In 1951, Southgate Changed Shopping
by John Gurda
Milwaukee-Journal Sentinel 5 December, 1999
Southgate Mall is gone. The next time you drive down S. 27th St. near Morgan Ave., you might be surprised to find a blank spot where Milwaukee’s first shopping center once stood.
A few businesses are still open on the fringes of the lot, but the original center has been reduced to a rectangle of rubble surrounded by a chain-link fence.
It’s an ignominious end for a development that broke new ground in Milwaukee. Southgate was the first local expression of a national trend that emerged after World War II. “Markets in the meadows,” promoters called the shopping centers, and they spread from coast to coast like wildfire. It was Kurtis Froedtert who brought the flame to Milwaukee. He was best known as the head of a malting company that supplied tons of germinated barley to the nation’s breweries, but Froedtert branched out after the war. In 1949, he unveiled plans for three shopping centers around the rim of the city: Southgate, Westgate (later Mayfair) and Northgate.
Southgate would be the first, and Froedtert described it as a commercial breakthrough: “The Milwaukee shopper will be able to make a single, free parking stop at the S. 27th St. center and do all of her day’s shopping, comfortably and conveniently, without worrying about her car, the weather outside or carrying her purchases around with her."
Froedtert had chosen the site with care: S.27th St. was then Highway 41 the main-traveled road through Milwaukee before freeways and the parcel lay squarely between the densely settled ethnic neighborhoods of the old south side and the exploding suburban fringe. He was seeking customers from both ends of the urban spectrum.
After two years of work, Southgate was ready for those customers. The $5 million center was an open air marketplace, not a mall; its 20 stores shared a single roof and a canopied sidewalk. The complex covered 105,000 square feet of retail space, and the rest of the 30 acre site provided parking for 2,000 cars.
Milwaukeeans found Southgate irresistible. The center opened on Sept.20, 1951 a weekday and the developers were pleasantly surprised when more than 60,000 people showed up for their “family party!’ The entertainment was vintage Milwaukee: Polish and Italian folk dancers, polka bands on the blacktop. A visit from Alice in Dairyland a world champion flagpole stander and, of course, fireworks.
The Traffic jams and hordes of shoppers weren't the only surprises “Most amazing of all,” reported The Milwaukee Journal, “was the way the crowd spent money. Milwaukee enjoys a national reputation as a place where almost everybody will go to anything that is free, but almost everybody will stay away if it costs a lot. Nonetheless, a good three-fourths of the persons on the grounds carried bundles, purchases they had made while exploring.
The addition of a Gimbels department store in 1954 gave Southgate a genuine anchor. Krambo grocery store, Milwaukee's largest, opened on the south end in the next year, and the center became a regional magnet.
I can recall those heady days in Southgate’s early career. My family lived barely a mile away and, like. most south-siders, were quick to include the center in our shopping routine.
But my strongest memory is of an unseasonably warm December day when Santa Claus came to Southgate’s back lot by helicopter.
Helicopters and shopping centers both lost their novelty soon enough. As other centers opened — Bayshore in 1954, Capitol Court in 1956, Mayfair in 1958, these prefabricated Main Streets dominated the local retail scene, and the old streetcar-oriented shopping strips lost customers in droves. Southgate and its peers flourished for nearly two decades, but continued suburban sprawl spawned a new generation of centers that spelled trouble for the pioneers.
When Southridge Mall opened in 1970, it was more than 10 times larger than the original Southgate. It was also a self contained, climate controlled environment, a virtual indoor park with fountains, benches and even a two story aviary.
Southgate’s owners were not about to go down without a fight. In 1971, they rebuilt their center as an enclosed mall and practically doubled the number of stores.
But the trend toward bigger and brassier retailing was hard to buck. As S.27th St. became a typical American garbage strip, an interchangeable wilderness of towering signs and bright lights, Southgate was nearly lost in the glare.
The closing of Gimbels was a blow and the advent of “big box” retailers the Wal-Marts of the world reduced the center to little more than a strip mall. Southgate entered a long, slow slide into oblivion, and wreckers cleared the way for new development this summer. I doubt that many Milwaukeeans will shed a tear at the center’s passing. Southgate was a relic of the recent past, like black-and-white TVs, eight-track tapes and the garish golden arches of the original McDonald’s, it never developed the emotional potency of a Mitchell St or a 3rd St.
But its demise is worth noting nonetheless. In 1951, Southgate represented a brave new world in American retailing. It displaced historic neighborhood shopping districts and was displaced, in turn, by more novel forms of commerce.
The center’s brief career speaks volumes about the velocity of change in modem society. From a bold new idea to a pile of rubble in less than 50 years —where else but America?
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