There was a time when Mayfair was but one of a string of malls laced around the Milwaukee suburbs. For a time there were even some in the City of Milwaukee, like the pioneering Southgate, Capitol Court and later, Grand Avenue.
Now, with the loss of Southgate, Capitol Court, Northridge and Grand Avenue, those numbers are diminished. But Mayfair remains a popular destination for shoppers of all ages.
Like Capitol Court, Southgate and Bayshore, Mayfair started life as an outdoor mall, with more than 70 stores planned. It was to be anchored by Marshall Field’s (which opened in 1959) on the north end and Gimbels (whose opened pre-dated the opening of the rest of the mall) on the south end.
About 22 of the stores were ready for business when the mall was officially dedicated on a cloudy Thursday morning, Oct. 9, 1958. Representatives from 12 embassies whose countries’ products were for sale at Mayfair were on hand for the ceremony, which included Miss American 1959, Mary Ann Mobley, releasing a white dove.
Though the $20 million mall – developed by a group founded by the then-late malting magnate Kurtis Froedtert – was called Mayfair by the time it opened, it had originally been dubbed Westgate, in reference to the groundbreaking Southgate. (Bayshore, which had opened in 1954, was to be Northgate.)
But Froedtert had died in 1951 and two years later, Joseph Rapkin, who led the Froedert development team at the time, preferred Mayfair, in part because there were numerous other Westgate malls around the country.
The company’s board selected the name from a list of 40-50 potential monikers.
At the opening, Rapkin, wrote the Journal, “paid tribute to the late industrialist, Kurtis R. Froedtert. He pointed out that Froedtert’s will had specified that the major part of income from Mayfair and other enterprises be used to build and maintain a hospital and research center here.”
The Mayfair Theatre cinema opened in the outlot in 1963.
Ten years later, the mall – which had two sections (north and south) flanking a landscaped central park – was completely enclosed and air conditioned as part of a $3 million project. Construction began in January 1973.
“Workmen began erecting a plywood wall around the center of the mall and a jack hammer began biting into the aggregate and concrete base in preparation for excavation for a sunken ice skating rink,” wrote the Journal on Jan. 30, noting that completion was slated for October, when the mall would celebrate its 15th anniversary.
The project was officially completed Oct. 11, so by the holiday shopping season, skaters were skating on the 10,000-square-foot Ice Chalet that opened on Sept. 13, and the new Bazaar area had opened, along with a long rock-edged brooks full of goldfish spanned by short footbridges.
In addition to 62,000 square feet of added retail space, there were ficus trees from Florida, lampposts, a children’s play area, a bandstand and a two-level greenhouse.
There was also a “wall of lights” upon which 192 five-inch amber light bulbs throbbed to the beat of synchronized music pumped throughout the mall.
“We have really brough the outdoors inside,” said Froedtert-Mayfair Inc. VP and GM William H. Burns told the Journal on Oct. 5..
The Ice Chalet (and its adjacent chalet-themed McDonald’s, locker room and skate shop) proved especially popular.
“Business has been so good some days that skaters have had to wait for the next session, Burns said, and shoppers crowd the railing to watch. A fee is charged for each 2 1/4-hour session,” the Journal reported.
(Perhaps too popular. It's success is what led to its demise, according to this article.)
Where there had previously been about 85 stores, Mayfair now boasted 130.
While I wasn’t much of a skater, I got to experience this Mayfair for a couple years and I always found the Bazaar area sort of mysterious and cool. I was sad to see it go.
The south office tower – now remodeled into the Renaissance Milwaukee West Hotel – was built in 1975 and the north office tower followed in 1977-78.
After just 13 years, Mayfair underwent another massive remodel – this time costing $15 million – and the beloved Bazaar and Ice Chalet were removed, the latter replaced with a large atrium.
Upstairs a new food court was built and 78,000 square feet of retail space was added. At this time, Mayfair was home to 109 stores, including the Boston Store, which had replaced Gimbels.
The mall was sold to General Growth Properties in 1998 and construction added Barnes & Noble, the new movie theaters (the old ones outside were closed in 1993 and the building torn down) and more second-floor shops.
Further expansions added restaurants accessible from outside – like PF Chang and Maggiano’s – as well as a stand-alone Crate and Barrel in 2005 and on the east side, in 2015, the addition of a Nordstrom.
In 2006, Field’s had become Macy’s and in 2018 Boston Store closed.
Outlot parking structures and buildings housing The Container Store, Cheesecake Factory and McCormick & Schmick’s (now Texas de Brasil) were also constructed.
Here are some great vintage photos of the mall, shared by Adam Levin, who runs the Old Mayfair Mall Facebook page, which you can find here.
These photos were all shared to that page and the names of the submitters (thank you!) accompany their images.
The "north mall" in a 1959 postcard view
The "south mall"
After 1973 enclosure
The Ice Chalet rink
Captain's Steak Joynt shipmate
Brewers' Sixto Lezcano at Merle Harmon's Fan Fair opening
The gazebo in 1977
Remnant of the Bazaar
Another last remnant of the old mall
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.