Monroe Street has some of our finest shops and restaurants. It's home to Bucky Badger, nuns and Trader Joe's, and it has been visited by notables including Ulysses Grant and the real Winnie the Pooh.
It's our first suburb, and according to an official city report it "has no existing direct competitors within Madison in terms of business mix and merchandise quality."
But besides the idyllic description lifted from the 2007 Monroe Street Commercial District Plan, there's also an identified threat to its well-being: "Protracted strife over key development sites."
"Most of the activity in the neighborhood is reacting, and oftentimes negatively, to development proposals," admits Al Nettleton, treasurer of the Dudgeon-Monroe Neighborhood Association.
This is the street that fights to stay local. This is the street that protects its own. It's been challenged by change almost from its earliest days, while also steadily evolving.
"I think what we like about it is the combination of the dynamic nature of the neighborhood and the gradual evolution," says Nettleton, whose wife, Aileen, puts out the Dudgeon-Monroe newsletter. "It's gone upscale, but it's not so extravagant that we can't afford it."
Indeed, some say today's Monroe Street is the place where you can find everything you want but nothing you need. That's quite a change. Instead of destination boutiques, its businesses once existed to serve nearby residents.
Monty Schiro grew up in the 1960s at 1851 Monroe St., above his father's pet shop. Today he's one of the principals of Food Fight, a consortium of employee-owned restaurants that includes Eldorado Grill, Monty's Blue Plate Diner and, at 2701 Monroe St., Bluephies.
"We didn't have a yard, but I felt it was just a terrific place to grow up," he says. "Everything you could want was within a block." Fauerbach's grocery -- later Ken Kopp's grocery -- was across the street, and nearby was a bakery, an Italian diner, a drug store, the original Main Appliance, Randall State Bank and Klitsner's Clothing.
"We would climb up and play across the rooftops," Schiro recalls. "We once got busted by the cops because they thought we were robbing the bank."
Monroe Street includes or abuts at least four neighborhood associations. It's a commuter corridor. The city estimates that 19.1% of its length is dedicated to institutional use, housing parts of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Edgewood College, a Catholic institution that also has a high school and a combined elementary and middle school.
The street and its flanking neighborhoods are densely populated and highly educated: 42% of residents have master's or doctorate degrees, according to the street's 2007 commercial district plan. They tend to be prosperous, too. Total retail expenditure of the 100,000 residents within a five-minute drive exceeds $500 million per year.
Let's take a tour of this street that neighbors care about so deeply.
A public thoroughfare
Once, Monroe Street led all the way to New Mexico.
New Mexico, Wis., that is " a village since incorporated into Monroe, Wis.
Its first name was Monroe Road. Originally around 45 miles long, it was a dirt trail. It followed today's State Highway 69 and included Verona Road. Before that it was a well-defined Ho-Chunk path that led to Freeport, Ill. It was a favorite of early legislators from the southwest lead-mining region and of cattlemen driving stock to Green Bay.
In 1838, well before statehood and one year after white settlement in Madison, it was designated the Wisconsin Territory's first public thoroughfare.
It begins at North Randall Street, originally named Warren Street. Most of the UW's athletic facilities are there. Just outside city limits, 50-plus acres served as the site of our state fair, starting in 1858. In 1861 it became Camp Randall, a Civil War training facility for 70,000 troops.
Contrary to legend, the hut in Camp Randall's Civil War memorial park is not where the university once housed a live badger. It's an original Civil War guard house.
Camp Randall is also the site of Monroe Street's first development battle. It was subdivided for housing sites in the late 1800s, but veterans shamed the state into purchasing it for the university. Portions of the stadium were erected starting in 1915, and the Field House in 1930.
State fairs returned after the Civil War, a "most fitting" change, said former general and President Ulysses Grant when he visited in 1880. "I hope that these grounds may never again be the scene of warlike preparations, never again be used for military purpose."
