BY ELIZABETH BLAUSTEIN Journal Times
photos by Jim Slosiarek, JT historic photos and Racine Heritage Museum
Almost from the moment Gilbert Knapp came to Racine, Main Street became the center of the city's commercial activity. The street has welcomed buildings as majestic as the Venetian Theater and as simple as the first frame warehouses storing lumber for pioneers.
It catered to old Racine's elite as they stepped out of private horse-drawn carriages, and later, shiny automobiles. It sustained Racine's working population, supplying residents with a street on which to make a living.
Yet in the beginning, when Knapp and his peers began to build their settlement, Main Street was a simple dirt clearing between a few frame buildings and homes. Knapp had platted the land into a grid pattern in 1836, designating blocks and streets on both sides of Root River.
“Main Street in 1841 still had stumps on it," says local historian Gerald Karwowski.
As early as 1835, the stretch of stump-ridden dirt was a prime location for specialty stores and burgeoning businesses. It connected outlying homes and businesses to Root River and the harbor, which Karwowski calls the “lifeblood" of early Racine.
As the years progressed, Main Street's purpose became more cemented, even though the street remained filled with dirt and wagon wheel tracks. The businesses along the two or three blocks of the street supplied early Racine residents with anything they needed, from lumber and hardware to clothing and boots.
A historical account from 1879 records the first stores along Main Street in 1872. These included 11 general stores, four grocery stores, two drug stores, two shoe stores, three cabinet stores and eight lumber yards.
“Basically (these businesses) were a service center for all the new pioneers that were coming in and settling the outskirts," Karwowski says.
Sidewalks were constructed out of wooden boards, and roads were dirt or broken stone. Streets weren't paved until 1884, when five blocks of Main Street (between the river and Fifth Street) were covered with flat limestone blocks.
The early businesses advertised their merchandise with sidewalk placards and signs reading, “Clothing" or “Paints, Oils and Glass." Many times the signs would carry symbols of the business conducted: fish markets used crude drawings of fish; hat stores advertised with cutouts of top hats.
Langlois & Robilliard, a paint and wallpaper store on the east side of the 400 block of MainStreet, used an anchor as their trademark. According to legend, one of these old anchors was found buried underneath Lake Avenue when the street was paved.
People often gathered along Main Street sidewalks to hear political candidates, converse with neighbors and find out the latest news.
In the 1860s, the Racine Daily Journal was housed on the second floor of the Langlois & Robilliard building. On big news days, people lined the street of “Journal block" waiting for the latest editions. When President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, the paper published an extra edition, copies of which one Journal employee threw out the window to the waiting crowd below.
Government buildings also made their first homes along Main Street, according to old city directories. The Court House and City Hall were on Main Street until 1931. The Court House was built on Monument Square, and City Hall was on the corner of Main and Third streets. The Post Office, now at 603 Main St., was once two blocks north at 441 Main.
From the mid-1920s to the late 1970s, department stores ruled downtown. Main Street boasted five major department stores: Racine Dry Goods Co., 410-412 Main St.; Montgomery Ward & Co., 239-241 Main St.; Sears, Roebuck & Co., 317-319 Main St.; J.C. Penney Co., 403-405 Main St., and Zahn Dry Goods Co., 500-504 Main St.
These big anchor stores drew shoppers downtown. They'd step off street cars until the 1940s, after which they'd park their cars or walk down Racine's own Magnificent Half-Mile.
“I used to go down with my grandmother," Karwowski remembers. “We lived on Marquette Street, eight blocks from downtown. It seemed like everybody walked. We'd go downtown and go to Pokorny's drug store, the dime stores and Zahn's. Zahn's had an elevator man, and things like that. It's all memorable now."
In the 1950s and 1960s, Main Street was a mecca for cruising teen-agers and courting adolescents.
“All through the '50s and '60s, the thing to do was to go downtown with your car and your girlfriend and scoop the loop," Karwowski says. “You'd drive up and down Main Street, turn on State, go down Wisconsin, go down to the museum and turn again. It was just back and forth, bumper-to-bumper traffic of all young people.
