Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

If you appreciate old buildings, you must visit historic downtown Appleton, Wisconsin January 9, 2012

I’M NOT A MALL KIND OF GIRL. Never have been. Never will be. If you want to while away an afternoon window or power shopping at a sprawling indoor mall, don’t ask me.

But invite me to explore an historic downtown and I can’t get there fast enough. I delight in the detailed architecture, the charming ambiance, the folksy shops, the comfortable feel and the visual appeal of a downtown that hearkens more to yesteryear than to the modern day 21st Century.

A row of old buildings in downtown Appleton, Wisconsin, on a December morning..

Knowing this about me, you’ll understand exactly why I am so enthralled with downtown Appleton, a city of 72,400 in eastern Wisconsin and home to the 7-acre College Avenue Historic District with 27 buildings dating from 1857-1932 on the National Register of Historic Places.

This downtown is my kind of place—described as “one of Wisconsin’s folksiest, funkiest and friendliest downtowns.”

The exterior of funky Vagabond Imports.

Loved the downtown signage, especially on Lady Bugs Bistro & Children's Specialty Store.

One of the more unique downtown buildings brought to mind the Roaring 20s and flappers and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I’ll add photogenic to that list of superlative adjectives.

During my brief tour of downtown Appleton recently, I couldn’t stop gawking at the lovely aged buildings with their artsy signage. Even the more modern buildings meld nicely with the old, a sometimes difficult transition to make.

Downtown Appleton, along College Avenue, melds the new with the old.

The Trout Museum of Art moved into the Riegel building in 2002.

Studio 213 features art, collectibles and handcrafted items.

I found myself wishing for more time to explore and photograph the details of this historic district. However, my husband and second daughter, whom I’d accompanied downtown (the daughter lives in Appleton), will only put up with so much of my photographic dawdling.

So on this Saturday, the photo shoot was short and sweet. But I’ll be back to further embrace a downtown that’s already romanced her way into my heart.

My husband and second daughter head toward the Winter Farm Market at City Center (colorful awnings to the right) while I linger to photograph the street scape and hey, daisy.

The charming front of hey, daisy, a women's clothing, accessories and gift store.

Downtown Appleton decorated for the Christmas season.

Another beautiful historic building at 103 East College Ave. in downtown Appleton.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


31 Responses to “If you appreciate old buildings, you must visit historic downtown Appleton, Wisconsin”

  1. ceciliag Says:

    Hey Daisy? I love these old town shops too. around here so many are just the dead end of town! these old buildings are so strong and proud! c

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I figured you would like the name of that shop.

      All too often old buildings are not appreciated as they should be in small towns. I suppose money to keep them up or restore them is often the issue.

  2. Gorgeous! I’d love to spend a weekend there…

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      And your kids would so love The History Museum at the Castle which features magician Harry Houdini. He claims Appleton as his hometown. I have not been there yet, but it is on my must-see list.

  3. FoxCitiesCVB Says:


    So happy you enjoyed Appleton. We welcome all of you to come and explore all of Appleton and the Fox Cities. Plenty more great shops and a few more historic downtowns like Neenah and Menasha.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I’ll most definitely return to Appleton. The whole area really impresses me and I’ll consider your recommendation to check out the other interesting downtowns. Seems I’m always on the look-out, too, for cheese outlets (like Simons and Lamer’s Dairy, which I’ve visited) and Green Bay Packers craziness. It’s just been a lot of fun getting to know Wisconsin since our second daughter moved there a year ago.

  4. […] Audrey Kletscher Helbling’s blog about her recent visit to Downtown Appleton.  Come back […]

  5. Emily Says:

    I love Appleton and Neenah. Great cities that house a few people who are dear to me. Thanks for this great reason to stroll down memory lane. 🙂 Nice photos, too!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Thanks, Emily. So glad you enjoyed the short tour of Appleton’s historic downtown. The whole region is quite populated, but still has that small-town feel and charm. I think that’s one of the reasons I so enjoy the city.

  6. Jim Thomson Says:

    Hey Audrey, I’m glad you enjoy the downtown I grew up in. Though you’re not a mall type of gal you might not know that the first enclosed shopping mall in the US was there, check here: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=2716734952097&set=oa.340007389348295&type=1&theater

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Well, Jim, it’s been fun, thus far, exploring Appleton.