Despite Grant's wishes, Camp Randall served as a training facility during World War I.
Across the street, at 1419 Monroe St., is the recently defunct Stadium Bar. William "Jingles" O'Brien took it over in 1957. The site will become a six-story mixed-use development. It was proposed as eight stories, but neighbors, including the UW Police Department, said that was too tall. They're lucky: The 2008 Regent-South Campus Neighborhood Plan allows for buildings there as high as 12 stories.
Monroe's six-way intersection with Regent and other streets, as well as the Southwest Bike Path, has always been problematic. "It is a confusing bottleneck," notes the Regent-South Campus plan.
Mayor of Monroe Street
HotelRED, 1501 Monroe St., is an example of development done right. Once a contentious project, it's now a valued partner of businesses and residents, acclaimed as an anchor of the street. After construction delays, it opened in 2011.
"We are so fortunate to be close to such fantastic people," says general manager Jason Ilstrup. "The neighborhood has embraced the hotel and we have embraced them."
Just beyond is the iconic Mickies Dairy Bar, 1511 Monroe St. The restaurant was started in 1947 by Evan Reese and Andrew Weideman, and was named for Weideman's wife. In 1991 it was purchased by Payow Thongnuam, who has kept intact the famed menu of fried potatoes, wide pancakes and cheesy "scramblers."
Up a block, at 1609 Monroe St., was once the Monroe Street Doll Hospital, owned by Marie Sullivan for more than 40 years. She prided herself on helping dolls pass from generation to generation, bringing with them the spirits of past owners. "There is no way you're going to touch that loved one again. But [with a doll], what a way to reach out and remember Grandma again," Sullivan told me in 1987, when she was 79.
The Monroe Street branch of the public library at 1705 Monroe St. has nearly 95,000 visits a year, and its collection has the highest "turnover ratio" of any branch -- its items are checked out the most. "Our Monroe Street library might be small, but it has a very loyal following in the neighborhood," says Tana Elias, library media coordinator.
If the street has an unofficial mayor, it must surely be Carol "Orange" Schroeder. Since 1975, she has owned Orange Tree Imports, 1721 Monroe St., with husband Dean. The store offers kitchenware, cutlery and other items, but Schroeder has a whole other Monroe Street life.
"One of the things we did within a year or two of opening was help to establish the Monroe Street Merchants Association and the [annual fall] Monroe Street festival," she recalls. She's been president ever since. The association is a supportive dynamo for new business, and was instrumental in creating the Monroe Street Commercial District Plan.
"We now have some control over what development looks like," she says. "There are some nice new buildings on the street, and they have tended to comply nicely with the architecture and vibe of Monroe Street."
Schroeder lauds the Associated Bank branch across the way, at 1720 Monroe St., for its partnership from the outset. Originally Randall State Bank, founded in 1914, it's seen its own share of development controversy. The bank was previously at 1825 Monroe St., and in 1977 the Dudgeon-Monroe Neighborhood Association opposed its plans to move to its current site, where it displaced two homes and nine businesses, including Burnie's Rock Shop, Capital City Comics and the original Dotty Dumpling's Dowry. The bank sparked sharp controversy again in 1987, when it sought to expand parking.
Across the street is Katy's American Indian Arts, 1817 Monroe St., which has been there since 1983 when owner Katy Schalles moved her business from Regent Street.
"There's more foot traffic now, because there are more restaurants and because of Trader Joe's," Schalles says. "We're thrilled. The bad thing is that parking is becoming extremely limited. From the point of view of the merchant, what has changed the most is the alley behind our stores. It has become insane back there."
Speaking of traffic, 14 pedestrians have been struck on Monroe Street since 2004. In a city of 240,300 residents, 17,100 motor vehicles travel Monroe Street daily, according to a city traffic engineering report. Engineering fixes for safety will be made when the street is reconstructed in 2016. One recommendation is to lower the speed limit to 25 miles an hour the entire length of the street. Meanwhile, the Madison Police Department is doing what it can.