“The girls would have squirt guns. They'd smile and you'd roll down the window, and they'd get you with the squirt gun. It was all fun stuff, but it was a major social event."
The advent of strip malls and indoor shopping centers are blamed for the decline of the downtown business district. Elmwood Plaza came to Racine in the mid-1950s, and Regency Mall was built in the early 1980s. These modern shopping centers, with their off-street parking and guaranteed convenience, brought competition many downtown businesses couldn't beat. The old downtown department stores gradually disappeared.
Sears, Roebuck & Co., which had been operating downtown since 1929, was the first to leave. It closed its store in 1965, and the building was torn down in 1974. Zahn's went bankrupt in 1981 after more than 30 years in business. J.C. Penney Co., which had been a Main Street staple since 1925, closed its downtown doors in December 1981, a month after it opened a store at Regency Mall.
“They hung on for a number of years, but they just didn't have the business and they had to close," Karwowski says.
When these stores closed or moved to Regency Mall, much of their business went with them.
“It just took the heart out of the downtown area," says Bob Gibson, who directed the Downtown Racine Corp. during its first 10 years, from 1982 to 1992. “All those smaller merchants, who had depended on the traffic from the whole synergism of bigger and more attractive uses, just lost enough business that they couldn't afford to hang on either. Very few of them were able to maintain themselves."
In the mid-1970s, downtown's small business owners formed the North of Fourth group, hoping to revitalize their neighborhood. This group blossomed into Old Main Street Inc. and later became what is now Downtown Racine Corp., 222 Main St.
Members of these groups worked with the city to install more energy-efficient street lights, plant trees along sidewalks, create alliances among store owners, and draw more Racine residents to the central business district.
Alderwoman Mary Kaprelian of the downtown district has been involved in revitalizing downtown since she became co-owner of the Main Street General Store, 302 Main St., in 1978.
“All I want is for people to recognize the specialty of what we have down here," Kaprelian says. “It's not just buildings and concrete, or highways and parking. It is a community. A neighborhood of very special, gifted people who run very independent, unique shops, and who have worked together for almost 25 years now to really restore the lakefront area."Now Kaprelian and other community leaders, business owners and city planners must work to attract a younger generation of shoppers shoppers who have grown up in strip malls, parking lots and shopping centers. They must work to breathe new life into old buildings, which may be hiding behind decades of dirt, grime and modernized facades.
“There is enormous expense in restoring a 110-year-old building," Kaprelian says. “You have to deal with problems that new buildings don't have: lead; dirt basements; walls, windows and doors that don't line up because the buildings are so old. It has really become almost prohibitive."
When it comes to fixing up the downtown area, building owners and city planners must choose their battles. Not all buildings can be saved. Many such as the Venetian and Rialto theaters, the old Racine Hotel, the buildings that once lined Main Street from Third Street to the river are sacrificed in the name of convenience and potential for additional growth.
“You take the ups and the downs," Gibson says.
Yet the motivation is there. Kaprelian and Gibson say efforts have already paid off in the 300 and 400 blocks, where storefronts are filled and buildings restored.
“There's no magic wand or anything to make Racine, the downtown area, into a bustling place," Karwowski says.
There's only hope and reliance in a downtown district still around to tell if only in a whisper tales of the city's past.
George Crandall, an architect from Portland, Ore., recently visited Racine to offer suggestions on how to bring Main Street and the entire downtown district back to life. His recommendations included devising a detailed plan of action overseen by the city government, preserving green space, saving historic buildings and artwork, and catering to pedestrians. He also said Racine needs to reintroduce key attractions downtown, such as a movie theater and a grocery store.
Dr. Warren H. Williamson, interim director of Downtown Racine Corp., says a strategy is already in the works to make Crandall's vision and the vision of so many others come true. The Corradino Group, commissioned by the DRC, will unveil its plan for a revitalized downtown district in May or June. It is expected to call for new homes, a multipurpose running track, an entrepreneurial center and a hotel.
“Although we've had some success in the past, right now we have the big Mo: momentum," Williamson says. “There's enough support in the community, through Sustainable Racine as well as the DRC and the community at large, to see something happen."