Great Lakes shipping fostered Racine’s early prosperity. In 1834, Coast Guard captain Gilbert Knapp staked a claim to the site, convinced that this was Lake Michigan’s finest harbor. Over the next decade, entrepreneurs built wharves and grain elevators along the waterfront. South of the port, Main Street’s commercial district arose on the thin strip of land between the Root River and the lake, burgeoning in the 1880s when manufacturing eclipsed shipping and Racine boomed. Main Street’s heyday ended by the 1950s, after suburban shopping centers drew customers from downtown. More than seventy mostly cream brick buildings survive.
One of the oldest is the McClurg Building (1857–1858) at 245 Main, built as headquarters for the Racine, Janesville, and Mississippi Railroad. This enterprise tried to link Racine to the Mississippi River shipping corridor and thereby make Racine the leading Lake Michigan port. Chicago and Milwaukee built their own rail links, however, and Racine remained a second-tier port. Later, the McClurg Building housed Racine’s first public library, municipal court, Turkish bath, and vaudeville and movie theater. The red brick Italianate building was large and elaborate for the 1850s, with arched windows, stone quoins, and a prominent cast-iron cornice. The cast-iron storefront, cornice, and keystones were mass-produced, probably by the Buffalo Eagle Iron Works of Buffalo, New York.
Edward Townsend Mix of Milwaukee designed the three-story, red-orange brick Chauncey Hall Building (1883) at number 338–340 for a banker. A curved Flemish gable (its twin facing 4th Street is gone) and terra-cotta sunbursts, garlands, scrolls, and rosettes embellish the upper stories. The plate-glass storefront’s terra-cotta decoration was added in 1929. A drugstore occupied the building for many years, and labor organizers and fraternal lodges met on the third floor. When A. Arthur Guilbert designed the fire department’s Engine House Number 5 in 1907 at 300 4th Street, he used the Prairie Style’s strong horizontal lines. Rectilinear brackets under the eaves of the watchtower reveal Arts and Crafts influence.