      As for the first enclosed mall honor, I believe that goes to the Southdale Center in Edina, which opened in 1956. Or did the Appleton open earlier?

      Appleton certainly has plenty of malls. I’ve been to one near my daughter’s apartment, but not to the sprawling one south of town. I’ve never even set foot in the Mall of America, if you can believe that.

  7. Michael G. Koerner Says:

    The now-demolished Valley Fair Mall in Appleton (was built in Menasha Township and annexed into the City of Appleton in 1983) was first opened as an enclosed-mall shopping center in August of 1954. It was an interesting place and too bad that it could not be preserved as a functioning commercial property in its historic as-built form.


    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Thanks for the info, Mike. I wonder, then, why Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota, lays claim to being the first enclosed mall since it opened later than the one in Appleton?

      When was the Valley Fair Mall demolished and why? Sometimes we fail to recognize, until it’s too late, the value of such places.

  8. Nancy Says:

    Another Appletonian visiting! The Valley Fair mall, sadly, was a nasty piece of architecture — but part of it remains: the movie theatres have been made into a free-standing building and are still operating. So glad you enjoyed our city!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Well, Nancy, you Appletonians are certainly a friendly bunch. Thank you for stopping by Minnesota Prairie Roots to read my downtown Appleton post and tell me more about the Valley Fair Mall. Where exactly was the mall located and what is the name of the movie theater? Sounds like something I may want to check out the next time I’m in the area.

      I do enjoy Appleton and will continue to explore it during future visits. I know I’ve only begun to discover all your city and area communities have to offer.

  9. Deb Says:

    Ohh…you will have to come back…you missed the horse head architecture on one of the buildings!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I’m sure I missed a lot of architectural details and attractions in downtown Appleton as my stop was brief. We were also at the indoor Farm Market.

      Where might I find this horse head? That is definitely something I want to see and photograph. Any other specific tips would be welcome. I’m starting a list.

  10. jeanne Says:

    Loved these pictures of Downtown Appleton! You must visit Downtown Oshkosh….
    so much to offer. It’s so nice to see the interest in our older downtowns instead of
    the Malls. I, too, am not a mall person. Give me quaint shops, friendly people, unique
    merchandise and throw in a Church Steeple or two and I’m one happy lady. Again,
    thank you.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Thank you, Jeanne. I’m happy to hear you share my interest and delight in historic downtowns. Looks like I need to spend a lot more time in Wisconsin.

      When we were visiting our daughter this past summer, we drove over to Two Rivers. Love, love, loved that quaint Lake Michigan town, especially the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum. I posted about that if you’re interested. Read it by clicking here.

      I’ve also written about your state’s cheese fixation, lovely barns and, of course, obsession with all things Green Bay Packers.

      And to think it took my daughter attending college in LaCrosse and then becoming a Wisconsin resident for me to truly explore your beautiful state.

  11. Melody Hanson Says:

    It is a great town. I wish you could have seen the buildings that were here when I first moved to Appleton in 1980.
    There were gorgeous twin buildings where the space in front of the Trout Museum is now. The building that held a Kresge’s then had round windows across the top. These, and many others, were demolished in the early 80’s to build a downtown “mall” in an effort to compete with the then new Fox River Mall. A landmark building on the corner of Morrison and College was destroyed by fire in the early 80’s. And if you go back further, you find things like an awesome city hall building on the site of the current library. But the downtown is looking good these days!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I figured those more modern buildings had replaced historic ones. The downtown mall you’re referencing must be City Center, site of the Winter Farm Market, correct?

      I’m glad you still have as many historic buildings as you do in downtown Appleton and that your community seems to appreciate them. That can’t be said of all communities.

      Keep appreciating, embracing and promoting.

  12. Margaret Says:

    Hi Audrey. I recently discovered your blog and I love it. It brings back many memories of my hometown, Faribault.

    I want to mention the Gibson storefront in Appleton appears to be Vitrolite. Vitrolite was an opaque structural glass that epitomized the Moderne or Art Deco style.

    There is a Flicker group called Vitrolite Obsession.

    IL, Pittsfield-Zoe Theater

    I encourage you to check them out and to add your photo to their collection. You will notice they already have photos of the Dandelet store in Faribault.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Margaret, welcome, and I’m glad you’re enjoying Minnesota Prairie Roots.

