A walk through Milwaukee’s history via the Grand Avenue mall

Having worked downtown and explored much of the area between Water Street, 794, and Marquette, I know that West Wisconsin Avenue, the street formerly known as Grand Avenue, has a great amount of potential as a new place for people to shop and enjoy life. The fine blog UrbanMilwaukee.com has taken a good hard look at the Shops of Grand Avenue and dares to imagine what that mall may look like.

Prior to moving back to Milwaukee, the last time I was in Grand Avenue was the spring of 1988. The whole center of the mall was open then, not walled off as it is now, and the first floor shops had not been expanded to fill much of the first floor as the now do. It had more life to it then. From what I understand, a bad sort of life once inhabited the mall, necessitating the changes to the structure and flow, but I fear they may have only further dampened it. (Right-wing talk radio also did its share, convincing all the suburbanite listeners not to go somewhere they probably wouldn’t have anyway.)

Labelscar: The Retail History Blog has an interesting account of the mall’s history, a welcomely different take from what I had to say. While I would not think that I would find a blog about retail stores interesting, Labelscar is actually a really good read.  And it turns out that one of the blog’s authors is both University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate andan employee of the State of Wisconsin. (Hi from Milwaukee, Ross!)

Looking back in history, the area once was a part of the Alexander Mitchell estate.  He’s not the Mitchell who General Mitchell International Airport is named after — that’s his grandson, Gen. Wm. “Billy” Mitchell, a hero of the First World War, and also the man considered in many regards to be the father of the concept of the modern air force, and the very same Billy Mitchell who was court-martialed and found guilty of insubordination in 1926.

Alexander Mitchell was one of Milwaukee’s original big boys, a railroad tycoon with a sense for grandeur of the highest form, building a lush horticultural conservatory, which existed a full century before the Mitchell Park Domes existed. (They are named for Alexander, not Bobby Mitchell.) The magnificent but now under-appreciated Mitchell Building that Alexander Mitchell built still stands on the corner of East Michigan Street in downtown Milwaukee, on the spot that once was the site of Milwaukee co-founder Solomon Juneau’s second home. (Credit for that last detail and the history of teh Mitchell Family must go to Milwaukee’s fine historian John Gurda, and his treasure of a book The Making of Milwaukee.)

I give a final tip of the hat to UrbanMilwaukee.com for inspiring this post. With the help of people such as the folks at UrbanMilwaukee.com, we’ll have lot a more interesting history to write about in the decades to come.

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Author: Jason Haas

Jason is an elected member of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, occasionally moonlights as an amateur gardener, and is a proud father of two, or three, depending on how you do the math.