"We've been very diligent in advising drivers that they need to be aware, travel slow and yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk," says Lt. Carl Strasburg. "We're not going to back off anytime soon on our enforcement efforts."
At 1839 Monroe St., today the site of the salon HAIR Madison, was once the legendary children's book store Pooh's Corner. The real bear doll, which belonged to author A.A. Milne's son Christopher, was displayed there in 1986. The silly old bear spent his nights in a nearby bank vault.
Protecting local shops
Neuhauser Pharmacy, 1875 Monroe St., is the definitive example of how the neighborhood takes care if its own. Until recently, Jim Neuhauser, who purchased the former Werts Pharmacy in 1980, still put in a few hours.
He gradually sold the business to Peg Breuer, who worked for him for many years. The transition was completed in 2001. "This particular location has been a pharmacy ever since it was built," she says. "It's the oldest standing pharmacy in Madison. It was built in 1916."
"We pride ourselves on knowing the majority of the people who come through the door," Breuer says. "I'm on the third generation of some of these families. It's hard to think about that, but watching the kids grow up, and now they're having kids -- it's fun. This was really meant for me."
The store's neighborhood engagement was repaid when, during her first year of ownership, the community banded together to spurn redevelopment of Ken Kopp's across the street as a Walgreens drugstore.
"I was pretty desperate at that point," Breuer admits.
Mike Flint, CEO of Mallatt's Pharmacy and Costumes, at the west end of Monroe Street, recalls how thoroughly residents beat off the chain and its rep.
"I was at the meeting they had at West High," Flint recalls. "Walgreens sent a boy to do a man's job. I was in the parking lot [afterward] when the kid was out there. I'm telling you, I thought he was just going to start crying. I felt bad for him personally.
"That's a testament to the neighborhood. They did not want it there. They keep us protected that way to some degree, and we really appreciate that."
Bruce Ayres, owner of Capital City Comics, 1910 Monroe St., agrees. "A lot of that wasn't so much that they hated Walgreens, but that they didn't want to see Neuhauser go out of business," he says. "Because they obviously weren't opposed to a chain; they let an even more international chain like Trader Joe's come in."
Trader Joe's, 1810 Monroe St., is part of Monroe Commons, a 52-unit mixed-use condo development. The grocery is owned by what Fortune magazine calls "Germany's ultra-private Albrecht family." The publication notes, "They visit the U.S. operation about once a year, and word around the office spreads that 'the Germans' are coming."
Ayres' own journey on Monroe Street has been fitful, but his Capital City Comics is likely the street's oldest extant business under the same management. Its roots reach back to around 1970, when Ayres started working with Jerry Glaeve at his Buffalo Shoppe antique store on Williamson Street. The shop, which came to include collectible comics, eventually moved to 1801 Monroe St. and then 2530 Monroe St.
In 1975, Ayres decided to strike out on his own. "I knew there were shops in some of the larger metropolitan areas that dealt in comics. No one was doing it in Wisconsin," he says. "We exceeded our expectations the first month. I was very pleasantly surprised."
Supporting the neighborhood
Edgewood takes up almost all of the south side of the 2200 block of Monroe Street.
"This past fall, we dedicated the Stream, our new visual and theater arts building," says Ed Taylor, college director of communications. "We anticipate announcing LEED certification fairly soon -- it will be our second LEED-certified building on campus."
In the past, the college's occasional expansion has excited debate. It's now working with the neighborhood association and city to come up with a master plan. Current figures are unavailable, but a 1988 study suggested that spending by the college and students contributed more than $35 million a year to the Madison economy. Adjusted for inflation, that's more than $98 million today.
Madison Theater Guild's building, 2410 Monroe St., was built as Firehouse No. 7 in 1939. The city's oldest theater group has used it for offices, costumes, rehearsal and storage since 1967.