      Thank you for the info on the Gibson building in downtown Appleton, Wisconsin. That building immediately drew my eye and I loved photographing it. I appreciate the info you passed along as I don’t know much, really, about types of architecture.

      I always wondered about the Dandelet building, too, as it’s so different from the other buildings in Faribault’s downtown. Did you see my December 22 blog post with a photo of the Dandelet building? If not, follow this link:


      I plan to post more photos from Appleton on Thursday, although not all specifically from the downtown. So check back.

  13. Glad you are enjoying our downtown. Love your photos! Next time you’re in the area and have some free time, venture south of the downtown to the historic Fox River. Old buildings mix with new here also … the Historic Fox River Mills has been converted to wonderful apartments; the Historic Atlas Mill, once a Kimberly-Clark paper mill, now houses offices, Paper Discovery Center & Museum, as well as Atlas Coffee Mill ~ Cafe, Boutique & Art Gallery. View the river from our deck summer and winter. Open for breakfast and lunch, we invite you to browse the boutique, or come in for just a hug! Next door you’ll find Fratellos Restaurant in another historic building. Travel east on Water Street then south on Olde Oneida Street and you’ll find Trolley Square, a new building paying tribute to our rich trolley history. Further south and to the east is “Between the Locks, a “once-upon-a-time” brewery which now houses a variety of businesses as well as a new brewery. Follow East South River Street east to Lawe Street, then turn north back toward College Ave. Before crossing the river you’ll notice a new building rising from the ground … phase one of what is known as Eagle Flats, a new housing complex that will also house commercial & retail shops. Continuing north on Lawe, then west on College, we invite you to tour the Lawrence University Campus. Again, a mixture of beautiful old architecture and contemporary buildings including the Warch Center. The list goes on and on! Would welcome the opportunity to meet you and your family so please stop and say hello the next time you’re in town.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Thank you, Sue. So glad you have enjoyed my photos. Thanks for all of the suggestions on places to visit near downtown Appleton. I know I’ve only just begun to explore your beautiful downtown area and other parts of the city. I’ve been past Lawrence University. What a beautiful campus. Friends of mine are, in fact, at Lawrence this weekend as their son is auditioning as part of the college application process. So perhaps another Faribault, Minnesota, resident, besides my daughter, will soon be living in Appleton.

      I also want to thank all of you readers from the Fox Cities area who have stopped by my blog. I appreciate your interest in the stories and photos I’ve shared about Appleton and Wisconsin. I promise more Wisconsin stories as I have additional photos in my files from your state.

  14. Cézar Carvalhinho (Vitória,E.S - Brasil) Says:

    Sim , muito legal sua cidade, l.i um livro, que o autor morava aí, o Jim Hohnberger do livro “Homens de Poder”, e me interessei em ver fotos, foi ai que achei alguns sites, inclusive o seu, e vi que esta cidade é bela, muito mais bonita e bem organizada do que as cidades do Brasil onde moramos,
    Gostaria de um dia poder conhecer , logo que puder, vou conhecer ai .
    Abraços a vocês americanos.
    Thank you!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Since I don’t know Spanish, I relied on online translation. I’m glad you visited my blog for a look at historic downtown Appleton, Wisconsin. My second daughter lives there, not me, so I am only beginning to explore this beautiful city. Thanks for stopping by from Brazil.

  15. Deanna Johnston Says:

    Living in Appleton for 55 years of my life, I so enjoy your perspective of our city. Thank you for this wonderful blog. Hope you will be back again. You must do Octoberfest and the farmer’s market. This makes me appreciate the town I grew up in/

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Sometimes it takes someone like me, coming into a community, to give long-time residents a new appreciation for where they live. My husband and I are heading toward Appleton soon; we haven’t been there in year.

      As for the farmers’ market, I’ve been there and blogged about it. Great market.

      I’d encourage you to type “Appleton” into my blog search engine to read my previous Appleton posts.

      Thanks for stopping by and welcome to Minnesota Prairie Roots readership.

  16. Deanna Johnston Says:

    Thanks for the reply and the info about previous Appleton blog search. Yes, you got great shots of the market. Yes the storm was something else, and they took a lot of heat for not sounding the sirens. Thanks again Audrey, will watch for future blogs!

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