Though we all tended to speak ill of what the Prospect Mall, 2217 N. Prospect Ave., had become over the years, we still loved it. And, the fact is, though the mall still had a life when I visited it for the first time in 1984 (Star Spin!), it was a pretty desolate life considering the place wasn’t even a decade old at that point.
But the mall turned its back to the street, which doesn’t typically bode well. It’s no surprise that the Chocolate Factory, one of the only businesses to welcome passersby with a sidewalk entrance, is the one place we tend to remember best and most fondly.
Eastsiders, however, still haven’t forgotten the groundbreaking Video Visions or the Thai food at Bangkok Orchid and the nightlife at Thai Joe’s, or the bargains to be had at Recycled Books and Records, or the food at Kosta's White Manor. But, mostly, shops came and went and places sat empty. And the mall sank and sank until it closed and became more and more of an eyesore as vandals worked their magic.
But a plan emerged last year to bring new life to the site. Developer Robert Joseph is tearing the building – erected, he said, in 1912 as a Pierce-Arrow automobile dealership – down to the bones to create first floor retail and parking, with a four-story residential tower perched diagonally on the roof.
"I like to make things as difficult for myself as possible," quipped Joseph with regard to the unusual siting of the tower.
As workers continue to deal with the existing structure, removing old, unsalvageable exterior brick and replacing it with new bricks, and the interior gutting continues, Joseph led me on a tour.
Now down to the beams and concrete columns, the space doesn’t look like much beyond a big open area punctuated with the structural columns that on the first floor support the roof and in the basement support the first floor.
It’s bittersweet to see the remnants of the building’s life as the Prospect Mall, which opened in the late ‘70s. On the west wall is red paint that survives from the three Marcus Cinemas that once occupied the western side of the space. In the basement is a column papered with stickers trumpeting local bands.
On the first floor there is a melange of flooring. Black and white checkerboard, presumably from Kosta's White Manor, the terrazzo floor of The Chocolate Factory. Below it all in some spots are peach and white circular tiles that Joseph believes date from the car dealership days.
Tearing out the mall revealed the long-covered ramp off Prospect Avenue that allowed Pierce-Arrows to enter and exit the dealership. In the basement, it’s quite plain that the northern half of the building sits directly on un-excavated ground.
The eastern half of the first floor will be devoted to retail and the 10,000 square feet will have floor-to-ceiling windows that will soar as high as 20 feet at one end (the sidewalk slopes, so the window heights vary along the eastern facade). The retail entrances will be at grade but the shops will have split-level floor plans.
There will be a Potbelly sandwich shop on the corner, in the space formerly occupied by The Chocolate Factory.
The basement will be reserved for parking, allowing Joseph to have a 1:1 parking to residential unit ratio; that is one spot for each of the 52 units. The entrance to the residential units will be via the old mall entrance, next to Alterra, at the southeastern corner of the building.
Joseph said he’s aiming for completion next spring.
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.