Welcome back to our Northridge Archives series: a load of historic photographs we recovered from Milwaukee’s long-abandoned Northridge Mall, and now present to you for the first time in decades!
It has been a cruel summer at Northridge in 2018.
The days of this mall standing as a time capsule of the late 20th-century shopping center have ended. An obscure, yet diligent caretaker – who over the last fifteen years had kept Northridge seemingly ready to re-open at a moment’s notice, is AWOL. The mall is now frequented by illegal scrappers, vandals, the occasional firebug, and social media influencers posing as urban explorers – whose cynical exploitation of our hobby has sabotaged the preservation of yet another prime spot. Few panes of glass have gone unbroken. Few walls remain untagged or smashed by copper thieves, and most-alarming is it’s all gone to hell within a matter of eight or so months.
The mayhem has grown so out of control that the mall is now under constant monitoring by surrounding businesses and local law enforcement. The City of Milwaukee is also turning up the heat on the Chinese firm squatting on the property (who has all-but ghosted), after recently footing the bill for boarding up open doors and windows – rounding everything off with a fresh grocery list of building code violations.
None of which is making things easier for me, here…
All the reason why back in July we were extremely fortunate to have recovered this gargantuan cache of photographs taken by mall management throughout Northridge’s glory days — before the unthinkable could happen and they were lost forever. As the mall has been the site of airsoft events in recent years, we were able to go in – with permission – while the most-recent event was staging first thing in the morning. No, the p-word is not how we normally do things, but driving the car up and packing it with loot at the open front door beats sneaking everything out in shopping carts after dark… spoken from experience.
We were floored by the memories shared with us in response to our first Archives post; which saw Northridge in the mid-1980s but still rocking its original ’70s vibes. Now we’ve weeded through and put together an even bigger batch of found photos spotlighting the mall in a time of transition. The beginning of a second-generation, Northridge’s golden age. A time we call, “The Neon Years”, and it picks up where we last left off…
It’s October 1987, and 15 years have now passed since the opening of Northridge. It’s an occasion worth celebrating, albeit a few months later than its August opening. The mall was still holding a healthy 90% occupation rate, but looking a little dated. The space-age phone booth-directory kiosks, chrome accent lighting, Earthy tones and Taubman Centers’ signature brutalist architecture of 1972 were out of place in the age of food courts, pastel colors and neon… oh, so much neon.
On January 21, 1988, the Kohl family and Taubman Centers announced the divesting of ownership in both Northridge and its older sister-mall, 30-minutes south in Greendale: Southridge. The two malls were picked up by a subsidiary of Chicago-based JMB Realty Corporation, who had already taken over as property managers a year earlier and held 136 regional shopping malls within their portfolio. The sale closed in April with a price tag of $223m — at the time, considered the largest real estate transaction in the state of Wisconsin’s history.
We’ve Got Designs On You
Upon the purchase of Northridge and Southridge, JMB initially planned mere paint jobs for both malls. Later in the year, however, this evolved into a $6-million complete image makeover for both malls that would refresh their center courts with more greenery and water features, main entrances, lighting, branding, signage and color scheme to suit the aesthetics of the late-80s. All while keeping the malls serving their respective parts of the city in-sync versus competing with each other – something that wouldn’t actually start to degrade for another decade or so.
The plans for Northridge’s remodel – designed by the Richard Trott & Partners architect firm of Columbus, Ohio – were revealed at a breakfast press conference in the mall’s Grand Court on May 19, 1988. Opposite of the stage, the abstract water features of Harold Persico Paris’ now tarnished and rust-stained “Fountain of Illusion” had permanently fallen silent.
As a cherry on top: Northridge would also gain over Southridge the “Skyridge Cafés“, a new open-air food court that would modernize the atrium at the Marshall Field’s end of the mall, and completely replace that area’s entry corridor on the upper level – seen in the following images during the planning stages of this renovation.
The lower level mall entrance near Sears would also be restyled in white and blue tiles with accenting neon to match the new Skyridge facade. It’s worth noting that these two entrances faced the busy 76th Street and Brown Deer Road intersection — the mall’s other two entrances, on the opposite side, still retain their 1972 appearance to this day.
After tenants were shuffled out of the future Skyridge wing and the service desk was moved away from the Grand Court: safety walls rose and the renovation kicked-off by the the end of May. Naturally, the mall passed the construction time and kept the hectic atmosphere festive throughout the summer with a number of mall-wide sales and promotions. It wasn’t uncommon to see mannequins in the window displays, or mall employees donning hardhats for fun.
The new $2.5m, 450-seat food court opened in November with seven new eateries to the mall, joining the pre-existing Arby’s sitdown restaurant which was incorporated into the food court. By the turn of the decade, however, Arby’s departed Northridge and McDonald’s would open a second location at that site with a somewhat limited menu. The mall’s original full-service McDonald’s on the lower level remained in business for a short while, but eventually followed suit with the mall’s other sitdown restaurants (Ponderosa Steakhouse and Burger King) and closed.
