Something about the Milwaukee Mall catches the eye. Perhaps the Art Deco verticality still calls to passersby, leading their gaze upward to where signs once stood above the intersection. Perhaps its shear size and magnitude sparks a curious notion about its origins amid the neighboring built environment. Whatever the curiosity may be, the Milwaukee Mall, like so many buildings that persevere and adapt within an ever-changing neighborhood, conveys its storied life and the role it played as the intersection evolved into a major shopping center on the north side of a growing metropolis. Chosen as site of the Sears, Roebuck & Company department store, the corner thrived through the Great Depression and World War II expanding at the intersection of a State Trunk Highway and two streetcar lines, but eventually succumb to social unrest and the popularity of suburban shopping malls.
The Sears City Story
West Fond du Lac at North Avenue has long been the center of a bustling commercial hub on Milwaukee’s north side. Located along the former Milwaukee-Fond du Lac plank road, the intersection first developed as a popular stop for farmers traveling from field to the market. However, as it stands, the intersection hearkens to a time when streetcars and trolleys were the primary means of transportation for many of Milwaukee’s residents. By the 1920s, the intersection was serviced by both the #21 North Avenue and the #18 National-Fond du Lac Street Cars in addition to the well-traveled State Trunk Highway 15 along Fond du Lac Ave. As a result, the intersection abound with foot traffic heading to a community of businesses including the Badger State Bank, the Climax Theater, Leo Lechleitner Hardware, Arther Hentschel’s Jeweler Shop and Schmidt’s Home Bakery.1
For this very reason, Fond du Lac at North Avenue was an ideal location for Sears, Roebuck and Company to open its first Milwaukee department store—the company’s 15th store nationwide.2 On September 10, 1927 a ceremony of sorts christened the grand opening of the Art Deco department store concluding with the presentation of the store key by store manager Morris Meyer to Governor Zimmerman. In the following decades, the north side Sears, Roebuck & Co. was hailed as a catalyst in “one of the most thriving business communities in Greater Milwaukee”.3
In addition to the store, Sears, Roebuck & Co. built its first Service Station in Milwaukee in 1931 north of the department store along West Fond du Lac Ave. The tire and battery service station was built complete with sales and waiting room the new one-story brick service station would have a capacity for four cars in the enclosure of the building and 3 on the adjacent slab.4
Despite the Depression era, Sears flourished and in 1940, the first addition was added to the north side store. The new three-story addition was of buff colored Beldon brick trimmed with Indiana limestone—similar to that of the original building—and spanned 83 feet along Fond du Lac Avenue. Inside, the rubber tiling replaced the original wood flooring as tiling was thought to be easier on the feet. The “unsightly” steam radiators (to clarify, I am incredibly fond of old radiators; however, the author of the article was apparently not) were removed and replaced with air vents. As car culture was on the rise, Sears further expanded the adjacent service station.
Following WWII, plans for the $1,000,000 “Sears City” were announced in 1945, marking the beginning of the prosperity found in the post war era. Between 1946 and 1948, the original Sears Service station along Fond du Lac Ave was removed while a new “super service station” was constructed along North Avenue at N. 24th Street with a capacity for twenty-seven cars and a larger attached farm store.5 In addition, the department store would be expanded once more with an addition 105 feet along Fond du Lac Avenue completed in 1947.6
After this period, no major expansions were added to the Sears, Roebuck & Co. buildings. As the story goes, beginning in the 1960s, the trend toward suburban shopping and growing social unrest led to the ultimate decline of the West Fond du Lac and North Avenue shopping district. Streetcars and trolleys were abandoned for newly constructed freeways routing travelers around the heart of the city and the demolition of homes for the ill-fated Park West Freeway added further injury to the slowly diminishing character of the once bustling neighborhood. Sears continued to occupy its original Milwaukee location until 1981, when the corporation restructured and announce the closure of the north side store.
1 “Community of North and Fond du Lac Avenues Welcomes Sears, Roebuck & Co.,” Milwaukee Sentinel, September 10, 1927.
2 “Sears to Build New Store,” Milwaukee Journal, March 24, 1927.
3 Milwaukee Journal, October 15, 1940.
4 “Sears-Roebuck Build Tire Service Stations,” Milwaukee Journal, March 7, 1931.
5 “Sears City Plan is told: store will expand,” Milwaukee Journal, December 19, 1945.
6 “Sears, Roebuck is a Sopping Center at North and Fond du Lac,” MS September 21, 1952.