Along the West Milwaukee street’s 200 block, a quick jaunt from the downtown riverfront, tree blossoms blew through an open storefront door and filtered onto the floor of a freshly renovated space that’ll bring a new retail flavor to the west-side downtown.
By June, entrepreneur Jess Van Horn hopes to open Classy Rascals Children’s Boutique, a new children’s clothing store.
The store at 219 W. Milwaukee St. is right next door to Velvet & Tulle, an existing women’s clothing boutique that opened in renovated space in 2018.
Van Horn said she and Velvet & Tulle’s owner are already talking about how they can team up to offer some of the same brands—albeit for dramatically different age groups.
It’s a bit of business synergy that might not have occurred a decade ago downtown, or even five years ago.
But store and property owners on the block of West Milwaukee say that the atmosphere of commerce has begun to shift, in part because new retail ideas are finding a foothold on the business corridor—and new building owners are putting in the work to dress up space.
Later this year, a hotel a block east of Van Horn’s shop will open. A block to the west, a West Milwaukee Street building owner is turning a set of mostly vacant storefronts into loft apartments with a walled courtyard.
Van Horn’s 1,400 square-foot storefront has a fresh, new look. Building owners Paul and Tom Murphy bought it last year for $175,000. They refinished the circa-1865 yellow birch wood floor and installed a wood plaque on the inside entry that gives honor to the store’s original business, the T.J. Cairins & Brother Dry Goods and Millinery.
The brothers also peeled off a façade that had covered an original prismed glass block windows. In a new touch, the store has backlights that can change colors to make the panel of windows give off an eye-catching glow.
Van Horn plans to photograph local children as clothing models, and display their portraits on the blue-gray painted walls. She built a service counter in the store from Colorado beetle pine, a wood that is pitted naturally from beetles that bore into the bark, die and decompose.
Sounds a bit macabre, but the aesthetic effect is actually aimed at primitive-chic. That’s how Van Horn, a former health-care manager, sees the transformation of downtown.
“A few years ago, downtown wouldn’t have been my first thought. It would have been Milton Avenue. That was when all the stores are going into the mall. And now if you look, big corporate shops are going out, and it’s the small, local shops people are starting to support,” Van Horn said. “But I looked at some of the revitalization that’s starting to go on downtown, ARISE. I was really sold on that. It feels real. You can see it.”
As Van Horn’s husband worked on a front window display counter, Van Horn pointed out some of the clothing she plans to sell. There was a selection of infant sun dresses with storks and tropical plant prints and a selection of baby bibs made from a plush, ultrasoft cloth.
The items Van Horn plans to sell—boys and girls fashion for children ages 0 to 6—are brands she says now are mostly sold in the Midwest in urban boutique markets in Milwaukee, Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.
She said there seems to be a hunger for local fashion that’s unique.
“We’re trying to guarantee multiple people won’t show up to the same baby shower with the same exact shirt from the three different local chain stores,” Van Horn said.
Paul Murphy, a Janesville resident, stood on the sidewalk outside Van Horn’s shop and pointed out the work he plans to do later this year to dress up the building’s façade. He pointed out shops on the strip, including Velvet & Tulle next door, along with an indoor golf facility and a specialty consignment reseller.
The business types weren’t really his point. He was talking about the owners and occupants.
“I’ve started calling it the 200 West Corridor, and there’s a common theme here. All the owners and the occupants are local people, not absentee building owners. We’re here, downtown, five, six, seven days a week. I think that makes a difference, and I think you’re starting to see what the difference is.”
Kari Reents, who owns Velvet and Tulle, said she’ll be thrilled when the Milwaukee Street Bridge project is open later this year, and traffic can begin to flow freely along a stretch of downtown she said is coming into its own, and beginning to flourish with a mix of legacy restaurants and bars, and newer boutiques and businesses.
She plans more façade upgrades to match up her shop and the building she owns next door that houses a consignment reseller. Reents said she was thrilled to hear of an apartment and courtyard project starting up a block west of her store.
“It’s great. We really want what’s going on here to reach both ways, up and down this street.”