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Digging Deeper

Kohl's Arch-Roofed Food Stores

Any Wisconsinite can recognize them. Arch-roof store buildings; often with curved beams extending to anchors planted in the ground. These were the buildings used by the Kohl's food store chain...a precursor to the modern Kohl's department store chain, and a onetime institution in its own right.

The early years of Kohl's were rife with experimentation. Max Kohl was intrigued by the then-new concept of self-service supermarkets and opened three stores to this model in the 1930s, followed by larger stores complete with automatic doors and on-site parking in 1942 and 1946.* These early store locations were housed in typical flat-roofed buildings; however, after observing a Penn Fruit store in Philadelphia, Mr. Kohl was inspired to adopt an arch-roofed design with prominently-visible structural members. The first Kohl's store implementing these elements was built in 1950.

Dozens of arch-roofed buildings were built in the company's trade area throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and the family supplemented the grocery endeavors with their first general-merchandise department store in 1962. At its height, Kohl's operated no fewer than 60 food stores throughout Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana.

Eventually, however, the chain declined. The Kohl family stepped down from the management in 1979; by which point the stores operated as a division of the British-American Tobacco Company. BATUS sold the food stores to A&P in 1983, and sold the department stores separately three years later. A&P gradually retrenched Kohl's operations to two counties, then shuttered them completely in 2003. But, the distinctive buildings live on; empty or repurposed; monuments of glorious curves upon the landscape to times gone by.

[Kohl's store - Type 1]
[Kohl's store - Type 2]

Kohl's stores were very distinctive and aesthetically significant, but the buildings also had a bit of variation and contained various "hallmarks" for identification. Many of the earlier stores were built with floor-to-ceiling glass, while later 1960s and 1970s stores cut down on the glass surfacing and replaced it with opaque paneling in bright colors. This facade was often repainted or partially covered over on subsequent remodelings of stores. Both styles contained a set of five narrow-spaced "channels" on the side of the facade opposite the entrance doors to carry the "kohl's" lettering.

[Kohl's store - Type 2]
[Kohl's store - Type 3]

Many stores had an extended beam on the front facade that attached to concrete anchors on the ground...however, others did not.

[Kohl's brick surfacing]

Yet another distinctive element on some of the stores was a unique pattern of textured brick facing visible on the sides.

All of these "hallmarks" make it easy to positively identify a former Kohl's building, even if it's been reoccupied by a completely different business and remodeled severely.

Since coming to Wisconsin, I've busily tried to photograph every Kohl's I find. Interested? Read on...

[Kohl's of Wauwatosa]
8616 W. North Ave., Wauwatosa. Built: 1950.

The very first arch-roofed store that was built still stands in Wauwatosa today. It doesn't have floor-to-ceiling glass, but does have a unique pylon that I haven't seen anywhere else. The most unusual thing about the building, however, is that it's still selling groceries: The store has been reoccupied by the local Sendik's outfit, which is doing a very good job of keeping the snug property in tidy shape.

This store in 2004.

[Kohl's of Milwaukee]
3555 S. 27th St., Milwaukee. Built: 1959.

Here's a more typical Kohl's store, from Milwaukee's 27th Street goldmine of 1950s-1970s retail development. The top half of the window framework has been covered over, but the five narrow channels for conveying the "kohl's" lettering are intact.

[Kohl's of West Allis] [Kohl's of West Allis]
1715 S. 76th St., West Allis. Built: 1964.

The West Allis location is better preserved yet. Family Video has reoccupied this store and added a new entrance configuration on the side, but the front of it (with the five signature channels) is just about perfectly intact.

[Kohl's of Milwaukee]
[Kohl's of Milwaukee]
3525 W. Juneau Ave., Milwaukee. Built: 1964.

Yet another Milwaukee store; this time literally within the shadow of Harley-Davidson headquarters. This one evidently received a few updates during its operational life, with much of the glasswork replaced by opaque paneling. Labelscar from a later-era Kohl's sign is clearly visible in front, as well as marks from a repurpose as something called the Juneau Mall. Although I neglected capturing it in the shot, this building contains ridged brick details down the side.

[Kohl's of Monona]
4207 Monona Dr., Monona. Built: 1967.

Moving over from Milwaukee to metro Madison, we find this superb architectural example. It now houses a furniture store.

[Kohl's of Madison]
1602 S. Park St., Madison. Built: 1968.

New! Like Wauwatosa's store, Madison's Park Street arch is very unusual chiefly because it still houses a supermarket within. According to assessment records, it was built in 1968 and expanded to its present form ten years later.

As far as I know, this and the Monona store are the only vintage Kohl's buildings around Madison that still exist.

[Kohl's of Ashwaubenon] [Kohl's of Ashwaubenon]
[Kohl's of Ashwaubenon] [Kohl's of Ashwaubenon]
1177 Lombardi Access Rd., Ashwaubenon. Built: Late 1960s, probably.

This location is notable for several reasons. It represents the northernmost Kohl's store I am aware of. It's half a block away from Lambeau Field. And, it's superbly well-preserved inside, with original wall coverings and floor tile around and about.

Reportedly, the store closed as a Kohl's in August 1992 and converted to Big Lots immediately after the fact. This building is, however, on the "endangered places" list: The land it's on is owned by the Green Bay Packers, who have been letting leases expire with the intention of razing the entire block of retail developments and building a football-oriented visitor attraction in its place. Big Lots closed in 2010, this may be a flattened field now.

[Kohl's of Appleton]
820 W. College Ave., Appleton. Built: Unknown.

Time has been somewhat kinder to the downtown Appleton location several miles upstream, which now houses some sort of community center for older adults. Both it and the Ashwaubenon building have identical front paneling.

This store in 1976-77.

[Kohl's of Neenah]
[Kohl's of Neenah]
869 S. Green Bay Rd., Neenah. Built: 1974?

Neenah's Kohl's followed a projectory identical to Ashwaubenon's, with a metamorphosis with original wall coverings and interior furnishings into Big Lots. It had already closed by the time I photographed it in January 2010, and the building has since sadly been demolished.

[Kohl's of Green Bay]
2151 Main St., Green Bay. Built: 1974.

A second Green Bay area Kohl's store existed in what eventually morphed into the vicinity of the East Town Mall. Another well-preserved example on the outside (battleship-gray paint notwithstanding); it now houses a "superdome" for Rogan's Shoes.

[Kohl's of Mequon]
[Kohl's of Mequon] [Kohl's of Mequon]
11110 N. Pt. Washington Rd., Mequon. Built: Unknown.

This one's a bit of an agent in disguise. The current occupant (or the shopping-center management) had the front of the store completely covered by a tacky, square-rigged false front...but the original roofline is still visible behind. With appropriate irony, the unscathed end is what's in plain sight of millions of motorists annually on I-43. The side face of the store has a line of small storefronts carved out of it, but the vertical ridges in the brickwork leave a definitive hallmark as to the property's original purpose!

[Possible Kohl's of Platteville]
S. Water and E. Pine Sts., Platteville. Built: Unknown.

New! I'm unsure if this one was built as a Kohl's store or not. The roof looks right, but the facade doesn't have the right hallmarks, the pylon is unfamiliar, and Platteville itself is a bit far removed from the chain's Milwaukee-area base. Still, I'll file it here with those caveats until some solid information comes along...

There are many other old Kohl's buildings in existence still waiting to be photographed and discovered. A fair number of these are at imminent risk of being demolished or renovated beyond recognition, so you can never be too soon in documenting a place.

Related link:

The Kohl's Food Stores pool on Flickr.

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Last update December 8, 2011.