Born in Lithuania, Jacob Brett came to Altoona in 1891, opening his first women’s clothing store at 1309 11th Avenue. When the store could no longer expand, Brett purchased the site of the PRR superintendent’s house, which he razed, and began work on the five-story Brett Building.
When it opened March 6, 1924, Brett’s Department Store was described as a magnificent merchandizing emporium. The basement store was devoted to less-expensive, ready-to-wear lines and linens. The first floor had impulse items such as hosiery, cosmetics, and perfume. The store’s curved stairway and elegant mezzanine design enticed customers to the upper floor, where the most expensive clothing lines were displayed.
Designed in 1922 by Julian Millard of Altoona, the Brett Building is one of the few downtown buildings that exhibit the design elements seen in the Chicago School of architecture – vertical, tripartite zones; the division of the intermediate stories into vertical bands; and the use of low-relief, terra cotta ornamentation.
Brett’s Department Store continued to occupy the building until 1979. In 1984 the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.