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Patterns of Building Development in America’s Historic Downtowns

Patterns of Building Development in Historic Downtowns | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeImage of early storefront design on the first floor with residential units above.

Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin. In this 1864 ca. photo you can see the early storefront design on the first floor with residential units above. View the original source document: WHI 5488

The history of your downtown commercial building is tied to the history of your town. Your town most likely developed in a manner similar to many of America’s downtowns. These patterns of commercial building development are strongly connected to the development of technology. By learning about these general trends in downtown development, you will better understand the context of your own building’s time of construction. Whether your downtown commercial building was one of the earliest in your town or constructed during a later economic boom, its history is part of the broader history of your community.

American Prosperity Prompts Changes in Commercial Architecture

America’s rise as an economic power during the 19th century helped to shape distinct commercial architecture. Prior to the 19th century, business was conducted in an open market setting or in buildings used as both the proprietor’s shop and residence. Changes in transportation, technology and materials led to the establishment of distinct commercial areas. The vitality of a new town was evident through its business activity, and the development of distinct commercial architecture defined a city’s prosperity.

Transportation Needs Influence Commercial Building Development

EnlargePostcard of La Crosse

La Crosse, Wisconsin. Postcards such as this one give us a great sense of what downtown La Crosse looked like at the turn of the century. Source: WHS - Archives. View the original source document: WHI 35946

The early developers of your town first established a primary thoroughfare, and buildings were constructed to line this main thoroughfare. The arrangement and form of your town’s commercial architecture evolved with changes in modes of transportation. Pedestrians required boardwalks or sidewalks, which were laid immediately adjacent to buildings but separated from the street-going horse-drawn vehicles.

As your town’s population grew, public transit needs guided the development of city streets and building architecture. Between 1860 and 1890, the rise of horsecars — essentially horse-drawn buses — influenced a new pattern of growth. In cities like Milwaukee, for example, horsecars allowed the development of residential areas on the fringes of the city. As people relocated from the urban to suburban areas, more downtown space was dedicated to commercial buildings. The combined house and shop style of architecture began to disappear from urban streetscapes.

Changes in Modes of Transportation Push Urban Boundaries

EnlargeMap of La Crosse

La Crosse, Wisconsin. In this historic map of La Crosse, note the pattern of development branching from the water's edge. Source: WHS - Archives. View the original source document: WHI 105484

Sometime during the late 19th to early 20th centuries, electric streetcars were introduced to your city. Electric streetcars allowed for greater mobility along greater distances in less time, so they further expanded the urban boundaries of your city. Streetcars also allowed manufacturing businesses — with vast numbers of workers — to relocate outside the urban core. This shift may have removed potentially unsightly industrial buildings from your city’s rapidly commercializing, consumer-oriented downtown. The gradual shift from horses to electric-powered streetcars coincided with other technological advances, such as sewers, gas lines and telegraphs, in addition to electric streetcar rails. All of these changes influenced the visual and spatial organization of your downtown.

By the early 20th century, the streets of many cities were clogged with traffic. Horsecars, electric trolleys and eventually automobiles all competed for space. In Milwaukee, the estimated horse population for 1907 was around 12,500; by 1930, over half of the city’s daily commuters traveled by car.

Automobile density required more dramatic changes in the organization of city streets. Off-street parking in lots or parking garages became necessary, as well as road improvements and specialized commercial buildings such as garages and gas stations. Ultimately, automobiles, like their streetcar predecessor, further expanded city limits.

New Shopping Centers Cause Downtowns to Decline

EnlargeThe Shorewood Shopping Center

Madison, Wisconsin. The Shorewood Shopping Center is an example of the new strip malls constructed along major thoroughfares, in this case, University Avenue. View the original source document: WHI 73486

The rising popularity of the automobile in the years after World War II led to the construction of new shopping centers. These new shopping centers were built along major highways in previously suburban or even rural areas. Large shopping malls were built in medium and large cities. Businesses gravitated to these shopping strips and malls, and many older downtown commercial areas declined.

By the 1960s, the residents of some cities raised concern about the loss of businesses in their downtowns. Various attempts were made to reverse this trend, including the use of these strategies:

  • “Modernizing” older buildings by adding new metal facades and storefronts.
  • Closing off streets to create pedestrian malls.
  • Demolishing blocks of buildings to create parking lots and to accommodate new buildings.

In some instances these efforts were successful, but most efforts failed to stem the decline of business activity in downtowns. As a result, many downtowns became filled with vacant and abandoned buildings.

Communities Take Action to Revitalize their Downtowns

EnlargeRestored commercial buildings

Evansville, Wisconsin. Here are two commercial buildings that used the Federal and State Tax Credits to appropriately restore the storefronts. Source: Photographer Mark Fay View the property record: AHI 85232

In response to downtown decline, many communities attempted to reverse course. Community leaders and organizers began to promote downtown revitalization with these strategies:

  • Preserving historic buildings.
  • Encouraging joint marketing efforts.
  • Investing in new streetscaping and public improvements.

Community revitalization efforts led to the creation of the Wisconsin Main Street program in 1987. Many Wisconsin cities passed a historic preservation ordinance to preserve their downtown buildings and promote compatible new construction. Federal and state tax credits for commercial building rehabilitation have allowed many building owners to put their buildings back into use in the late 20th century.

Although the results of community revitalization efforts have varied from community to community, the preservation and restoration of historic downtown buildings has had a dramatic effect on downtown revitalization and business activity across the state.