Located in the south-central part of the state, Madison is not only Wisconsin’s second largest city, but the state capital, home to the high-ranking University of Wisconsin at Madison, and historically is known as a progressive hotbed of political activity. With a population of over 200,000, metropolitan Madison has a population of over 500,000, including most of Dane County (which is larger than the entire state of Rhode Island). The city is located on an isthmus between two beautiful lakes (with several more in the area) and is aesthetically gorgeous, especially during summer months. In addition, over the years Madison has claimed numerous awards and ranks attesting to its livability, intellectual capacity, and beauty, such as #1 city in America, healthiest city for men, one of five emerging spots for Biotech in the world, and rather surprisingly, most romantic city in the country. I agree completely, but I also live here so I’m pretty biased.
East Towne Mall opened in former farm fields along East Washington Avenue (Highway 151) near Interstate 90/94 in 1971, a year after West Towne Mall, its twin across town. East Towne was originally anchored by Sears, JCPenney, H.C. Prange & Company (a mid-tier department store chain based out of Sheboygan), Prange Way (Prange’s discount store chain), and Gimbels (a Milwaukee-based chain). East Towne Mall was developed by Cleveland-based Richard Jacobs, but now it is owned and managed by CBL Properties.
As the years passed, East Towne found itself the centerpiece of an explosive area of rapid retail growth, drawing the traditional shopping base away from downtown Madison which is five miles away. Condos, strip malls, chain hotels, fast food and chain restaurants, and big box all exploded onto what once were pastoral farm fields in the far-reaches of Madison, enveloping them with buildings as far as the eye could see. Today, the sprawl has extended far beyond East Towne and even the Interstate, and blurs into Sun Prairie, Cottage Grove, and DeForest to the north and east.
East Towne has always enjoyed success, but in varying degrees. From the 70s on through the 1980s the mall enjoyed a great deal of success. In 1986, the Gimbels became a Boston Store location after Gimbels went belly up. In 1992, another anchor shift occurred, as Pranges became Younkers (an Iowa-based chain) following the demise of Pranges.
Through the 1990s and into the 00s, East Towne stagnated significantly, not attracting many emerging, popular stores and simultaneously losing some it already had. The reasons for this stagnation are do to demographics and the competition resulting. West Towne Mall, almost 20 miles away, has long been considered the best mall in Madison, always drawing the best mall retailers. Abercrombie & Fitch, Williams-Sonoma, H&M, Godiva, and J Crew and other top-tier mall retailers have chosen West Towne to showcase their only store in Madison.
But why is this?
Madison has always been a very economically (and racially) segregated city. The east side, where East Towne is, has always been the more industrial, working-class side of town. The west side, which is larger, has always been collectively wealthier, stemming historically from university professors and faculty choosing to build their nice homes on the near west side. Even today, many businesses who only have one store in Madison have chosen to locate only on the west side, even though many chains (including big box) have duplicate east and west locations. In 2003, Madison’s first lifestyle center, Greenway Station, opened on the west side (in Middleton), featuring many popular top-tier offerings not found on the east side. I grew up about half an hour from East Towne but we rarely visited. West Towne was always so dominant during my childhood despite East Towne actually being closer.
As the 00s began, East Towne found itself stagnating and had earned a reputation of being Madison’s second-class mall to West Towne. Unwilling to let East Towne go further downhill, CBL decided a major overhaul of both Madison malls was in order in 2003. At both malls, the Younkers locations closed and Boston Store moved into their respective spaces, as Saks consolidated their southern Wisconsin stores into one banner. This paved the way for a major remodel of both malls as the former Boston Store locations were razed for the construction of Dick’s Sporting Goods locations as well as additional mall space. For East Towne, it meant the addendum of a fifth, but short, short side wing ending at the Dick’s anchor (the old Boston Store anchor used to face the mallway directly), and also the expansion of the adjacent Dunham’s Sporting Goods space, replacing it with Gordman’s (a discount department store chain based in Omaha). In addition to the expansion, the entire mall was remodeled with new flooring and signage and a new Steve and Barry’s was tacked onto the back of the mall near where the old theatres were. The food court was also renovated losing its “Tastes of the Towne” name, and a Barnes and Noble was added adjacent to it at the same time. All of the renovations were complete by Fall 2003. This latest renovation has very solidly repositioned East Towne as a top-tier mall without question, once again able to compete with West Towne in the market.
The pictures featured here were taken November 2006, with the exception of the first image which was provided by EMJ Corporation. If you have any comments or experiences related to the mall feel free to share them. In addition, if you have any photos (especially vintage) of East Towne feel free to contribute them as well.