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Wauwatosa's Robertson Ace Hardware going out of business

Jeffrey Rauh, owner of Robertson Ace Hardware, talks on his phone in the store on Tuesday.

Jeffrey Rauh, owner of Robertson Ace Hardware, talks on his phone in the store on Tuesday. Photo By Peter Zuzga

Sept. 4, 2013

Robertson Ace Hardware, a mainstay in the Village of Wauwatosa for more than a century, is going out of business, a victim of a tough economy and modern times, said owner Jeffrey Rauh.

A hardware store has been operated at the site, 1417 Underwood Ave., since the building was constructed in 1897, and has been Robertson Hardware for more than 92 years, Rauh said. The building's round turret defines Village architecture and has been emulated in nearby buildings. Inside, its wooden floors are a welcome contrast to the cement aisles of its big-box competitors.

Rauh said he will continue to own the building and will be seeking a tenant. Nine apartments on the second floor will continue to be residences.

Rauh said a combination of factors led to the decision to close, which he had been considering for several months.

"With the economy and business slowing down, it's just gotten to the point where there's just not enough money in it right now," he said. The proliferation of Home Depot and Menard's stores has hurt. Also, "a lot of these items you can go to Kmart, JCPenney. The grocery store sells light bulbs now."

The store may close in October, depending on selling out the inventory, Rauh said. Everything is 20 percent off now, and even the shelving is for sale.

Rauh said he has been talking to potential tenants. Most likely, he said, it would not be restaurant, of which there are several within just steps of the Robertson entry.

Rauh is the store's only full-time employee. There are seven who work part time.

A woman named Sandy, who lives upstairs, said it was the end of an era. She said the apartments have high ceilings, like the store itself, and that each one in the triangular-shaped building had a different layout. The apartments are one-bedrooms, Rauh said.

The building was built by blacksmith John Dittmar, who rented the building to a man named Alson Smith, who operated the business until his death in 1918. His wife, Carlotta, ran it for three years, according to a 1977 Milwaukee Journal story, until it was acquired in 1921 by James Robertson, who had a plumbing and heating business, in a partnership with his three sons and a son-in-law, who each ran different departments.

In the 1950s, the business passed out of the Robertson family, and Rauh said his father-in-law, who had been an employee, bought it in 1962. Rauh himself started working in the store 19 years ago, and has owned it for 14 years.

The building was originally partitioned, and has a hand-operated freight elevator that historical sources say is one of the last such elevators in state. Rauh said the elevator, which works by counterweights and a hand crank, is still used weekly.

The building also has the original ladder that rolls on a track to reach items on high shelves.

It is the oldest existing building at the five-points intersection in the original village, and has been designated a Wauwatosa landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"Time to try a different avenue," Rauh said.

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