Southgate Shopping Center, later Southgate Mall, was the first significant post-World War II suburban-style shopping center in the Milwaukee area. In 1949, local brewery supplier (how very Milwaukee) Kurtis Froedtert laid the framework for Southgate and three other major suburban-style shopping centers in the area, during a period of this kind of retail development nationwide. Southgate Shopping Center was the first of these planned centers which would rim the city; the others were Westgate (later Mayfair) and Northgate (Bayshore?).
Located on what was then the far south fringe of the city of Milwaukee, Southgate was not randomly placed but rather strategically situated. On one side of Southgate were the older, ethnic neighborhoods which created Milwaukee to the north and east, and on the other were vast expanses of immense suburban growth to the south and west. Also, Southgate was placed directly on Highway 41 (27th Street), which was then the major thoroughfare from Chicago on up to Green Bay and all points in between before freeways took over.
When Southgate opened in 1951, it was essentially an anchorless strip mall, with 20 stores under the same canopied roof. Yet, because this type of development was so innovative, people flocked from all over southeastern Wisconsin to Southgate. In 1954, Southgate finally got an anchor in Milwaukee-based Gimbel’s department store. Krambo’s grocery store opened on the opposite end of the center a year later in 1955, and the center retained its immense popularity. But of course this probably comes as no shock, considering there was no other competition like it anywhere in the area. Very soon, though, this would change as other similar shopping centers opened around the city during the 1950s – Bayshore in 1954, Capitol Court in 1956, and Mayfair in 1958. These centers didn’t quite steal Southgate’s thunder, but rather were peers who held their own in the respective regions of the city they covered. Southgate reigned as the dominant south side shopping center until 1970, when a monster appeared to change Southgate’s fortune forever.
Southridge Mall opened a few miles to the south and west of Southgate in suburban Greendale in 1970. A self-contained shopping environment, Southridge outclassed Southgate in nearly every way. For one, it was gigantic in comparison. Almost ten times larger than Southgate at that point, Southridge featured 5 anchors on two enclosed levels, and to this day is one of the largest malls in the state. Also, Southridge was closer to the growing, suburban-middle class population in the suburbs.
As shoppers flocked to Southridge, Southgate decided it had no other choice but to renovate (Yes, I just personified a mall here). In 1971, Southgate aggressively repositioned itself through an expansion which doubled the size of the mall and enclosed it, giving it some leverage on Southridge’s success. Southgate soldiered on through the 70s and 80s as an ancillary enclosed mall of about 500,000 feet, including anchor stores. In 1986 the main anchor was swapped as one heritage Milwaukee store replaced another, when Gimbels closed and its space was immediately taken by Boston Store.
However, any measure of success ended in 1994 when two of the largest stores occupying 40 percent of the mall closed, Boston Store and Woolworths. From then on the mall slowly deteriorated into a shell of its former self, with more and more vacancies as time went on. In 1995, Media Play and Trak Auto were to split the anchor space and help revive the mall but it never came to fruition. Then, in 1998, Southgate Mall’s ownership changed hands and the new owners announced that most of the mall would be demolished for a Wal-Mart store.
And so it was. During the Summer of 1999, most of the structure was demolished and a huge standalone Wal-Mart was put in its place in 2000. Walgreens relocated to a different side of the property and the Marcus Cinemas remained, as well as a small outdoor portion of the old mall which ironically was part of the original 1950s Southgate. This is pretty much how it is today.
As I never got to see Southgate apart from driving by, all our photos came from contributor John Gallo. The Gimbels and interior shots were taken in 1986 or prior, the Boston Store shot was taken sometime between 1986 and 1993, and the others are a more recent depiction of how the site looks today (post-1999). If you have any more pictures of the “old” Southgate, in any of its incarnations, feel free to send them in and we’ll post them.