The Laurel Tavern, 2505 Monroe St., is a neighborhood mainstay. Diane Zilley has owned it for 32 years. Why is it called the Laurel? "People ask me that, and I don't know," she says.
"All four were abandoned gas stations in neighborhoods," he says. "I believed that I was going to do my part to stay in the city without creating urban sprawl, and taking a blight in a neighborhood and making it an energetic spot for people."
Dix leases the Monroe Street building. When there was talk of Subway taking over, the neighborhood again stepped in.
"Monroe Street is not about franchising," he says. "It's about locally owned businesses that support the neighborhood. And it makes it a better neighborhood."
A contentious proposal
A mixed-use development may be built at 2620 Monroe St. The developer, Rouse Management, has a pretty good record with the neighborhood as creator of a similar project, Parman Place, which opened last August next to Mallatt's. The project features 18 apartments and Gates & Brovi, a restaurant that offers Blue Point oysters.
"We did our due diligence in terms of neighborhood meetings and really trying to get the feedback and adjust accordingly," says Karen Rouse, general manager. "It was a manageable process and one that we expected, certainly."
The new proposal is more contentious, splitting the neighborhood association. "The neighbors on Knickerbocker Street, and a few others, are very upset, obviously," says Al Nettleton. "I've read the proposal, and I'm to the point where I think I'm going to publicly support the conditional-use permit. I think it's consistent with the [commercial district] plan, and the development and evolution of the neighborhood. I always look at how many acres of farmland we're avoiding building low-density housing on as a result of having a little bit of increased density in the neighborhood."
Knickerbocker Place, 2623 and 2701 Monroe St., is a shopping district itself, featuring Bluephies restaurant, Victor Allen's Coffee and others. The mall opened in 1994, after a great deal of neighborhood input.
"While this was not necessarily by choice, the process did result in smooth approvals when we eventually brought the project forward," recalls Bill Kunkler, retired executive vice president of its developer, the Fiore Companies. "Knickerbocker was for many years the poster child of how the city believed developers should interact with neighborhoods."
During Prohibition, Al Capone supposedly operated a distillery somewhere on the site.
Arbor House, 3402 Monroe St., is a bed-and-breakfast. It was built in 1853 by Frederick Paunack.
"For 19 years our mission has been to provide the art of hospitality in a model for urban ecology," says co-owner John Imes. "Monroe Street complements that."
During the Civil War it was known as the Plough Inn, and nicknamed "Plough Inn, Stagger Out." Refreshment of a carnal sort may have been available nearby; the city's landmark nomination slyly notes another household with "an unusual proportion" of women, and suggests that "it is likely that the area was one of considerable popularity among both the local and traveling populace, including the men in blue."
Across the street is Lake Wingra and trails that are part of the UW-Arboretum. On the next block is Mallatt's.
Adolph Mallatt opened his first pharmacy on State Street in 1926. In 1941 he moved to Monroe Street. It's always been a favorite of area performing troupes for its extensive line of professional theatrical make-up.
Mike Flint, an employee since 1980, took over in 1992. Mallatt's is now an employee-owned business with four area retail stores and a long-term care pharmacy. It's also part owner of a home health care agency.
Many of the store's employees grew up in the neighborhood and have parents who still live nearby. "So we get this connection," says Flint. Bill Mallatt is still there, too. "His job is to purchase all the wine, and on Friday afternoons he does wine tasting."
Thanks to the Internet, Mallatt's now gets orders for costumes and theatrical makeup from around the world. "Australia and Germany and Japan, and certainly all over the United States," says Flint.
As for Monroe Street, "I think the neighborhood stays the same, and what I mean by that is the names may change, but the feel of the neighborhood stays the same," he says.
But will it stay that way?
"I think we're going to see more and more tear-down developments, as people say 'I want to live in this neighborhood,'" says Al Nettleton. "And that's going to spark the next round of interesting debates."
[Editor's note: This story has been corrected to note that 17,100 motor vehicles travel Monroe Street daily.]