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… speaking 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 start a second-generation. A time we call, “The Neon Years”, and it actually picks up right about where we 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 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. The price tag: $223m — at the time, considered the largest real estate transaction in the state of Wisconsin’s history.
We’ve Got Designs On You
In January’s press release, JMB originally planned mere paint jobs for both Northridge and Southridge. 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 aesthetic tastes 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 in a breakfast press conference at the mall’s Grand Court. 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 here during the planning stages for this expansion…
The lower level mall entrance near Sears would also be restyled 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 a short delay to shuffle tenants out of the Skyridge area, and move the service desk away from the Grand Court: safety walls went up and the renovation kicked-off by the onset of autumn. Naturally, the mall passed the construction time and kept the hectic atmosphere festive with a number of mall-wide sales – with mannequins and occasionally mall employees briefly donning hardhats.
The new $2.5m, 450-seat food court opened with seven new eateries to the mall, joining the pre-existing Arby’s restaurant (interestingly, a full-scale sitdown location — there was originally one sitdown restaurant at every mall entrance, the others being: Ponderosa Steakhouse, Burger King, and McDonald’s.) By the turn of the decade, however, Arby’s departed Northridge. McDonald’s, who had previously vacated its sitdown location on the lower level, replaced it in the early 1990s after an apparent few-year absence from the mall.
At the turn of the decade, Northridge would ultimately host twelve dining options in Skyridge, all under a tall-ceiling concourse with abundant skylights, colorful and neon-lit archways, natural plantlife with growing trees rooted underneath the tile, and terminating opposite of the mall with an all-glass half-rotunda. Oh, and neon. Lots of neon…
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 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 a predicted 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
Also in mid-1992, Northridge celebrated its 20-year Anniversary. The 20-day festivities included a mall-wide sale, contests for local charities, an appearance and meet-and-greet with TV’s Don Diamont, and a laser light show in the Grand Court. August 20, 1992 was officially declared “Northridge Shopping Center Day” by Milwaukee Mayor, John O. Norquist, and followed by recognition within the Milwaukee common council.
The celebration was capped with the burial of a 20-year time capsule in front of the mall’s stage, to be opened in 2012. Unfortunately that opening date would come to pass, with thieves finally digging it up prior to 2017, and making-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
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Filed under: Northridge Mall
Special thanks/contributions: Jack Thomas & Nick Pelant