’s . With controversy arising from neighbors’ concerns about noise and traffic, now is a good time to consider the man who gave this playing field to the people of San Rafael.

The life of Jacob Albert reads like a Horatio Alger story wherein the hero rises from “rags to respectability.” But Jacob Albert went beyond mere respectability to become a beloved benefactor of his adopted hometown.

Jacob Albert and his wife Annie emigrated to the United States from Lithuania in 1891 and stayed a brief time in Pennsylvania, where son Harry was born. When Albert and Annie arrived in Marin in about 1893, they were nearly penniless 21-year-olds with an infant son.

They settled near Lagunitas Creek in Tocaloma where Albert began peddling household goods from a pack on his back to the milkers and dairy ranchers of West Marin. He learned Portuguese and Italian to better serve his customers.

The Wonder

When Albert ventured into San Rafael to sell his wares, he was arrested for peddling without a license. On paying his fine, Albert decided to remain in San Rafael. He first sold wares from a horse and cart, then in 1895 set up a dry goods store in a rented space next to the southeast corner of Fourth and B streets. He called his store The Wonder.  He and his family lived above the store.

Alberts’s business did very well, and both his family and his fortune grew. Daughters Bertha and Alice were born in 1894 and 1898 respectively. In 1899 Jacob became a US citizen.

Rags to Riches

By the turn of the century, Albert owned San Rafael’s largest dry goods store. He became known for his excellent service and the value of his goods. He advertised The Wonder as “The People’s Store.”

In less than a decade, the Alberts had risen from poverty to relative affluence and considerable prominence in the community. In 1905, son Harry’s 13th birthday party, a bar mitzvah, made the news. Some 75 guests celebrated “in royal style” at the family’s home at 510 Fifth Avenue.

Albert’s - A Family Business

Albert renamed his dry goods store Albert’s Department Store. It was a family operation, staffed by Albert, who was affectionately known as “Jake,” his wife Annie, and their three children. Daughter Alice Albert Marcus speaks in her oral history of selling notions in the store on Saturdays.

Over the years as business grew, Albert moved his store to several different locations on Fourth Street. In 1913, he opened a branch in San Anselmo.

Herzog-Rake Building

In 1917 Albert moved his store into the new Herzog-Rake building, on the corner of Fourth and B streets and proclaimed it “the most complete and modernly equipped department store in northern California.”  He dedicated the new store to the people of San Rafael and Marin County and invited all to come see the store “which YOU HAVE BUILT.” Over 2,500 people attended the opening.

Albert’s Department Store became the place to shop in San Rafael. with branches operating in Richmond, Mill Valley and San Anselmo. Anne Kent, when interviewing Albert’s daughter Alice recalls “When vacation came along, all of the children would race up to see if they could get a job with Mr. Albert…. that was the most fun they ever had, working in Mr. Albert's store.” Albert’s experienced little employee turnover, as employees became part of the Albert family.

The Albert Building

With his business profits, Albert purchased a good deal of property in the downtown San Rafael area. In 1930 he built the Albert Building, San Rafael’s first high-rise, four stories tall, at the corner of Fourth and B streets. The state-of-the-art building featured San Rafael’s first elevator with “an all-day elevator service that extended into the late hours of the evening.” 

Woolworth’s occupied one of the building’s storefronts on Fourth Street, The Webb and Rogers Pharmacy occupied the corner. The handsome building still stands today housing , and .

The Albert Building instilled hope and promise during the Great Depression. Jacob Albert was praised for his courage and acumen. The May 22, 1930 Marin Journal commented,  “Foresight, vision and faith in the community is what caused Jacob Albert to reach the success that he has. He has never stopped growing. And that faith and vision that he shows should be an inspiration to us all…Every dollar he has made he has put back into circulation in San Rafael with new buildings and enlargements of his own store facilities. He’s the kind of man any community can feel proud of.”

Albert Field

In 1937 Albert donated the land that became Albert Park for a sports field for young people. Crowds thronged to Albert Field on July 16, 1940 for a grand celebration of Jacob Albert and his civic accomplishments. Ray Brusati’s accordion band played in his honor. Speaker Jack Leibert praised Albert for his contribution to making San Rafael “one of the first cities of the north bay area.” 

The Marin Journal reported, “While this ovation was going on, Mr. Albert sat, modestly smiling, appreciative. When it was all over, he thanked the people of San Rafael and those gathered, “from the bottom of my heart,” and said he hoped that the people of the city of his choice, would make use of the grounds, improve it, so that it would one day become one of the best recreational centers of this section of the state.”

Growth and Prosperity

Jacob Albert continued to invest in San Rafael. In 1942, he bought the corner of Fourth and Court streets and built a new Albert’s Department Store. He now operated department stores in San
Rafael, San Anselmo, Mill Valley, Napa and Richmond.

In 1943, Albert gave the land and $20,000 to the Marin Boy Scouts for a building at Second and A streets. In an October 23, 1943 article celebrating Jacob Albert’s 50 years in Marin, The West Marin Star stated “Nothing is too costly or too much trouble for Jacob Albert if young people or his community can be served.”

San Rafael City Council

In 1937 Albert was drafted to run for San Rafael City Council. He served on the Council for nearly 10 years until his death in 1946. His death from a sudden heart attack was a shock to the community. The night before he died, Albert had attended a San Rafael City Council meeting in seemingly good health.

One obituary read, “The wisdom of his experience and sound judgment was felt in the administration of city affairs…Above all he was a kindly, democratic spirit to whom wealth and influence did not cause him to lose touch with his fellow man.”

Harry Albert

Albert left an estate of nearly $1 million to his three children. Albert’s son Harry carried on the business and his father’s dedication to public service by filling his father’s vacant City Council seat. In 1952 Harry sold Albert’s Department Store to Macy’s, although the land at remained with the family.

Son Harry also continued his father’s interest in San Rafael’s development. His obituary in 1963 stated that “much of the face lifting of the downtown district in the past few years has been because of Harry Albert, who was in the forefront in remodeling properties to improve San Rafael’s business climate, even buying old buildings to have them completely restored.” 

Several of the photographs were provided by the Marin History Museum. If you are interested in purchasing these photographs or others from their collection please call
415-382.0770x3 or email photoservices@marinhistory.org. 

Other resources were provided by the Anne T. Kent California Room of the Marin County Library.

Murray August 09, 2011 at 05:07 PM
I think this article goes a long way in showing the development of why San Rafael has an unusually attractive downtown area.
Vicki Newton August 09, 2011 at 11:01 PM
What an interesting article! I always wondered who "Albert" of the Albert Park was and now, thanks to this well written article, I know. Now would be a good time to have several Mr. Alberts around for their vision and generosity to the San Rafael community....

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