A Little Building with a Big History
The Little Red Store has housed and outlived many of the trades that were responsible for Wauwatosa’s earliest commercial history. A survivor of the devastating 1895 fire in the village that destroyed most of the buildings north of the river, the Little Red Store stands alone as the oldest remaining commercial building in the city. The store was named a City of Wauwatosa landmark in 1978, and is operated by the Wauwatosa Historical Society.
The Little Red Store was built in 1854, and after reinventing itself time and again through a century and a half, sat vacant and unused at the end of the 1990s.
A group of dedicated preservationists began the work to save and renovate the plucky little store in 2006 with a pledge of $125,000 from the Wauwatosa Historical Society, $150,000 from the city’s Community Development Block Grant, and a major gift of a combined $75,000 from Jacobus Energy Inc., Eugenia Jacobus and the Charles D. Jacobus Family Foundation.
Its story begins nearly 150 years before that.
Little Red Store Timeline
The first train in Wisconsin had its maiden run over the initial five miles of track from Milwaukee to Spurr’s Tavern in Wauwatosa, signaling the approaching need for a railroad depot and ticket office.
Dr. Levi Halstead built the frame structure, intending to use it as a blacksmith shop. In the first of many twists, the building’s first use was as a dwelling instead.
Storekeeper Thomas Riddle purchased the building and supplied it with groceries, farm tools and medicine. The post office moved in, followed by a circulating library soon afterward. Local Republicans also held caucuses in the building. Within a few years Dr. Halstead returned to live in the building and run his medical practice from the second floor.
Leander Gridley purchased the store. His son Lysander operated it, and also served as railroad station agent and village postmaster. When a new railway station was built on State Street in 1890, Lysander Gridley gave up his position as station master.
For the next six decades, the store served as home to several businesses, sometimes more than one at a time.
- Frederick Bark, a German immigrant, operated an upholstery and furniture repair business in the front of the store, and lived with his family in the back and upstairs. (1892)
- W.B. Morse operated a flour, feed, grain and hay business from the store. (1902)
- Plumber Frank Mueller moved into the building, and the Mueller family operated a plumbing business for the next several decades. (1910)
- Harness maker Joseph Reisman, a Hungarian immigrant, shared space in the store. (1913)
- Wauwatosa Fuel and Supply Company listed their address at the store. (1922)
- Wauwatosa Ice and Coal Delivery operated in the store. (1929)
- The Master Glaze Company kept shop. (1941)
- Uneeda Shine Parlor and J.I. Cronic Co, an electrical contractor, shared the store. (1949)
The Wauwatosa Fuel and Supply Co. purchased the LRS and debated whether to raze the building or move it so that their trucks could have access to Harwood Avenue.
Realizing its historic value, President D.C. Jacobus opted to moved the structure a bit to the west and joined it to the old electric power plant. He authorized $14,000 for its restoration.
The building is designated a City Landmark.
Charles Jacobus (son of Wauwatosa Fuel and Supply Co. President D.C. Jacobus) donated the building to the city so that it could remain a historical monument. The city assumed ownership of the building as part of a purchase of the surrounding 2.5 acre site at the cost of $450,000. The city intended to use the property for public parking.
1987 to 1998
The city leased the store to various businesses, the last being Harwood Engineering. Shortly thereafter, the power plant rear addition was removed and the back of the store was covered with sheets of plywood.
When the power plant was removed all electric and sewer connections were also severed, and the store was vacant for the next four years.
The store is on the list of Wisconsin’s Ten Most Endangered Historic Properties. Wauwatosa Historical Society partnered with the city to fundraise a portion of the restoration cost.
Exterior renovation was completed.