At peak occupancy, Northridge hosted twelve dining options in Skyridge Cafés, all housed under a 160-ft. high ceiling concourse with end-to-end linear skylights; colorful, exposed-truss neon-lit archways; natural plantlife with live trees rising from below the tiled floor; and terminating opposite of the mall with a two-story bay window designed “to serve as a beacon at night.” Neon “Skyridge Cafés” signage welcomed shoppers at each end, and all eateries featured neon signage.
In place of Taubman’s signature granite and chrome features: Northridge’s center court would transform into what (in their own words) the mall described as resembling an “urban street scene”.
Colorful, neon-lit canopy overlooks – containing kiosk spaces – now anchored the corners on the second floor, while a second elevator within a clock tower would rise in front of JCPenney. Two new seating areas at the base of the elevator tower and toward Marshall Field’s replaced the aging carpeted ones. The new court was now abundant with flower planters and live trees growing through the new tiled, and antique streetlamp-lit walkways, surrounded by reflection ponds and water features – admittedly scaled down from their predecessor. The mall’s service desk was relocated under the escalator to maximize space, and accommodate a new, less-obstructed stage area for the mall’s live events and holiday meet-and-greets.
The New Northridge
Other improvements brought to Northridge included updated landscaping, new directory kiosks, benches, trash cans and lighting throughout the mall’s corridors and atriums – replacing the old chrome and marquee-lighting features. The Taubman-era granite and earth tones were also phased out in favor of a blue and grey paint scheme. Oddly, these colors were originally confined to the center court railings, canopies and elevator tower – while the railings throughout the rest of the mall remained their original grey with natural wood tops. By the turn of the 90s, these were all finally painted to match. New stores were also drawn to the refreshed center, whose occupancy rate would level back out around an expected 98%.
On October 14, 1988: Marshall Field’s, who took over the Gimbel’s anchor only two years earlier, decided to write-off their Northridge and Southridge stores, selling both to the Sheboygan-based H.C. Prange Company in what became their entry to Milwaukee. The stores underwent a $6-million renovation, and opened under the Prange’s banner in early-1989.
The name proved short-lived at the ‘ridges, however, with Younker’s picking up the ailing Prange chain in mid-1992. Younker’s held a presence here until the turn of the millennium; when – through a series of corporate mergers throughout the mid-1990s – the store was deemed redundant at the then-troubled mall, after the nameplate had fallen into the same ownership as co-anchor: Boston Store.
Northridge at Twenty
1992 also saw Northridge celebrate its 20-year Anniversary. The weekend festivities over the next twenty days included mall-wide sales, giveaways, contests for local charities, a sports card show, appearances and and meet-and-greets with TV’s Don Diamont and Green Bay Packer, Paul Hornung; and a “Leisure Suit Contest” with entrants sporting fashions of the past (won by Danny Goldman of Milwaukee). Celebrations were capped on August 20, 1992 in what was proclaimed “Northridge Shopping Center Day” by Milwaukee Mayor, John O. Norquist, and the Milwaukee common council. Over 500 shoppers were served cake in the Grand Court, and victorious in a “World’s Best Mall Shopper” contest was Mary Minson of Whitefish Bay (pictured below).
Prior to a concluding laser light show in the Grand Court: a closing ceremony saw the burial of a 20-year time capsule in front of the mall’s main stage, to be opened in 2012. Sadly that opening date would come to pass with the mall closed a few weeks shy of a decade. Thieves finally dug it up prior to 2017, and made-off with everything save for the capsule itself and a few water-damaged paper items.
People of the Neon Years
Some question the fascination with malls meeting their twilight and postmortem years, and those seeking to document and preserve these places.
It is undeniable that the dead mall phenomena has exploded within the last two decades; the result of a perfect storm between the insurgence of eCommerce faltering irrelevant retailers, corporate America effectively sabotaging longstanding names and jobs for personal gain, and shopping centers in areas that were “overmalled” amid postwar suburban sprawl falling into redundancy. Only in recent times has this phenomena grown to be sensationalized via social media – ironically, through the same technology that has played a part in the downfall of these malls. There are now hundreds of independent content creators documenting local and distant malls, with hundreds of thousands more taking interest in their efforts; a drastic change in attitude from when myself and others first got involved nearly 15 years ago — when it was considered a weird hobby.
I think of an exchange in the 1978 cult classic, Dawn of the Dead: when the survivors land their stolen helicopter upon a zombie-infested Monroeville Mall and question why the zombies kept coming there. What draws us to these malls, and their history, is perhaps not only nostalgia for when malls were aesthetically in its prime, but for the human element… the economic and – more importantly: the social stronghold the mall once held in our lives. The same influences the shopping districts and town squares once-held for the Greatest and Boomer generations before us. The same influences that have since moved beyond a physical presence and into the more-cynical, digital age.
For a few generations, malls like Northridge were an important place in their lives. Captured incidentally, these are some of the people of that generation…
Bonnie Blair appearance, 1994
Presidential Debate, 1992
Brown Deer High School Post-Prom, 1997
Filed under: Northridge Mall
Special thanks/contributions: Jack Thomas, Nick Pelant, Alex of MiR Tactical.